With Christmas just behind us, household consumption has hit its yearly peak in many countries. Despite the homely pictures of tranquility on mass-produced greeting cards, the fact is that Christmas is more about frenzied shopping and overspending than peace or quality time with family and friends. As with so many areas of our lives, the holidays have been hijacked by the idea that satisfaction, even happiness, is only one more purchase away.
Two generations ago, my Norwegian grandmother was overjoyed as a child when receiving one modest gift and tasting an imported orange at Christmastime. In the modern era of long-distance trade and excess consumption, nobody gets even mildly excited by tasting a foreign fruit or receiving a small gift. Instead, adults dive into a cornucopia of global food (typically followed by a period of dieting) while children expect numerous expensive gifts – with designer clothes and electronic toys, games, and gadgets topping the list.
This comparison is not meant to romanticize the past or demean the present: it’s just a small example of how consumption has come to replace the things – like creating with our own hands, or sharing and interacting with others – that give real meaning to our lives. In the process, we have been robbed of the ability to take pleasure from small wonders.
Most of us know that excessive consumption is a prime feature of modern society. In fact, we are living in what has been defined as the “consumer culture” – a rather fancy title for something that has more in common with an abusive affliction, such as bulimia or alcoholism, than it does with real culture.
Rampant consumerism doesn’t happen by itself: it is encouraged by an economic system that requires perpetual economic growth. When national economies show signs of stress, citizens are invariable called upon to increase their consumption, which in the US represents 70 percent of GDP. Curiously, when talk turns to the down-side of consumerism – resource depletion, pollution, or shoppers trampled at Wal-Mart – it is the greed inherent in human nature that gets the blame. Rather than look at the role of corporate media, advertising, and other systemic causes of overconsumption, we are encouraged to keep shopping but to do so “responsibly”, perhaps by engaging in “green consumerism”, a galling oxymoron.
I have no doubt that consumerism is linked with greed – greed for the latest model of computer, smartphone, clothes or car – but this has nothing to do with human nature. This sort of greed is an artificially induced behavior. From early childhood our eyes, ears and minds have been flooded with images and messages that undermine our identity and self-esteem, that create false needs and teach us to seek satisfaction and approval through the consumer choices we make.
No one has been more exposed to this onslaught than the US citizen. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average young person in the US views more than 3,000 ads per day on television, the internet, billboards and in magazines.(1) While the figure may be lower in other countries, people everywhere are increasingly exposed and vulnerable to advertising – particularly through the internet, which now has over 600 million users globally.
In fact, half of the global “consumer-class” can now be found in the developing world. Although per capita consumption in China and India remains substantially less than in Europe, those two countries now consume more in total than all of Western Europe.(2)
Marketing strategies – advertising, celebrity trend-setting, product placement in movies and TV shows, marketing ties-in between media and fast food franchises, etc. – have evolved to target an ever younger audience, all the way down to the one-year old, according to sociologist Juliet Schor. In her book Born to Buy, she defines “age compression” as the marketing to children of products that were previously designed for adults. Examples include makeup for young girls, violent toys for small boys, and designer clothes for the first grader. Schor’s research shows that the more children are exposed to media and advertising, the more consumerist they become; it also shows that they are more likely to become depressed, anxious and develop low self-esteem in the process.(3)
However, children can become victims of the corporate-induced consumer culture even without direct exposure to advertising and media, as I learned during a year spent in my native Denmark, together with my 12-year old son. Prior to our stay in Denmark, we lived in rural Mexico with limited exposure to TV, internet and advertising, surrounded by children from homes with dirt floors, wearing hand-me-down clothes. The need for designer wear and electronic gadgets had therefore never entered my son’s mind.
However, after a few months of trying to fit in with Danish children, he became a victim of fashion, exchanging his usual trousers for the narrow sleek kind with diaper bottoms that impeded proper movement. Soon style alone wasn’t enough: the right brand-name of clothes was added to the list of things required for happiness. The same process was repeated in other areas: in Mexico, play would consist of an array of invented games, but a month in Denmark was sufficient for my son to feel too ashamed to invite anyone home because he didn’t own an X-box. During the year, he cried bitter tears over the absence of things that he had never lacked before – video games, Samsung galaxies, iPads and notebooks.
This rapid conversion of a unique individual into a global consumer wasn’t a direct result of advertising, but of the indirect influence of corporations on our minds and lives. The other children were as much victims as my own child, having to a large extent been robbed of the possibility to develop their own (corporate-free) identity and the imagination and creativity that comes with childhood.
After returning to our land-based life in Mexico, my son is slowly regaining his sense of self. He is still a teenager concerned with his appearance, but he no longer cares about brands. The electronic gadget that he so longed to buy with his savings now seem less important and has been superseded by a wish to save up to buy a small piece of land.
We can make positive changes on personal level by disengaging from the consumer culture as much as possible, focusing instead on activities that bring true satisfaction e.g. face-to-face interaction, building community ties and spending time in nature. However, lasting changes will not come from personal changes alone: structural changes are also required.
Despite dwindling natural resources, increasing levels of pollution and CO2 emissions, and the many social costs of consumerism, no nation-state seems willing to renounce the economic growth model. This will not change unless people pressure their governments to disengage from this economic model and put a break on corporate control. This may sound undoable, but the system is man-made and can be unmade. The trade treaties and agreements that favor corporations over nations, global over local, profit over people and planet, can be revoked and transformed. All it may take is an alliance of a few strategic countries willing to say “STOP”, to start a movement of nations willing to reclaim their economies.
Pope Francis has taken an admirable step in that direction, with his profound and public critique of the prevailing economic system:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world… This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”(4)
In this post-Christmas season, these are words worth heeding.
1) “Children, Adolescents, and Advertising “. Pediatrics – Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
2) “The State of the Consumption Today”. World Watch Institute.
3) Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Juliet B. Schor.
4) “Pope Francis denounces ‘trickle-down’ economic theories in critique of inequality”. The Washington Post. (November 26, 2013). By Zachary A. Goldfarb and Michelle Boorstein.