Tuesday, January 07, 2003
CONSUMING THE FUTURE
by William Severini Kowinski
as presented to the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship,December 1, 2002. An excerpt was published as "The Last Best Christmas" on page 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Insight section on December 15, 2002. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/12/15/IN241202.DTL
The tension mounts, the stakes are high, the action has begun. I'm speaking not of war or the NFL, but of the heart of the Christmas shopping season. It's the big game for both retailers and consumers, a test of skill and endurance. But there are problems to watch out for as you run the shopping mall race.
Let me warn you of just a few, as identified by that eminent analyst, Dr. Phineas T. Shauppenmahler, who has described an array of malladies he classifies as Shopping Mallaise. The umbrella-or the shopping mall roof-that covers all of them is simply that they occur in one kind of place: the shopping mall (or Arcade, Esplanade, --dale, --shore, Square, Center, Island, Corner, Galleria or "The Shops At...")
For instance, Mal de mall-a feeling that combines seasickness with claustrophobia, the result of too many hours being simultaneously lulled and stimulated by the controlled mall environment and abundance of products.
Most cases are mild and often go unnoticed, but others are more serious. Some victims become highly agitated, bringing on an attack of mallpoplexy, which usually involves muttering about materialism, greed, mediocrity and the deterioration of values. Some of these mallcontents may angrily take matters into their own hands, by throwing stuft potatoes at fake colonial streetlamps, for example, or engaging in other anti-mall acts, known collectively as mallovolence.
Feeling the effects of overexposure to too many brand names and too many nameless shoppers in a confined space, the mal de mall victim may begin to frantically search for the exits, often to no avail. This may lead to a kind of disorientation called dismallcombobulation. It is especially humiliating for adults, who believe they should not feel panic in controlled environments. But the hyped-up overabundance of similar products, plus the sameness of the mall environment, makes people feel lost even when they aren't. And of course, the mall is set up so that often enough, they actually are.
Mild symptoms include forgetting where your car is, what you are shopping for and why you came to this mall. Intermediate cases are indicated by forgetting which mall you are in. And of course, if you've forgotten that you have ever been anywhere else but in the mall-somebody call 911 immediately.
Other complaints include Mallegs, the peculiar ache (also known as shopritis) that seems to come from walking on mall tiles for untold hours, and the relatively new phenomenon, since the aisles for walking between products have shrunk, is: tush lock, a reaction to repeatedly getting goosed by backing into racks of sale items.
Nevertheless, about 94% of Americans over 18 go to the mall at least once a month, and 34% of Americans polled in the year 2000 ranked shopping as their favorite activity. The mall, the big box, have become the delivery system for a consumer culture that has become all-consuming, and t'is the season to go shopping. So regardless of the risks, a sour economy, unemployment, vanished retirement funds and the threat of war and even higher gas prices, millions of people will be out there- cruising the aisles for Atomic travel alarms, Alfredo Accutime Toaster Ovens, Alaskan boot gloves, musical Fuzzy Fleece babies, Nintendo GameCubes, arctic fleece vests, microsuede lounge chairs, Parisian horse lamps, serenity chimes, stackable rattan wine racks, 100% wrinkle free microfiber dress pants, Sarah Bentley Related Knit Separates; Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox MP3 Players, Kid Designs Barbie Wireless Video cameras, and Chicken Dance Elmos.
If you were going to pick a place to exemplify the extremes of the consumer culture, you probably would not choose Humboldt County. But the consumer culture affects us all, regardless of where we are or how devotedly we participate in it. As a product of larger and larger corporations, the consumer culture is in some ways at its height, even if the heady days of shop till you drop are in abeyance.
Let me very broadly outline where I think we are, as this perhaps ominous Christmas shopping season begins, and then take a step back to emphasize some values and implications and feelings we might consider if we want to stop consuming the future, and start building a more hopeful tomorrow. So I will be talking about fear, greed, goodness, and soul.
We seem to be at a strange juncture. The thousands of people who will lose their jobs in the cruel ritual of December downsizing, the nearly one million who will lose their unemployment benefits a few days after Christmas, symbolize a situation that is likely to get worse over time. While some of those job losses are temporary, others will be lost forever. We've known for decades that sooner or later there wouldn't be enough jobs for everyone. In recent years, there's been a kind of stand-off symbolized by the titles of two books published in the 1990s, that sit side by side on my shelf.
The first is called THE END OF WORK by Jeremy Rifkin, which shows that computer technology and globalization are decreasing employment, and that the general trend is that the remaining jobs and new jobs being created mostly don't pay very well.
The second is THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN by Juliet Schor, which explains why, for many people, work never seems to end, and the pace of life's demands has become so fast that we are rapidly becoming the land of the frazzled and the home of the frayed. A chief reason Americans are working more, she found, is to pay for the ever-increasing abundance of products and services created and rapturously promoted in the consumer culture. The remaining time is divided among shopping, absorbing advertising messages, and Other (family, sex, death, etc.)
Sooner or later, these two trends are going to butt heads, and the outcome is not likely to be pleasant. Americans are already spending $1.22 for every dollar they earn-consumer debt and bankruptsies are at their highest levels. Decently paid industrial jobs have all but disappeared, and now white collar workers up through middle management are becoming obsolete.
Taken together, these two books suggest that the "overworked American" is partly the result of an almost heroic attempt by both consumers and producers to keep the consumer culture going, while its foundation is fracturing and will inevitably collapse. If so, it may account for much of the increasing frenzy of recent years to wring every cent out of the consumer. Advertising spending has nearly doubled since 1980, and the relentless effort to stimulate buying dominates the culture.
Television alone supplies us with thousands of commercial messages a day. The young in particular are subjected to relentless marketing and manufactured peer pressure even in school, where in some places class time may include watching TV commercials and studying texts supplied by corporations that not too subtly push their product, while students are urged to wash down their fast food logo lunch with particular soft drinks because the cash-strapped school gets a piece of the action from the vending machines.
Now creating and producing along with selling are becoming parts of one seamless process, in every imaginable area. Pharmaceutical companies, the most profitable consumer business in America, spend more money on advertising than on medical research. So it is perhaps fitting that advertising agencies are buying up clinical research firms, to better control the testing of new drugs as part of their comprehensive marketing for pharmaceutical clients.
In its zeal to control information that might run counter to its marketing, the biotech industry has fought off the labeling of genetically altered food. Opra Winfrey found herself in a Texas court, not for criticizing the government (not yet anyway), but for allegedly disparaging the meat business. Attempts to turn public services into consumer businesses continue, not just in the U.S. but globally ---currently the action is in owning and selling a community's water.
Market of Fear
The consumer culture frenzy is characterized by two additional factors: the closing off of other alternatives, and the spread of anxiety and fear. Children grow up knowing that the worth of everything they might make or do and every idea they might entertain is measured by the money it makes, and how marketable it is. Even chalk drawings on the sidewalk must be advertisements in order to be art. Simply making a decent living performing public service or in intellectual or artistic pursuits is increasingly derided and decreasingly possible.
The rage to privatize which is based on the dubious notion that wringing profit out of basic social and human needs is somehow more efficient, has the additional effect of practically demonizing anything that isn't profit-making, and holding up the ideals of public service to ridicule.
In the meantime, some of our largest and most profitable businesses make their money directly from exploiting human suffering.
Generating anxiety over status, acceptability and attractiveness is a well-known tool of advertising, and is particularly potent in a culture that values the image of likeability above actual virtue. The manufacture of fear keeps us all in line-fear of what happens if we don't have a big enough bank account or enough of the insurance we can afford or even get only if we never use it. The fear keeps us smiling and working, earning the money we will spend on the only approved outlets for pent-up emotion: the products, services and entertainment of the consumer culture.
Fear keeps us quiet, and blocks out information. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something," said Upton Sinclair, "when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Fear and greed lead to cruelty and injustice, which may be aggressive, or may be passive. These days you can get voted off the island of middle class prosperity by gossip and envy, or because you're over 50, or because somebody in your family got sick, or for nothing you've done except to be in the wrong job at the wrong time.
The metaphorical shopping mall has become the cheese in the maze where the rats are run.
We know also of the injustices that are part of how the consumer economy operates-the sweatshops, the cynical treatment of poorly paid and easily dismissed "associates." This consumer economy is destroying the natural environment on which our lives depend-decimating forests to provide cardboard boxes for all the stuff made with toxic chemicals and non-biodegradable materials that will shortly stop working so we have to buy another one. All the ads and all the stuff are keeping us dumb and happy, so maybe we won't notice that chemical time-bombs are going off in the air to create the climate crisis, which could actually end the earth's life as we know it.
But two-thirds of the American economy is dependent on consumption,and Christmas buying is crucial to the fiscal and psychological health of the consumer culture. So far forecasts for this year have been gloomy. Perhaps President Bush will renew last year's call for patriotic shopping in a whirlwind Yuletide tour of the nation's key megamalls.
Hope and Balance
The consumer culture has created a constricted present, and is setting us up for a dodgy and probably dismal future. But there is hope for what we can do and think about now, both to limit our participation in consumerism in the present, and to build a better future.
Many individuals and groups are trying to reign in the role of consumerism in their lives, with the three Rs---reduce, reuse and recycle. Reduction is the most obvious, if the most difficult. But there are times we find we're ready to try, especially when we begin agreeing with the comedian Stephen Wright who said, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"
You may have heard of voluntary simplicity, though you may be surprised to know that the term was invented in 1936, just 3 years before department store executives persuaded FDR to move Thanksgiving a week earlier, so they could have a longer Christmas shopping season.
There are voluntary simplicity circles in both physical communities and virtual communities on the Internet. In another of Juliet Schor's books, "The Overspent American," she discusses what people face and what they can do to counter the pressure of expectations for what constitutes the right gift, for example, and she suggests forming groups of friends to discuss consumer issues, such as the Diderot Effect-the need to buy all new stuff to go with the one new thing you already bought, that makes the other stuff look old. This was published before book groups were popular, but that's an existing kind of group that might read and talk about these issues.
Still, we shouldn't get too moralistic about renouncing the material world-not only won't that work for most people, but caring about the material world can be a necessary positive virtue. Human ecologist Paul Shepard put it best:
"We should not be mistaken about our terms. It is not technology or materialism that is the problem. The love of materials and the physical world and the extraordinary craftsmanship in its use have made us human. By catastrophes of industrial greed I refer to the corporate organization of the economy, with its destruction of the human community, its blindness to place, its obscene disregard for scale, its garbage, its rapacity, and its excessive desire for 'products."
We here in Humboldt have a special advantage in the opportunity to understand alternative ways of relating to the material world-within and around our county are living indigenous cultures with traditions that provide us with other attitudes towards material things. Our tribes are known throughout the world for their baskets. In Native cultures, a basket is a practical vessel and a ceremonial object as well as the creative work of an artist with generations of artists behind her. She adds her creative vision and ability to their ways. Everything about making the basket is important-how the plants are gathered, the attitude and purity of heart of the basketweaver as she weaves. Making a basket is an art, a craft, a living connection of generations, and a prayer. And in our time, when weavers began coming down with cancers from the pesticides used on plants, the CA Native basketweavers became a political force to change the law.
The basis of indigenous belief in most of the world is that everything in the world is alive. Our consumer culture treats everything as dead.
What if we took a different attitude towards even what we buy, and give or receive as gifts? Not as dead objects but as alive, with our dreams and dreads, our memories and the love of those who gave them to us, as well as with their own integrities, their bones of wood and metal, their skins of plastic and cotton, their purpose and our relationship to them? Perhaps honoring more and investing ourselves more in what we do have will help counteract a compulsive need for quantity, for things as symbols of who we want to be.
We can't turn our backs on the material world because we are also matter; we are of the earth, just as we can't treat everything as dead abstractions in an economic model, because we also are driven by spirit, by mind and heart.
There are many definitions of what constitutes soul, but the ones that are most meaningful to me are derived from both western and eastern traditions that view soul as the mediator, the harmonizer and synthesizing activity of the other elements of humanity-soul as the mediator of body and spirit, of mind and emotion, of the individual and society. But not just of humanity-of all living things, including communities, the world and the cosmos.
The soul's work is to include and to integrate. It is to synthesize the past and the present to create the soul of the future.
In community for example: One of the most important roles of community today is to counteract fear. The fear of being obliterated because you are different, you are alone, you are unneeded and unwanted, and unworthy. Because you don't make enough money, because you aren't white or white enough, you don't look and talk like us, you aren't "one of us." It is up to the established members of the old community to reach out and include others to create the new, to network and mentor and to encourage.
The enemies of community are prejudice and selfishness, snobbery and envy and complacency. Unless we create the future together, we will consume it separately.
Individual freedom, individual difference, individual vision-none of this is to be sacrificed and all of it is to be cherished and encouraged. Communities are dynamic, and they mediate the rights and needs of the individual when they conflict with the rights and needs of various aggregates. They will never be perfect. But they need to be self-aware.
This kind of soul can also be the answer for the economy. To go along with a more democratic consumer economy, we need to imagine a caring economy-based on health care, education, the public infrastructure.
And an ecological economy-creating new energy forms, new products in transportation and building, to meet the challenges of global heating; a future of exciting innovation as well as sobering realities, not only of scaling back but of adding values.
And like a lot of things having to do with soul, all of that is a practical matter. The situation I outlined regarding unemployment is a prime example. The only way a consumer- based economy can work is if consumers can afford to buy. If they don't have jobs and nothing to buy with, the economy folds. What is the answer?
Jeremy Rifkin proposed expanding training and jobs in community services and non-governmental organizations that pay "a social wage in return for real work in the social economy." This is a variation on an idea that once seemed on the verge of becoming a reality: the Guaranteed Annual Income, a basic floor of income that would enable all Americans to live a decent life, in an era where production no longer requires or even allows full employment, and it gives them money to spend to fuel the economy.
Of course today the reigning economic and political ideologies are so far from this kind of solution that it seems Klingons will land on the White House lawn before America sees anything like a guaranteed annual income.
But things could change. Theodore Roszak has written of the possibilities as baby boomers age, and influence politics and culture with the traditional concerns of elders for meaning, values and legacy as well as social services and the right to a decent life. As Roszak writes, "...questions that lead to wisdom are what fill the minds of people as they grow older."
As we grow older, we learn the hard way about limits, especially natural limits. And so we might understand the dangers implied in Philip Slater's observation that "the desire for money has no natural limit...When we subordinate other desires to money we lose our ability to recognize 'enough.' "
We all need money, and there is no shame in making it. But it becomes poisonous when it rules. These days, money is such a ruling factor that it is useful simply to imagine a world in which it isn't. When I started looking for hopeful images of the future, I was drawn to the best known future called Star Trek. One of its appeals, and one of the reasons it is both globally popular and a fruitful vehicle for thinking about our future, is that in the Star Trek universe, money doesn't rule. When people are no longer enslaved by fear and necessity, they can seek the work they do best that does the most good, and they cultivate a culture which explores all inner and outer worlds in the human adventure.
A future of conscious change begins with imagination, which Jung sometimes considered synonymous with soul.
Consuming the Future
In a way, Christmas is about the future. It is a celebration of birth, of a union of divinity and humanity; spirit and matter; perhaps in that sense a commemoration of soul-making.
The winter solstice is itself a festival of re-generation. The days begin to lengthen again, and the new life of spring begins to form and stir inside the earth.
So let's imagine and then create the soul of the future-by mitigating the selfishness of consumption with the active generosity of community.
By countering the acquisitive addiction of consumerism with the inquisitive pursuit of knowledge. By working to reclaim a society that nurtures and honors creators and thinkers as well as buyers and sellers. That solaces and soothes suffering, and does not profit from it. That truly cherishes its children and honors its elders, and does not engage in cynical neglect masked by sentimental TV specials.
It begins perhaps with communities, however they are defined, that make room for soul, and honor elements of human life forgotten in the rush of earn and spend, like civility, care, craftsmanship and reverie.
When we lay waste to the present, we consume the future. What distinguishes us as human beings is our responsibility. We have responsibilities to the present and the future. For both we might recall novelist Jim Harrison's simple formula: "Life is what you do every day."
And we might remember that although the future does not yet exist, hope lives in the present.
P.S. I promised some of those present for the above address a reading list. Here it is:
The End of Work,
The Hydrogen Economy Jeremy Rifkin
The Overworked American,
The Overspent American Juliet Schor
The Only World We've Got Paul Shepard
Affluenza De Graff/Wann/Naylor
The Poverty of Affluence: Paul Watchel
America, The Wise aka
The Longevity Revolution Theodore Roszak
Wealth and Democracy; Politics
of Rich and Poor Kevin Phillips
The Malling of America William Severini Kowinski
Everything for Sale Robert Kuttner
The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder