Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Conspicuous Consumption


Haven’t blogged for a while, but recently I’ve stumbled on a number of sources on the subject of conspicuous consumption and thought it was a topic worthy of discussion.

Perhaps the most concise summary I’ve seen on the subject can be seen at the website The Story of Stuff. The opening video is a bit long (20 minutes) but well worth a watch. In the video Annie Leonard’s thesis revolves around the idea that WE (as good consuming Americans) aren’t actually paying for the goods we purchase; people in third world countries pay for it with stripped natural resources and cheap labor. This same argument is the backbone of the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Cost. A microcosm of the larger problem, Wal-Mart strips its sweat-shot workers of rights, its employees of benefits, and the towns it inhabits of charm.

Although I’m a little behind, it’s worth pointing out that we’re just exiting the most consumer driven time of the year- the holiday shopping rush. It’s a sad state of affairs when the time of the year we most associate with peace, family and community is also when feel most obligated to buy unneeded neckties and scented candles. What would Jesus buy? Gift cards? Harry and David fruit baskets?

Taking it all in, I can’t help but wonder where this desire for stuff comes from. Well, as it turns out, we have a certain predisposition towards buying unneeded crap. Not only do we need a constant input of new junk due to planned obsolescence (think about the capricious nature of fashion or how you computer becomes useless in 2 years), but also from the age old need to keep up with those proverbial Joneses. It’s also been shown that people with low self-esteem often turn to material goods to improve their mood. Suffice it to say, this is not a long term fix.

Conspicuous consumption is a pervasive, all-consuming beast. It can be seen in our general accumulation of goods or in our retarded automobile preferences and production standards. (Check out this fantastic article about building uber-efficient cars)

What captures my interest most is the world’s unsustainable production and consumption of food. It’s no surprise that Americans are getting fatter. This alone should be an indication that we consume too much (literally!) But, if that weren’t enough, our current food system is slowly (or perhaps quickly) killing us and our planet. Take meat for example. According to this current article from the Times, the average American consumes 200 pounds of meat per year (likely 8 times what the body requires). More than that, meat production is extremely resource intensive (especially beef), and high demand requires that animals live like commodities in claustrophobic feedlots, gorging on a constant supply of grains.

So what,” you say, “I wish I could sit around all day and binge on corn.”

Well, for starters, it’s likely that you already do. But, more importantly, cows weren’t made to eat grains; they are ruminants, meaning they use their double stomachs to digest complex, fibrous materials (namely cellulose) found in things like grass or hay. This perversion of the cows’ diet makes them gassier than Thanksgiving at the Logan house (methane from cow farts produces greenhouse gasses than the entire transportation industry). It also makes them incredibly sick, meaning that ranchers are required to pump their cattle full of antibiotics to prevent disastrous conditions like bloat. These antibiotics trickle into the meat we eat and the water we drink (from animal waste seeping into the water supplies) and finally into our bodies.

But I thought antibiotics were futuristic super-drugs designed to keep us alive forever.

Well….yes and no. Used judiciously, antibiotics are wonderful tools, but abused, either through overprescription or through slow absorption via the food we eat, they can lead to antibiotic resistant super-bacteria, like the most recent staph out break. The moral here is that not only do we eat too much, but we eat too much of the wrong stuff, which hurts our bodies, tortures our livestock and creates a supply-demand system so fucked up, that’s only a matter of time before we reach a critical mass. I’m pissed just thinking about it, and I’m not even a vegetarian.

I’ve gone on for quite a while, but if you’re truly ambitious and are looking for a more compressive view on the subject, check out Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma or his more recently published follow-up (which gives more practical advice on how to eat) In Defense of Food. Or, if you’re in a hurry, I can summarize the book the way Pollan opens it: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

In the bigger scheme of things, there are countless ways to reduce your consumption (and subsequent disposal) profile. Like I said, I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat as much meat as many people. I drive a car, but I don't drive a Hummer. I’m certainly no saint (I loves me some long showers), but I’m working on living a simpler, less consumer driven life everyday. Check out ways to live with less and to live more simply. Once we break the cycle of working to consume the sooner we can get back to working to live life for things that matter. Like a 727 limo.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I really appreciate your points. We can make a big difference in how we are consuming things with small changes. Thanks for including so many links.