With Christmas past, household consumption reached its yearly peak in many countries. Whilst this celebration still brings up a homely picture of tranquility, the truth is that Christmas is characterized more by frenzied shopping, stress and overspending than by peace and quality time. As in so many other areas of our lives, we have been sold on the idea that satisfaction, even happiness, comes through purchase.
Two generations back, my Norwegian grandmother was overjoyed as a child when receiving one modest gift and tasting an imported orange for Christmas. Today, in a time dominated by 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 food, typically followed by dieting, whilst children expect numerous expensive gifts, with electronic toys, games, gadgets and designer clothes topping the list.
This comparison in time is not about romanticizing the past or putting down the present, but a small example of how consumption has come to replace the things that give meaning; for example, creating with our own hands, sharing and interacting with others. In the process, we have been robbed of the ability to take pleasure from small wonders.
Most of us know that we are living a time of excessive consumption, eloquently defined as “consumer culture” – a rather fancy title for something that has more in common with an affliction of abuse and dependency, such as bulimia or alcoholism, than it has to do with culture.
Rampant consumerism doesn’t happen by itself, it is encouraged by an economic system based on perpetual economic growth. When national economies show signs of stress, citizens are invariably called upon to increase consumption. Curiously, when the talk turns to the down-side of consumerism – resource depletion, pollution etc. – it is human nature/greed and the consumer that gets blamed. We are asked to engage in “responsible shopping” – voting with your purse.
Whereas I have no doubt that consumerism does create greed – greed for the latest model of computers, mobile phone, clothes or cars – it has nothing to do with human nature, but all to do with artificially-induced behavior. Our world-spanning corporate-controlled economy, is hatching consumers like never before. From early childhood our eyes, ears and minds are flooded with images and messages that seeks to undermine our identity, culture and self-esteem, creating false needs and teaching us to seek satisfaction and approval through consumption of industrial and corporate products.
No people have 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). Whilst the figure may be lower for other countries, there is no doubt that we are all increasingly exposed and vulnerable to advertising, particularly through the internet which now has over 600 million users globally.
Spending on global advertising is astronomic, amounting to some US$500 billion in 2012, a figure, which by way of comparison, could keep some 13 million senior citizens out of poverty for a year in the US(2). Not surprisingly, the “American way of life” – living through consumption – has been emulated and adopted almost everywhere to various degrees, despite cultural, bio-climatic and spiritual differences.
Half of the global “consumer class” can now be found in the developing world. China and India alone, consume more than Western Europe, although the average Chinese or Indian member consumes substantially less than the average European(3).
Marketing strategies – advertising, trend-setting through celebrities, product placement and product tie-ins with movies, TV shows 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 talks about “age compression”, referring to the marketing of products to children that were previously designed for adults and older-age groups. For example, make-up 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, 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 (4).
However, children can become victims of the corporate induced consumer-culture even without direct exposure to advertising and media, as I learned during a sabbatical year spent in my native Denmark, together with my 12 year son.
Prior to our stay in Denmark, my son had lived in rural Mexico with limited exposure to TV, internet and advertising, surrounded by children coming from homes with dirt floors and hand-me-down clothes. The need for designer wear and electronic gadgets had therefore never entered his mind.
After a few months of trying to fit in with Danish children, my son became a victim of fashion, exchanging his usual trousers for the narrow sleek kind with low, diaper-like bottoms that impede proper movement. Soon style alone wasn’t enough. The right brand-name of clothes was added to the list of things required to be happy. The same process was repeated with other things. Where in Mexico, play would consist of an array of invented games, a month in Denmark was sufficient for him 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 an individual person to a global consumer wasn’t a result of direct 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 self. He is still a teenager concerned with looks, 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 consumerism to the extent possible, focusing instead on the aspects that bring true satisfaction, such as face-to-face interaction, building community ties, creativity, and contact with nature. However, lasting changes will not come from personal changes alone –structural changes are required.
With dwindling natural resources at our disposal, excess waste and increasing levels of pollution and CO2 emissions, saving on the earth’s resources and making the most of what we have is common sense. Yet no nation state seems willing to renounce the “economic growth model” despite its disastrous effects on people and planet.
We need to pressure our governments to disengage from the global growth model and put a break on corporate control. It may sound undoable, but the system is manmade, so can be unmade. The trade treaties and agreements favoring corporations over nations, global over local, profit over people and planet, can be boycotted, 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.
The Pope (Francis) – an institution in himself – has taken an admirable step, 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 (5)”.
Anja Lyngbaek is Programs Coordinator at the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). She is also co-founder and Programs Director of “Microcuenca del Rio Citlalapa”- a local NGO in Veracruz, Mexico focused on sustainable community development. She has co-founded a rural primary school with this in mind. Anja gives talks, holds workshops and teaches on a variety of subject related to food and farming, localization and eco-technologies to children and adults. She currently lives in Mexico lives on a small-holding with her family.
1) “Children, Adolescents, and Advertising “. Pediatrics – Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
2) “Things to do with $500 billion”
3) “The State of the Consumption Today”. World Watch Institute.
4) Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Juliet B. Schor.
5) “Pope Francis denounces ‘trickle-down’ economic theories in critique of inequality”. The Washington Post. (November 26, 2013). By Zachary A. Goldfarb and Michelle Boorstein.