In addition to the adage that we are the “land of opportunity”, here’s another truism about America: the land of the consumer culture. We Americans sure do love to buy stuff. And we have for a long time: as the TV show Mad Men brilliantly showcases, marketing in its current form has very deep roots in this country. And it goes back farther than that; we can trace modern advertising way back to the middle of the 19th century with the growth of industrialization and the rise of a market economy, and fueled by two world wars that led corporations enriched by these wars to find markets for their goods.
You thought hanging out at the mall was just something teenagers did to pass the time? Ok it is, but its also a symbol of decades of the very strategic and calculated growth of billions of dollars of advertising to create a consumer culture that today holds about 11.3 trillion dollars of combined US debt; a country where 43% of American families spend more than they earn; and where today we save about 6% of our earnings. Our rate of saving in the last dozen or so years is lower than it has been since most of the period since world war II, and constitutes some of the lowest saving rates among developed countries in the world.
But this isn’t a blog about fiscal austerity. Nor am I suggesting that our absymal savings rate and high spending rate is simply explained by going to the mall. There are lots of factors at work here: US housing is relatively expensive, minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, our unemployment and underemployment rates in this country are still unacceptably high after the last recession, and on and on. However, the evidence shows that when Americans do have disposable income, they are spending it on stuff (that’s mostly not made here).
And lots of stuff is a problem. The video The Story of Stuff is a powerful 20-minute articulation of many of the problems associated with the production of stuff – pollution, over-extraction, inefficiency, inequality, and the addictive cycle of consumption and disposal. And each phase of the production of stuff, of course, comes with its carbon footprint. If you are a fan of visuals, check out the absolutely incredible work of visual artist Chris Jordan, whose creative imagery summarizing our consumer habits are a powerful commentary on the collective impact of our stuff-buying. And everywhere we look around us, we see the all-too-frequent end of our stuff lifecycle in the 4.5 lbs of waste per person per day, 3 lbs of it landfilled (that’s 250 million pounds of trash a year)- or, when it doesnt go where it should, in our roadside ditches, our streams, our oceans. Some of stuff’s most devastating end-results, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Citarum River in Indonesia, which holds the dubious honor of being described as the most polluted river in the world.
So what do we do about our stuff habits? Is it un-American to buy stuff, now that we have transitioned to a service economy that is largely based on buying and selling stuff to each other (again, that is mostly manufactured elsewhere)? I don’t think so. We are never, ever going to stop buying stuff, as long as we need food, housing, medicine, and a leash for Fido. But will our economy grind to a halt if we stop buying plasticrap made in sweatshops overseas? If we have the luxury to be able to afford to buy new clothes, new toys, new appliances, etc, it behooves us at both a personal and an ecological level to buy things that last longer, that are more durable, and that have lighter footprints. In fact, I would argue, given where our throw-away consumerism is getting us, in the land of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and trash-clogged rivers, and landfills that can’t keep up with demand– the most patriotic thing we can do for our country and our planet is throw our throw-away mindset into reverse.
So, to that end, there are all kinds of positive, proactive things we can do: buy stuff with a smaller carbon footprint (eg Actions 42, 55) avoid and reduce plastic packaging (Action 49), eat lower on the food chain (Action 47), find ways to stretch our stuff’s useful life (Action 31). And the other thing we can definitely do: buy less stuff! It seems simple, but the “reduce” part of the 3R triangle of reduce, reuse, recycle is, as I’ve talked alot about here, really hard for us.
One way in which my local community is making this a little easier is with the power of social media and a sustainability mindset, we’ve now got a wonderful Facebook group called Buy Nothing. The brainchild of my awesome friends at Trash Backwards, who I love to talk about, this group connects people in our community that need something with folks who have it. Its that easy. Need to borrow a dehydrator? Pop on Buy Nothing. Got a lamp you hate but know someone with different taste might love? Offer it up! People can trade, give away, ask, and its done with a lot of community spirit and generosity. If this sounds good to you, look it up on Facebook, and the moderators can help you get started on your own community Buy Nothing group!
Will joining this group lead me to buy nothing? Nope. As much as I’d love to be No Impact Man (they are totally great tho, check out their site!), I’m not that darned ascetic. But will this group help me buy less? Yes, I’m quite sure it will, and that is a major step in the right direction.