Monday, November 28, 2005

Tis the Season to Consume...

How did the season traditionally about Giving become so filled with Consuming?
I was sickened and embarrassed to hear the news stories of greed, violence, and immaturity demonstrated by crazed holiday shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving (a time presumably dedicated to humble gratititude, right?).

Did you know that since 1950 America has consumed more than all people in the history of the world combined? What is happening to us? In a documentary called “Affluenza” aired on PBS consumerism is studied as a cultural disease that is breaking down our mental, spiritual, and emotional lives at a personal and societal level. Sadly, our illness has dramatically eaten away the natural resources of our planet and become a major cause and perpetuator of extreme poverty for the rest of our human family. It is a deadly addiction that is strangling us and destroying our world.

The documentary has recently been expanded in book form, Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic by Scott Simon. Here are some excerpts from an insightful book review by Badrinath Rao in “Frontline” an Indian magazine:

"Affluenza, according to the authors, is "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more". This metaphor of a disease is an apposite characterisation of a malignant condition that is eating into the entrails of America. Americans' insatiable urge to acquire things, whether or not they are necessary, has indeed reached epidemic proportions. It has caused severe social and cultural dislocations and warped the basic values of American society.
Simple though this thesis might seem, it just cannot be overstated for three reasons. First, overspending and overconsumption engender a variety of problems such as social fragmentation, excessive ego-focality, "time famine" and chronic stress, factors that seriously imperil social harmony. Second, hyper consumption in America has deleterious consequences for the rest of the world. For instance, though Americans comprise just 4.7 per cent of the earth's population, they account for 25 per cent of its global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.
THE most corrosive impact of consumerism has been on human relationships. It flourishes by promoting a use-and-throw culture, a culture of planned obsolescence. The authors rightly posit that "attitudes formed in relation to products eventually get transferred to people as well". Just as things are discarded after use, people too are cast off if they lose the capacity to participate in the cycle of consumption. In a consumerist culture, therefore, one's master status is linked exclusively to one's ability to buy.
Another commonly observed aberration that crass consumerism creates is "chronic self-absorption". The unremitting craving for things leaves people with little time and patience to think about others. Hence most Americans are unmindful of the maladies of their society. For instance, how many of them know that "on any given night, at least 750,000 Americans are without shelter, and nearly two million experience homelessness during the course of the year"? Over three million children are abused every year. America has incarcerated over two million of its citizens, the largest number for any nation. "

So at this time of the year what are our alternatives?

Well, according to Adbusters Magazine...just say no! They encouraged a worldwide “No Buy Day” on November 25th, the biggest shopping day of the year, with critical mass events aimed at getting the "stop consuming" message out.

But really, if we must buy, is there such a thing as “ethical consuming”? I think so, and here are some ideas to get you thinking about ways you can buy differently this holiday season…

· Barter for goods and services. You’d be surprised at the number of people who are willing to trade for something you can do or make.

· Offer a skill or hand-made gift instead of store-bought presents to your friends and family this holiday season.

· Buy second-hand. There are plenty of treasures to be found at thrift stores, and your money will not support a corrupt garment industry but usually goes towards a charity instead.

· Buy local. Support small businesses and farms in your community rather than huge corporations that drain money from your community and often practice unethical employment and trade practices.

And my favorite…

· Buy Fair Trade! Increasingly available products labeled with a fair trade certification provide consumers an opportunity to use their purchasing power as a means for social justice. Fair trade products ensure marginalized producers in developing countries receive a fair “living” wage, work in safe conditions, and have equal employment opportunities. What’s more, fair trade products are kind to the earth: environmentally sustainable practices are required in the manufacturing of fair trade certified goods. Check out the following links for resources on where to buy fair trade products…

Global Exchange Fair Trade Store

Ten Thousand Villages

Fair Trade Federation

Equal Exchange

Fair Trade Resource Network

Transfair USA

Co-op America Green Pages


Blogger Sculpin said...

I agree! I try not to go whole-hog for consumerism most of the year, but especially at Christmastime. I hope that the gifts I give aren't directly exploiting somebody else. I'd rather not give the gift of environmental devastation. And most of the folks I know are at least a little concerned about the amount of stuff they have; I try not to add to the clutter.

Last year, my husband Josh and I went for mostly handmade Christmas gifts. We made soap, marshmallows, and peppermint bark for our friends and relatives. I admit, I was a little nervous that people would think, "There they go, those hippie weirdos, cheaping out on Christmas." But everybody loved it, and I have been getting requests for more peppermint bark for about a month. (Though chocolate has had its own problems, I know.) Plus, it was a lot of fun to make all that stuff, particularly the marshmallows.

My mom, though, probably would be pretty disappointed if I didn't get her something that looked like it came from a store. This year I've bought an inlaid brooch for my mom from a jeweler friend. I think she'll appreciate the personal connection as well as the beauty.

I'm not sure what we'll be doing this year. I'm in the mood for gingerbread cookies, so those will probably be on the agenda. I might get fancy with marshmallows and cut them out in the form of snowflakes. I haven't dipped candles in about twenty years, but I just might this year. I do know that a lot of presents will be wrapped in crisp new dishtowels or cloth napkins; I got tired of seeing that post-holiday mountain of shiny wrapping paper, so I'm going to try wrapping things Japanese-style.

Speaking of avoiding wrapping paper, there are some mighty goodlooking deals at King County's "Waste-Free Holidays". This is a program that encourages people to "give experiences instead of stuff" by offering discounts during the holidays. Some of the discounts are pretty steep: you can get UW Chamber Dance tickets at half off.

-- Cam

1:02 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Oh man, you said it so much better than I could! :) Excellent post.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Sculpin said...

Another place to buy Fair Trade goods is World of Good. (via Treehugger's guide to inexpensive gifts)

2:50 PM  

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