Consumer Culture Vs. Civic Values
But I don't think that buying things and having 2-year-olds watching Baby Einstein or Baby First TV has very much to do with real childhood. The irony is that even as it dumbs down adults to turn them into shopaholic consumers, the market tries to get kids to grow up quick into little consumers who spend all their parents' discretionary income!
You talk about the fact that the marketplace makes people think they "need" things that they really don't. Do you find yourself falling victim to this?
Yes, I think we all tend to buy into fads and "push marketing" consumables that we are convinced we can't get along without. You know, the latest Michael Jordan high-top or that oh-so-cool iPhone or that bottle of tap water in the gorgeous bottle. I recently almost bought a luxury hybrid, kidding myself that I could somehow have a power car and help Al Gore save the environment. Until someone pointed out that it got worse mileage than the same nonhybrid model! Marketing works! Even on "educated consumers." That's why companies spend billions on it. That's why it's so pernicious.
What's your advice to people who want to resist being "consumed" by the modern marketplace?
Talk to family and friends about what your real needs are...Do you have to have that latest gadget, or might real happiness come from spending some time with them (for free!) walking or talking? Ask yourself whether you would really "want" to buy something if you hadn't read that cool ad or seen your rival with it.
Think not about what you "want" but what you think would be good for your kids, your neighborhood, and your community. Often when we change the subject from "me" to "we," many artificial wants and needs melt away and the really important things come into focus. Think as a citizen as well as consumer.
You describe consumerism as pretty severe. Could it get any worse in the coming decades?
The bad can always get worse. As capitalism fulfills our real needs and wants, it tends to manufacture phony and faux needs to keep selling us stuff. But there are countertrends. Capitalism can also revert to meeting real needs, of which there are plenty in the modern world. Instead of selling us $20 billion a year in bottled water, we can get clean and free from the tap, it can help solve the world water shortage and help get billions of people without clean water access.
There are signs that young people are looking for alternative music, alternative art, and alternative lifestyles that don't just depend on consuming stuff. So while consumerism is all-consuming, there is hope—if we are willing to take the problem seriously and act like grown-ups.
You write, "The family hearth is no longer a refuge in a world of virtual commerce where the tentacles of the digital octopus stretch out around the family gatekeepers and into the child's bedroom and computer and television screens." Even though our televisions and Internet connections blare advertisements and focus on short-term gratification, is it possible, at some point, to turn those off and experience rich inner lives?
Of course it is. Humans like material things but love what goes beyond the material. We want consumables but need human comfort, religious experience, civic commonality, creative expression, and many other activities that cannot be bought. We may be addicted to shopping, but we long for comfort—which can be found only in knowledge or art or family or religion or love. So yes, turn off the TV, go offline, and try living with the gifts we are born with. The things we can't put a price on are the things we most prize. Just try it.
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