Can consumerism make you ill? A study undertaken by the University of Newcastle, Australia found a positive correlation between materialism -- or an "excessive concern" for material things -- and negative psychological phenomena, such as anger and depression. According to an article published in Yahoo! News, "It also leads to conformity, based on the notion that the self in a market-based society is treated as a commodity whose value is determined externally."
This would be no surprise to Juliet Schor, a Harvard University economist, who explored the disease of "affluenza" in her book, "The Overspent American". Americans have been taking part in a "national shopping spree" that leaves us exhausted, angry, depressed and in a cycle of ever-widening debt.
"We are impoverishing ourselves," she writes, "in pursuit of a consumption goal that is inherently unachievable." Because the gap between rich and poor has widened, more and more are dependent on credit to keep up the "appearance of wealth".
Since Schor's book was published, the news has been full of more and more bad news for the American consumer: a crisis in the mortgage and credit card sectors, the plunge of the dollar, the rise in gas and oil prices and increasing instability in the stock market. Is there a way out of the cycle of consumption and despair? In a world of cynicism and greed, small groups of conscientious individuals have sprung up in unlikely settings, challenging the tenets of materialism, crass commercialism and the exploitation of both man and nature in service to the Beast of capitalism.
Reverend Billy, a street performer who dons a white suit and leads the "church of stop shopping" gospel choir in street and theater performances, refers to consumerism as "shopilepsy". His campy leftist act is meant to draw attention to the problem of consumerism. As the website puts it: Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir "believe that consumerism is overwhelming our lives. The corporations want us to have experiences only through their products. Our neighborhoods, 'commons' places like stoops and parks and streets and libraries, are disappearing into the corporatized world of big boxes and chain stores."
The Reverend and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have been arrested illegally detained several times in attempting to spread their message of anti-consumerism , and were profiled in the NY Times , after Reverend Billy was arrested and held approximately 20 hours last summer. On June 29, 2007, Reverend Billy, whose real name is Bill Talen was in Union Square Park, in support of the Critical Mass bike riders and repeatedly recited the 44 words of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States in a megaphone. Since then, he has repeatedly had to face trial for "harrassment charges".
Reverend Billy's message is crystal clear: he preaches against the "fetishistic love of growth", and the "globalization, sweatshops, or the Orwellian bleaching of our minds by the product monoculture". His group has taken on McDonald's for targeting children in their ad campaigns, Starbuck's for their un-fair trade policies, and Victoria's Secrets for its role in clearcutting forests. "We're facing the shopocalypse, folks," he tells the crowds.
And just what is the cause of this shopocalypse? Reverend Billy describes it "as a web of trans-national sponsored corporate media". This is propped up by consumerism, the military-industrial complex and an economy that "drives and creates a violent foreign policy". "Tax money finances war, this is just a fact, " preaches Reverend Billy.
Reverend Billy is not the only one who has an axe to grind with the global corporate plutocracy.
In San Francisco, a group of 10 friends decided to do something to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, and in early 2006 founded a group called the "Compact". They vowed to go one year without buying anything new. They started to share used things, scour flea markets for used things, and vowed to repair rather than replace.
Since then, the idea has spawned copycat groups in other cities through the Internet and an appearance on the "Today" show. Their Yahoo! group has been the unlikely inspiration for similar groups worldwide, including Germany, Hong Kong and Iceland.
According to the Compact's website, their stated goals are "to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of disposable consumer culture and to support local businesses, farms, to reduce clutter and waste in our homes, and "to simplify our lives".
According to the guidelines, one may buy used things, or borrow, with the exception of food, necessary medicines and health care items and underwear. Besides thrift stores and garage sales, participants found a wealth of free or previously owned merchandise in online classifieds and sites where people post stuff they want to get rid of, such as http://www.freecycle.org and http://www.garbagescout.com.
The Compact are certainly not the most radical off today's anti-consumerist warriors. Several cities in the United States and Europe have communities of "freegans," people who eat food foraged from Dumpsters whenever possible, train hop and sleep in abandoned buildings on principle. Fortunately, one needn't go that far in living a "green" lifestyle.
Houston writer Wendee Holtcamp, writing for OnEarth, took the "Compact" vow for one month, and described her own experiences trying to break the spell of capitalist consumerism, likening her struggle to quit consuming as an addiction. In "My 30 Days of Consumer Celibacy", Holtcamp soon found herself "backsliding" by buying penguin toys at a Hallmark shop. "This Compact thing requires a 12-step program -- we may not be able to so easily stop consumption," she later related.
Wendee Holtcamp writes: "The average American generates about 4.5 pounds of trash a day -- a figure that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, includes paper, food, yard trimmings, furniture, and everything else you toss out at home and on the job. That makes the United States the trashiest country in the industrialized world, followed by Canada at 3.75 pounds a day and the Netherlands at 3 pounds a day. In part, we can thank the corporations that spend billions to convince us that the newest, shiniest widgets will make us happy and attract friends and lovers."
However, she cautions that merely making small changes in buying trinkets might not help.
In The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Michael Brower and Warren Leon of the Union of Concerned Scientists ...."analyzed the environmental footprints of everything from cheese to carpet to feminine products and then aggregated them into 50 categories of goods and services. In the end, they found that just 7 of the 50 categories were responsible for the lion's share of environmental degradation: cars and trucks; meat and poultry farming; crop production; home heating, hot water, and air conditioning; household appliances; home construction; and household water use and sewage treatment".
They caution that "over time, buying smart may be more important than buying used."
Is the current American way of life unsustainable? Many environmentalists and scientists believe so. And while most of us are unable to make major changes, even small changes will, collectively, make an impact.
Here are some suggestions:
Go online to your local freecycle website, or start your own group.
Buy as much locally-grown produce as possible, or, better yet, grow your own. Check and see if there is a community garden in your city, or if you're a homeowner, consider dedicating some of your yard to a vegetable and fruit garden.
If you don't truly need it, don't buy it. If you find you do need something, instead of buying it new, consider buying used things from flea markets, garage sales or ebay. Another source: start a "swapping party" in your community, where old products can find new owners. Consider making your own clothes and furniture from scavenged materials. This could be rewarding as a hobby, as well as money-saving.
Use a bicycle, or, better yet, your feet to get to work.
Try to use local small businesses rather than big, impersonal chain stores.
Recycle your trash, if possible. Table scraps can be made into compost, and used for gardening.
Repair broken appliances, instead of buying new ones. If you don't need something, don't throw it in the trash- give it away to someone who needs it, or donate it to a homeless shelter, charity, etc. Many charity organizations are more than happy to receive donated kitchen appliances, etc.
Turn down the heat in your home, and use less electricity. In the evening, candlelight is romantic, and saves energy. Install insulation in your home, and use energy-efficient light bulbs.