I was hoping that one of the more charming unintended consequences of our current economic situation would be a curb on the current American obsession with consumption. Indeed, I dared to dream that anti-consumerism might become trendy, as it has been in Europe for decades, and that we might see a fundamental shift in society and the way that Americans think about the world.
The “green*” movement which was exploding right before the economy imploded was often touted as an improvement, but to be strictly honest with you, I don’t really think that it was. It was simply a subversion of the continual American need to acquire more, except that this time, acquiring more came with the added bonus of “helping the environment.” People still bought crap they didn’t really need, but it was “green” crap, so that they could congratulate themselves and feel smug.
Indeed, this movement simply cemented the class barriers between Americans, as only people who were wealthy could really afford the “green” accessories they needed to demonstrate that they cared about the environment. It was really kind of brilliant from a marketing perspective: pressure Americans with the idea that they needed to save the environment, while also ensuring that the only way they could do so was by participating in an orgy of consumption. People who actually live a green lifestyle don’t get profiled because they are dull, boring, and meticulous. They aren’t out buying the latest accessories, they are making do with what they have and finding new ways to use old things. Those in the know understand that it’s much better to buy the latest recycled product than make your own, or to purchase state-of-the-art “green” products, rather than coming up with a solution using existing possessions which is very practical, but not always pretty.
I think that the “green” mega-mansions really epitomized this amazing marketing coup. You, too, could have a large house, the acme of American success, while also participating in the “green” craze.
And I find it fascinating that Americans are still being encouraged to consume. Oh, perhaps not as conspicuously as before, thanks to articles featuring contrite socialites who lower their eyes modestly and say that they were caught up in the magic, but make no mistake, we are being reminded at every turn that consuming is not just appropriate and to be expected, but also patriotic.
On Hulu, I’ve noted a series of ads by a national real estate company featuring various people smugly talking about how they bought in this market, and people who didn’t will be “kicking themselves.” In the New York Times, an article on how imperative it is that you remodel your space. Oh, sure, the article is about “remodeling on a budget,” but it involves the purchase of new items, rather than the repurposing of old ones, because obviously what you need in a time of recession is a new dinette set. That will make you feel better.
We’re also being reminded that we have a responsibility, as consumers, to spend in order to prop up our economy. Only, historically, our spending primarily ended up in the pockets of companies overseas. Our economy was a largely paper one, created on Wall Street, not through the labor of actual people making real things. Iceland had the same problem: while the global economy was strong, it had one of the top performing economies in the world, but once the man behind the curtain was revealed, their economy crashed, because it was built on the pushing of paper.
Spending propped up other economies, not ours. We’re told that by saving, we will feed the “paradox of thrift” in which we all suffer because some people are audacious enough to want to conserve their money and use their finances wisely. Despite the fact that this theory has been pretty soundly debunked, stories about it persist in the media.
I’ve always said that Americans lack an ability to learn lessons, and I really see this illustrated here. I suspect that once things do start to recover, we’re going to be right back to our all-consuming ways, because that’s what we’re manipulated to do, and evidently people aren’t smart enough to break through of external manipulation.
Who do you think benefits when you buy a new chair, instead of hiring a local upholsterer to recover an existing piece of furniture? Who makes the profit when you buy fancy “green” flooring materials, rather than refinishing your existing floors? Who stands to make the most when you buy, buy, buy to fill the emptiness in your life?
*I’m not normally a fan of excessive scare quotes, but I think it’s important to leave them in, in this particular case, because the products/movement I am discussing are not, in fact, environmentally friendly, and therefore it would be disingenuous to refer to them as green without the scare quotes.