In response to the subject of a post-consumerist society, NewDealer writes:
What is an economy that is not built on consumerism? What is the alternative?
This is a serious question. I am not saying that being a consumer all the time is good but critics of consumerism have yet to come up with an alternative model that I consider to be sustainable and/or pleasant.
Most critics of consumerism seem to be filled with Freshman 101 sort of rebellion. As I once joked about on facebook but got a lot of likes, one day these people “will want nice things to”. In other words, most of them will end up just as middle class as the backgrounds they came from and are currently rebelling against.
The modern notion of a vast middle class is more or less based on consumerism and is a continuation of the Victorian Industrial Revolution’s ability to take former luxury items and make them affordable for the masses. Now we do it with clothing, electronics and vacations and restaurants instead of chocolate, candles, and soap though.
I was listening to NPR’s Planet Money once and they were interviewing a very thrifty woman who basically urged everyone to stop buying anything new (furniture, books, clothing, electronics, etc) and also to stop going to restaurants. If everyone took her advice, the economy would collapse and we would all be more miserable. Plus life would be really boring without restaurants.
That being said, I agree we should think more in terms of sustainability over growth, growth, growth that creates boom and bust cycles. But I will still take post-consumerist talk more seriously when I hear a serious proposal about how to do so in a nation of 300 plus million people. It is not sustainable to imagine every American becoming a hippie on a commune and that is what many anti-Consumerists [seem to] want.
It is comparatively easy to be against consumerism, at least in the abstract. When we’re not careful, we typically mean the poor consumption decisions of others. I mean, I don’t think of myself as particularly consumerist, but I have a whole boatload of electronics that would beg to differ. I love electronics. I don’t know that they make me happier than I would be if they did not exist, but given that they exist I would rather have them than not have them. Is this worthy of criticism? I’m not sure. But I doubt it’s going away.
Of course, the real enemy is status consumption, as far as that goes. This is an area where I do reasonably well. In a way, though, it’s at least sometimes a form of image-making in and of itself. It was hard for me to mentally go from that guy who owns an aging Ford to that guy who has a relatively new Subaru. I bought the latter out of utility, and with more than a little bit of discomfort. That tells me that my previous consumption habits were at least a little bit about self-image. Not all self-image consumption is created equal. Even conspicuously opting out of a material arms race has pluses, and maybe minuses, compared to the waste created by an unwillingness to make do.
The arms race, though, itself has material repercussions. This is where any sort of post-consumerism is going to get really difficult. Our houses don’t need to be as big as they are in the absolute sense. There is utility in having large houses, as well as costs, but one of the driving factors isn’t about absolute size, but relative size. Big houses don’t just give you more space, but they price undesirables out. The comparative importance of this, for a very large section of the population, can scarcely be overstated. There is the natural desire to live amongst one’s peers. There are concerns about crime. There are lifestyle clashes that occur across economic lines. There are schools to consider if there are children involved.
The notion that large numbers of people might opt out of this strikes me as extremely unlikely. The collective action problem here is immeasurable. The most that could be hoped for is to change the parameters. That involves, among other things, having less to spend money on. Or, alternately, having less money to spend. The end result, though, is not a significantly less consumerist mindset, though the end result could be less waste and more “sustainability.” The hard part would be accomplishing this without adversely materially affecting the bottom. I have enormous difficulty figuring out how you accomplish that. I have a lot of difficulty envisioning it.