December 08, 2006

The age of consumption

Some time ago I was having breakfast with a few friends and during the casual conversation I said that I felt that our children and grandchildren would judge our generation harshly for what we have done to the world.

One of my companions was surprised and after a moment's thought told me why she disagreed. She pointed out that our generation (the so-called 'baby boomers' although I hate cute labels like these) had brought about advances in civil rights, greater equality for women, more tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles, and made tremendous medical advances that had resulted in finding cures for some diseases and even the elimination of some.

I agreed with her on all these points. But my concern was more about how we have treated the Earth's resources, its environment, and its climate. I have written about global warming before and will write in the future about the consequences of our actions on the environment, but what I told her was that I feel that the people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful and profligate with the planet's resources that we are risk leaving future generations resource poor.

My friend challenged me on this too. She pointed out that our generation has become more conscious about recycling in a way that our parents never were.

This is also true but I think that the advances that we have made in recycling have been more than dwarfed by our massive increase in the consumption of resources. There is no doubt that the current generation of people in the first world has the highest standard of living ever. All the scientific and technological advances that we have been witness to in our own lifetimes have resulted in us being able to possess lots of material goods.

But what this has spawned is even greater levels of consumption. Some increase in consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the merits of the increased availability of potable water, more food and less hunger, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, homes that are better able to withstand the elements, and so. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But what bothers me is the increase in consumption just for the sake of it, just because we can. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that is driving people to build huge mansions and own multiple homes on vast areas of cleared land that are vacant most of the time. I am referring to a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where luxury is flaunted, where people feel the need to buy new stuff before the old stuff is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts the affluent and also those members of the middle class that aspire to the affluent lifestyle. The media celebrates celebrities and corporate tycoons living lavish lifestyles. This infects the middle classes who seek to emulate the very rich by also living an extravagant lifestyle. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on.

A lot of this consumption is not based on any physical needs but instead seems to result from a competition to flaunt wealth and consumption, for show, to let others know how 'successful' we are. This attitude is like a virus that has spread all over the world.

As a result of all this wasteful and image-driven consumption, I worry that we are rapidly using up the world's resources without even the benefit of a better quality of life. I worry that at the rate we going, we are going to leave future generations very resource poor.

POST SCRIPT: Analysis of ISG group report

Senator Russ Feingold gives a good summary of the few strengths and the many weaknesses of the report put out by the Iraq Study Group.

And editorial cartoonist Oliphant gives his perspective on the responses to the report.



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hi Dr. Singham --

I wonder if you have read any of Wendell Berry's agrarian essays? He makes me want to go live in a tree hut. I'm enjoying his book "The Art of the Common Place" right now. One of his main points is that we're harming the land because we haven't "arrived" in America yet. Not only are we disconnected from the place where we live and the people directly around us, but what we buy is usually disconnected from place, too. And to some degree this has always been true, if you contrast us with Native Americans. Distribution networks have abstracted the Earth out of our consumption for hundreds of years, so we've forgotten any relationship between the two, and in the face of abundance we consume abundantly.

He goes on to propose that this disconnect is directly responsible for many of today's gender and racial issues. I think it's a stretch, but I haven't finished the book yet...


Posted by Carl Tashian on December 8, 2006 10:13 AM


I have not read this particular book but I have read essays by him in Harper's magazine. There was one particular one called "The Oil We Eat" where he pointed out the huge but hidden cost of converting vast amounts of land for farming. It was a pretty powerful essay.

Posted by Mano Singham on December 8, 2006 12:56 PM

"The Oil We Eat," in the February, 2004 issue of Harper's, is by Richard Manning, not Wendell Berry. It is, though, a fine essay. Berry lays out some of his arguments more fully in a collection of essays called "What Are People For?" (North Point Press published the edition I have).


Anton Janulis

Posted by Anton Janulis on November 15, 2008 10:01 PM


You are absolutely right. It is almost always a mistake to rely on my memory for such things instead of looking it up. Why don't I ever learn . . . ?

Posted by Mano on November 16, 2008 09:33 AM

Hello Dr.:

I totally agree that Americans are wasteful! The "keep up with the Jones'" has got to go. Not only do they accumulate more stuff, but they often jeopardize their marriage / families by putting financial strain in the relationship. They buy on credit!

I guess the need to fit in trumps logic. There is emotion in fitting in and so people buy when they can't even afford it. I like Dave Ramsey's message that being "weird" is cool. It's "wierd" not to have debt, to stay home and eat, to "eat beans and rice," to buy used stuff, etc.

If we can equate "weird" with being "cool" to the younger generations, we could start changing over consumption.

Great article, Dr.!

Posted by Chach on December 7, 2011 08:18 AM