“Our Crisis of Consumerism”

The New York Times will sometimes let writers come pretty close to realism, but only to a certain depth. When it comes to talking about causes, the paper’s standards of coherence and apt evidence disappear. The job, after all, is to make nonsense out of what might otherwise make deep and dangerous sense.

To wit, consider the wildly irrational op-ed by Bianca Vivion Brooks on “the cycle of waste and consumerism” in today’s paper-of-record.

According to Ms. Brooks, the world is in deep trouble from booming material waste because of defects in “our collective desire for goods and services.” And these defects, Ms. Brooks asserts, arise from us ourselves:

[T]he accumulation of things is still at the essence of what it means to be American. Ownership of property and the gospel of prosperity are so deeply tied to our ideas of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that few seem willing to renounce the materialism that lies at the core of our national identity.

That, of course, is at least highly debatable.

Brooks certainly provides no reference(s) to support the claim, nor does the NYT require such things, apparently.

Meanwhile, Brooks, who says she’s still in her twenties, seems unacqainted with any careful, classic criticisms of capitalism, so perhaps we can excuse her sloppy speculation. But, as her piece shows, this “consumer culture” stuff is damned toxic to realistic thought.

Brooks concludes that it is high time for us to “reassess our relationship to things.” The problem, of course, is our relationship to one another.

At this late date, in our corporate media ecology, it remains all but forbidden to describe these pertinent relationships.

Evidence That “Consumerism” Is Not Our Problem

Richard Eckersley is a very skilled and important researcher into the details of how our world actually works.

Among the topics Eckersley investigates is the question of what the mass of people actually like, want, prefer, and worry about, and whether (or not) and how (or how not) our dominant institutions care about and encasulate those actual desires.

Here is what Eckersley reports about the increasing advocacy of well-being indexes as a replacement for, or accompaniment to, GDP statistics. Such nice ideas, Eckersley suggests, do not go far enough:

Public perceptions of the future have been another dimension of my research. And I am not aware of any progress indicators that reflect the depth of people’s concern (which existed well before climate change gave it a tangible focus).

Richard Eckersley

Ordinary people, in other words, are far more worried about the future and desirous of macro-alternatives than any “happiness indicator” scales show. If, of course, one bothers to actually look.

That, alas, remains something very few thinkers, including the purported mavens of green consciousness, do.

Instead, among such would-be leaders, the phantasm of “consumerism” continues to trample this whole field of reality into a plane of hopeless hallucinatory mush.

TCT will say it again: “Consumer” analysis is barking up the wrong tree. The masses are already way more complex and thoughtful and open to hearing the news than their would-be saviors bother to know.

It is beyond high time for the arrival of an empirical perspective on off-the-job life in the modern world.

Question

If you were trying to explain slavery, how much emphasis would you put on “slavism” or “slavishness” as one of its causes? Not much, right?

Why, then, does virtually every person trying to explain the market-totalitarian corporate capitalist promotion of unsustainable material waste in the spheres of product design and product usage attribute that reality to “consumerism”?

It is pathetic, and carries the whiff of liberal practicality, too.

Deep or Shallow?

The Post Carbon Institute fancies itself a bearer of the last word on eco-social thought and organizing. Under its banner, it charges money for online courses that promise to “[d]eepen your understanding of the interactions between human and Earth systems” and to thereby teach you what it is that is to be done.

Alas, here is how the course frames the human core of the problem we face:

Society’s goals and mindsets could be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves.

Consumerism is a modern version of our biological drives for status-seeking and novelty-seeking, and makes use of how our brain chemistry develops addictions.

Stories? Stories we tell ourselves? Because of our biological drives?

In reality, “consumerism” is probably not a thing at all, certainly not a well-defined or seriously documented thing, and is also definitely not reducible to individual addiction.

Meanwhile, where are the institutions in all this? “Stories we tell ourselves?” Really?

Consuming Research?

monocle image Approaches to Social Research, by Royce A. Singleton and Bruce C. Straits, is a lovely, well-written book about what social scientists call “research methods,” i.e. the techniques for maximizing the relevance and minimizing the imprecision of the evidence against which honest social hypotheses and theories should be judged. I like the book, really.

One of the topics it covers is the “validity” of concepts and measures. In social science, a concept or measure is more valid when its “goodness of fit” to reality is higher. For concepts, the question of validity is answered by judging whether a particular definition “adequately represents all facets (the domain)” of the particular aspect of reality its purports to describe.

Quite so, and quite important. Is it childbirth or stork fly-overs we’re talking about here?

Funny, then, that Singleton and Straits, in explaining the reasons people ought to read their tome, say that “You may be a consumer of research.”

Really? How, pray tell, might I possibly consume research? Would putting Approaches to Social Research through a wood chipper do the job? Perhaps exposing it to a few bursts from a flame-thrower? Would refusing to read it at all count as a form of its destruction, which is, after all, what “consumption” has to mean in any sane universe?

What S & S mean to say, of course, is that, if you pay any credulous attention to today’s shared non-fictional world, you are by definition going to be a USER of social research, and therefore ought to have some knowledge of the basic rules and standards for conducting, evaluating, and reporting such research.

So, despite its inarguable and flagrant violation of one of the bedrock rules of social science, the “consumer” vocabulary is now so triumphant, so breezily familiar, that it sails right past even major experts on the importance of holding to robust, unbiased definitions.

Would that we could consume this confounding reality…

What “Consumerism” Denies

Almost all who favor taking conservative action to prevent existential catastrophe nevertheless accede to the allied ideas that “consumer” is a valid word for product-users and that we live in a “consumer culture” governed by “consumerism.”

This concession is itself pretty catastrophic, as we here at TCT have been trying to point out for fifteen years now.

Want an illustration?  Consider this graphic:

survey results image

Now, try to explain the reality shown there in terms of “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”  You can’t, because the facts in question utterly contradict those very concepts.