Finny's News and Views.: Too Much Ain't Enough    
 Too Much Ain't Enough2 comments
20 Jan 2002 @ 13:29, by John Finn

As the US is urged to spend its way out of possible economic decline, an expat looks on in despair at his country's love affair with consumption, and its global consequences.

BY: JOHN F SCHUMAKER

By chance, I arrived for a two-week visit to the US only hours before the September 11 terrorist attacks. I witnessed the country respond to this barbaric display of religious insanity through patriotism, prayer, and the promise of vengeance. But more prominent than the flags, special church services and the ubiquitous talk of "kicking butt" were the endless public appeals for people to spend and keep spending. That seemed the one solution to the crisis upon which nearly all Americans could agree.

Where I was in America's heartland, no one could fathom a single reason why anyone, from any country, would not love the US and its great way of life. Most were stunned to learn that the growing rage against the US goes beyond the realm of politics and religion, and relates also to matters of energy and environment. They had no clue, for example, that, although Americans make up only five percent of the world's population, they are responsible for over 25 percent of all energy demand, and for 30 percent of deadly greenhouse gases. These shameful imbalances are not even an issue of debate in the US.

Life and spending have become almost synonymous to the majority of Americans, and their economy is tied inextricably to this person-as-customer mentality. The US has developed a dangerous dependency on what is called "institutionalised overconsumption". The percentage of total economic activity generated in the US from personal spending is nearly 70 percent - far more than any other nation - and between 50 percent and 90 percent higher than any European countries. No one seems worried that 25 percent of Americans are affected by "pathological spending", and that up to six percent have developed compulsive spending disorders. America's super-spenders have even kept the overconsumption bonfire roaring, despite the economic downturn of recent months. The ritualism and almost religious zeal of US consumers has led some scholars to speak of a "sacralisation of consumption" being under way there.

Before their "patriotic spending" resumed, some caught a fleeting glimpse of the cultural tragedy that hints of capitalism's dead end. This was foreseen by Thornton Wilder in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", where he describes a detestable group of people who are "drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires".

The psychological foundation of America's "dream factory of endless consumption", as sociologist Jerome Braun terms it, is a shallow identity structure known as the "California self". This type of person has been culturally conditioned to be narcissistic, self-centred and self-serving. Life is given meaning by making the right consumer choices, maximising pleasure, minimising pain, and getting the most for oneself. This makes such people easy prey for the marketing tactics that work on the basis of the "psychology of more". Larger issues, such as the environment or social justice, get lost or trivialised in a morass of self-interest.

Virtually all shame has been erased from indebtedness, which incites in America's "eternal sucklings" still more inessential and thoughtless consumption. Over the past five years, savings in the US have fallen to a negative rate that sees Americans currently spending billions more than they earn. In 1999 they racked up credit card debts of $1.5 trillion, while total consumer debt reached a mind-boggling $6 trillion. The one million bankruptcies filed annually due to credit excesses are readily digested by an economic system that flourishes on consumer foolhardiness.

The US is largely responsible for the new type of energy crisis that we see today. On a per-person basis, oil consumption has climbed to 26.4 barrels per year, which compares to an average of 3.2 barrels for the rest of the world. Since 1991, US oil imports have risen nearly 60 percent. If all other countries consumed at the US rate, the known oil reserves of the planet would be dry in less than seven years. Kiwis (New Zealanders) consume only 12.1 barrels of oil per person per year. Compared to American, even the Japanese, Germans and British - all very heavy oil users in their own right - consume far less; 17.9 barrels, 13.7 barrels, and 10.2 barrels per person per year, respectively.

The US is also piling up more solid waste than any other nation. From 1997 to 1999 annual municipal solid waste (MSD) in the US increased by approximately 50 million tonnes to 390 million tonnes. An average of 1524 kg per person of MSD is generated annually by Americans. This means that a typical US family of four amasses a seemingly impossible 13kg of solid waste per day. Try as they do to emulate the US Kiwis only manage to rubbish the environment at 46 percent of the US pace (710 kg per year).

Like guns and God, overconsumption has very special meaning to Americans. Most believe at some level that over-indulgence is good for the country, and that spending is the best way out of economic and social trouble. By sheltering them from all bad news about overconsumption, the US media has suppressed most environmental awareness.

If Americans are no longer thinking, it is thanks in part to the dumbing of America, a cultural development about which numerous books have been written. Dumbness, as it turns out, is an ideal attribute for the US's particular brand of capitalism, in which maximum profitability is achieved via the so-called 3-B principle; that is, getting a dumbed public to "Buy Blindly and Brainlessly".

The triumph of consumer consciousness has been banality, vulgarity and simple-mindedness anointed with respectability. The utterly superfluous has become a noble pursuit and the quest for personal and intellectual growth is fading quickly.

In 1970, a large-scale survey of US university students showed that 80 percent of them had as a goal "the development of a meaningful philosophy of life". By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 percent. During the same period, the number of those aiming "to be very well off financially" increased from 39 percent to 75 percent - which explains the wholesale shift to studying marketable subjects. Many US psychotherapists are turning to philosophical counselling to treat the swelling ranks of lost souls for whom the myth of consumer happiness is collapsing.

Social analysts now speak of things such as "consumer trance", "ecological dissociation" and "environmental insanity". Take for example, America's collective fetish for four- wheel drive sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which make up 43 percent of passenger car sales. Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one third more fuel and creates 75 percent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s?

Environmentalists have calculated that SUVs - 87 percent of which have never been off- road - have caused Americans to waste 70 billion gallons of petrol in the past 10 years: an immense toll for a vehicle with an outdoorsy image. But, as a whole, they don't care. True, many Kiwis are catching on. Imported SUVs stink up our streets, 24-hour shopping is being trialled, and we are becoming fatter by the year. But we have yet not made overconsumption into our national pastime and the core of our identity.

Materialism has reached fever pitch and continues to rise sharply. Various studies have shown that high degrees of materialism have a detrimental effect on psychological and social well being. A strong materialist orientation has been associated with diminished life satisfaction, impaired self-esteem, dissatisfaction with friendships and leisure activities, and a predisposition to depression. Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor to Western society's tenfold increase in major depression over the past half century.

Hypermaterialism also features prominently in the emerging plague of existential disorders, such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that around 40 percent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these sorts of symptoms, often referred to as all-pervasive "psychic deadness". Once materialism becomes the epicentre of one's life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 percent reported feeling that they were in an existential vacuum. Not even technology, and the ever more dazzling array of technological consumables, seem able to fill the void.

At capitalism's dead end, children are quickly transformed into ardent customers. An average American eight-year-old can list 30 popular brand names. More than 90 percent of 13-year-old girls in a recent study listed shopping as their favourite, followed by watching TV. In 1968 American children from four to 12 spent around $2 billion: today they spend $35 billion annually. Marketeers now pride themselves on cradle-to-the-grave indoctrination strategies.

During my visit to the US, a friend was about to cut up a luscious chocolate cake and asked his three-year-old son, "How much do you want?" His innocent reply, which I couldn't help hearing as the collective voice of insatiable US society, was "Too much!"

*John F Schumaker is a US-born clinical psychologist in private practice in Christchurch, New Zealand. His latest book is "The Age of Insanity" (Praeger).




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2 comments

20 Jan 2002 @ 14:22 by istvan : The Rign of the merchant
The merchant mentality is the new religion of the new world order, but if we look deeper this mentality is also the mark of times of old. Only now, it is maturing to it's ultimate conclusions of self distructivness.  


10 May 2010 @ 13:33 by David Fitzpatrick @58.168.233.97 : right on
Finally caught up with you Jack. You were right all along; religion, and indeed all compulsive fantasy corrupts reality-and the final state of capitalism-where everything is reduced to passive consumption,passive misery, passive compensations, even sentimentalized death and despair- is the corruption even of that.  


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