HOW OVERCONSUMPTION IS KILLING US–AND HOW WE CAN FIGHT BACK
By John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor
All rights reserved.
Let's put it bluntly: we can't grow on like this. In these pages, we'll argue that affluenza has overheated our economy and our planet while leaving us feverish with desire for ever more consumer products. Never before has so much meant so little to so many. In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, our feverish expectations are changing our planet beyond recognition, with little thought for those who will come after us.
The late, great environmentalist David Brower, who turned the Sierra Club from a tiny California hiking society into America's most powerful conservation organization, used to give what he called his sermon as part of his many speeches. He compressed the age of Earth, estimated by scientists at some 4.6 billion years, into seven days, the biblical week of creation, if you will. When you do this, a day represents about 650 million years, an hour 27 million years, a minute about 450,000 years, and a second 7,500 years.
On Sunday morning, Earth congeals from cosmic gases. In the next few hours, land masses and oceans begin to form, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first tiny "protocells" of life emerge, probably from scalding primordial vents in the bottom of the oceans. In the next few days, life forms become larger, more complex, and more wondrous. Shortly before dawn on the last day—Saturday—trilobites and other strangely shaped creatures swim by the millions in the Cambrian seas. Half a billion years later, in real time, we will be amazed by their fossils, scattered about the globe.
Around the middle of the very last day of the week, those gargantuans, the great reptiles, some mild, some menacing, thunder across the land and fill the sky. The dinosaurs enjoy a long run, commanding the earth's stage for more than four hours, until a monstrous meteorite, landing in the Gulf of Mexico, makes the climate too cold and ends their reign. By the late afternoon and evening on Saturday, mammals, furry, warm-blooded, and able to withstand a colder world, flourish and evolve, until, a few minutes before midnight on that final night of the week, Homo sapiens, walking erect on two legs, learns to speak, use fire, and create increasingly complex forms of organization.
Only about ten thousand years ago in real time, less than two seconds before midnight in our metaphor, humans develop agriculture and start building cities. At a third of a second before midnight, the Buddha is born; at a quarter of second, Christ. Only a thirtieth of a second before midnight, we launch the Industrial Revolution, and after World War II, perhaps a hundredth of a second before midnight in our week of creation—again, on the final night—the age of consumerism begins, the age of stuff, the Age of Affluenza.
In that hundredth of a second, Brower and others have pointed out, we have managed to consume more resources than did all human beings all together in all of previous history. We have diminished our soil, fisheries, fossil fuels (which took hundreds of millions of years to form), and who knows what other resources, by half. We have caused the extinction of countless other species, and we have changed the climate. Think about it; try to grasp in your mind what it means to have done all of this in this blink of the geological eye.
There are people, Brower went on to say, who believe that what we have been doing for that last one-hundredth of a second can go on indefinitely. If they even think about the issue, they believe, without evidence, that science and new technologies will allow our continued hyperexploitation of the planet's resources. They are considered normal, reasonable, intelligent people—indeed, they run our corporations and our governments. But in reality, they are stark, raving mad. They are like Frankenstein's monster. They are rampaging all over the globe now, but as a race they were born in the USA.
It will be hard to change their mind, hard to change our practices, but not nearly as hard as it would be to change the laws of physics. We can't grow on like this.
Since World War II, Americans have been engaged in an unprecedented consumer spending binge. We now spend 71 percent of our $15 trillion economy on consumer goods. For example, we spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than on higher education. We spend as much on auto maintenance as on religious and welfare activities. In 1986, America still had more high schools than shopping centers. Less than twenty years later, in 2005, we had more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). In the Age of Affluenza (as we believe the century following World War II will eventually be called), shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values. In fact, 70 percent of us visit malls each week, more than attend houses of worship.
Until recently, our most profitable shopping centers were megamalls. Typically, they cover areas of fertile farmland that formerly produced bumper crops instead of traffic jams. Indeed, sixty-nine acres of prime American farmland are lost to "development" every hour. When a new megamall opens, the pomp and ceremony rival anything Notre Dame or Chartres might have witnessed in medieval times.
The Super Mall in Auburn, Washington, opened to a stampede of a hundred thousand shoppers in October 1995. The crowd gathered under an imitation of the state's 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. Rising above the Super Mall's front entrance, the imitation mountain provided one show which the real thing could not: a display of fireworks, set off as soon as the ribbon-cutting ceremony was over.
In a spirit of boosterism that would have impressed Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, speaker after speaker extolled the wonders of the new shopping center, the biggest in the state. "The number of shoppers expected to visit here over the next year exceeds 1.2 million," burbled Auburn's mayor, adding that "committed shoppers can shop till they drop in 1.2 million square feet of shopping space." Along with a new racetrack and casino in the area, the mall was expected to become a "destination attraction" for vacationers from the entire western United States and Canada. It would, they said, create four thousand jobs and "improve the quality of life throughout the region." Thirty percent of the expected business would come from tourists who would each spend about five hours and more than $200 at the mall.
FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
The thousands of eager shoppers on hand for the opening wore bored and impatient expressions during the speeches but pushed eagerly through the open doors when the rhetoric stopped. One woman said she was "really excited about the mall because this is something we haven't had in this part of Washington. We were waiting for something like this."
"We said, 'If we build it, they will come,' and they did," gushed a happy shopkeeper. Another explained that its hardwood floors "add a little sense of excitement to the mall. They're much easier than walking on tile or granite and make the Super Mall really special." She hoped children would enjoy it, "because shopping has become such a family experience that's really important."
"Shopping malls have really become the centers of many communities," says Michael Jacobson, founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, DC. "Children as well as adults see a shopping center as just the natural destination to fill a bored life."
WHAT ELSE MATTERS?
The host of the TV program Affluenza, Scott Simon, visited Potomac Mills, a large Virginia shopping mall, during production of the program. Shoppers were eager to answer his questions about where they came from and what they thought of the mall. None of the people Simon talked to were sweating profusely. But all seemed infected by feverish expectations, often the first symptom of affluenza.
Two women from Dallas, Texas, said they'd been at the mall for three days straight, while their husbands golfed nearby. "We're always looking for a bargain. You've got to know the brands, and we have experience, we're proud to say," they proclaimed. "I didn't need anything. I just went to shop," said a man with a cart full of merchandise. "Whatever I like, I buy." "I bought a lot more than I planned to," another woman admitted. "You just see so much."
Yes, you do, and that's the idea. Seeing so much leads to impulse buying, the key to mall profitability and to the success of big-box stores like Wal-Mart. Impulse: a devilish little snake that cajoles first, then bites later, when the credit card bill comes due. Only a quarter of mall shoppers come with a specific product in mind. The rest come just to shop. "What else matters?" asked one of the ladies from Dallas at Potomac Mills, only half in jest.
"I came here with one overriding interest, to spend money," said a proud teenage girl, who was getting rid of the hundred dollars her mother had given her for this particular spree. "I like to shop," she explained. She's not alone. One poll found that 93 percent of teenage American girls rate shopping as their favorite activity.
An older couple passed by with a shopping cart piled to the brim. "This is only half of what we've purchased," the man said cheerfully. "We brought a long list of things to buy," his wife added, "and then we bought a lot of stuff that wasn't on the list."
But Potomac Mills is a mere mini-mall compared to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. With 4.2 million square feet of shopping space (100 acres), the country's biggest mall ("Where It's Always 72 Degrees!") spreads over an area the size of seven Yankee Stadiums and will soon double in size. It employs twelve thousand people and attracts forty million visitors a year. The Mall of America is more than metaphorically a cathedral; some people get married there. It is also a world-class affluenza hot zone.
A WORLD PHENOMENON
Today, the malls of America have rivals in other countries. The Phoenix City Market Mall in Mumbai, India, is only slightly smaller than the Mall of America, and the New South China Mall is nearly twice as big, while the Dubai Mall has become the world's most visited leisure and shopping destination, with sixty-five million annual visitors.
But the malling of the world may be starting to lose steam. The big Indian and Chinese malls are full of vacant space, as many of India's and China's poor, unable to afford the products, come only to look, not to buy. In an even more promising development, recent demonstrations in Turkey began when the government announced plans to demolish Istanbul's popular Taksim Gezi Park and build a shopping mall in its place, striking a powerful blow against affluenza.
In the United States, too, many malls are losing tenants. Retail experts predict that a tenth of the approximately one thousand megamalls in the US will close their doors within the decade. Part of this downturn was the result of the recent recession. But much of it can be blamed on greater consumer spending options.
While many malls, and vast discount megastores like Wal-Mart and Costco, still boast growing sales (and still drive smaller, locally owned stores out of business), Americans are now doing a whole lot of shopping right from their couches. Nearly twenty billion mail-order catalogs (more than fifty million trees' worth of paper) flood our homes each year, about seventy for every one of us, selling everything from soup to nuts (to refrigerators to underwear). "Buy Now, Pay Later!" they shout. While some resent their arrival, most Americans eagerly await them and order from them with abandon. In some cases, we even pay for the catalogs (such as Sears's) so that we can pay for what's in them. Then there are the home shopping channels. Critics mock them as presenting a continual succession of baubles on bimbos, but for a sizable minority of Americans, they're the highlight of the cable TV systems, and highly profitable. And to think someone once called TV "a vast wasteland." That was before the shopping channels, of course.
Mail-order catalogs and shopping channels carry a lot more than products. They are highly contagious carriers of affluenza.
In the past several years, a new affluenza carrier has entered the mix in a big way. In time, it threatens to someday outdraw malls, catalogs, and shopping channels combined. The intense frenzy with which the ubiquitous Internet has been embraced as a shopping center can be compared only to that which followed the discovery of gold in California and Alaska, or to the Texas oil boom. Americans now spend an average of thirteen hours a week online, and much of that time is spent shopping, since a majority of Internet sites are selling something.
Ten years ago, consumers spent $50 billion online, nearly double what they had spent four years earlier. By 2012, online sales had topped $200 billion, and they continue to double every four years. Though they are still only a fraction of total retail sales ($4.4 trillion), the trend is clear.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
Take a walk down memory lane. Way down. If you're as old as the authors, your memories carry you back to the 1950s at least. World War II and the Great Depression were over, and America was on the move. Suburban houses were going up everywhere. New cars were rolling from the assembly lines and onto new pavement. Ground breaking began for the National Defense Interstate Highway System, soon to stretch from sea to shining sea. A TV dinner (introduced in 1953) came from every oven.
"It's a great life, eh Bob?" a man in a '50s commercial intones as a young couple and their towheaded son sit on a couch watching the tube. "And tomorrow will be even better, for you and for all the people." Of course, the great life wasn't great for the millions who were poor or discriminated against. And even for middle-class America, it wasn't worry-free. On the same day in 1957 (October 4) that Leave It to Beaver premiered on American television, those pesky Russians shot Sputnik into space. Nikita Khrushchev promised to bury us "in the peaceful field of economic competition." We know how that came out.
But 1957 was important for another, less heralded reason. It was the year the percentage of Americans describing themselves as "very happy" reached a plateau never exceeded and seldom matched since then. The following year, a year when Americans bought two hundred million Hula-Hoops, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith published an influential book calling the United States "the affluent society."
We felt richer then than we do now. Most Americans today don't think of themselves as affluent, says the psychologist Paul Wachtel, "even though in terms of gross national product we have more than twice as much as we did then. Everybody's house has twice as much stuff in it. But the feeling of affluence, the experience of well-being, is no higher and perhaps even lower." Liberal economists argue that since about 1973 the real wages earned by middle-class Americans haven't risen much and, for many workers, have declined. Young couples talk of not being able to afford what their parents had. But one thing is incontestable: We have a lot more stuff and much higher material expectations than previous generations did.
Take housing. The average size of new homes is now more than double what it was in the 1950s, while families are smaller. Right after World War II, 750 square feet was just right (in Levittown, for example). By the '50s, 950 square feet was the norm; by the '60s, 1,100 square feet was typical; and by the '70s, 1,350. Now it's 2,500.
In recent years, before the housing bubble burst, homes became a symbol of conspicuous consumption, as beneficiaries of the '90s stock market boom began to buy real estate, bulldoze existing (and perfectly functional) homes, and replace them with megahouses of 10,000 square feet and more. Starter castles, some have named them. Others call them monster homes. In places like the spectacular mountain towns of the West, many such megahomes are actually second homes, mere vacation destinations for the newly rich.
As with homes, so with cars. Until 2000, the eighteen-foot-long Chevy Suburban set the standard for gigantism. Then, not to be outdone, Ford introduced the Excursion, a seven-thousand-pound titan that was a foot longer than the Suburban. Ford Motors chairman William Ford even apologized for making so many SUVs, calling his Excursion "the Ford Valdez" for its propensity to consume fuel. He condemned SUVs as wasteful and polluting but said Ford would continue to manufacture them anyway because they were extremely profitable.
"For a lot of people an SUV is a status symbol," says car salesman Mike Sillivan. "So they're willing to pay the thirty- to forty-odd thousand dollars to drive one of these vehicles." (Continues...)
Excerpted from AFFLUENZA by John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor. Copyright © 2014 John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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