Sunday, December 18, 2011

consumerism is not the answer [to the question they don't want us to ask]

Watching the evening news, I see reports of how the holiday shopping season is so important, that the Saturday before Christmas is often the biggest shopping day of the year and can make or break an entire season for some retailers. The well-dressed talking head on my TV screen tells me that Consumer spending makes up as much as 70% of our national economy, and I stop short.

Seventy per cent?

Seventy per cent of our nation's economy -- which includes funding for schools, roads, public safety, social services and the military -- depends on everyone going shopping. Think about that for a minute. And think about how much that has a bearing on the fabric of our social and communal lives.

You need new clothes now and then. If you work in a job that requires you to dress up, you need them more often because dressy clothes wear out faster (they're just not made as well).
You need to buy toys for the kids for birthdays, holidays and whenever else, because who actually makes toys for their kids anymore? (And if your kids are plugged in, you can't make toys for them anyway, unless you work in a computer factory.)
You need to buy new shoes, not necessarily because the old ones are finally worn out but because they're out of style (and your teenager refuses to go to school in them).
You need to have the latest electronic goodies -- computers and PDA's and cell-phones and everything else -- in part because the new work and educational landscape requires people to be more plugged in than ever, and in part because the computer manufacturers are constantly upgrading their systems so that eventually your 10-year-old computer simply won't be compatible with whatever else The Ghost Of Steve Jobs wants to sell you.
Trick-or-treating, once an activity that took place on neighborhood streets, now happens as often in the shopping malls of America, as parents worried about their childrens' safety have decided that taking the kids to the mall is safer and easier. Of course, the retailers are all too glad to have this next generation of little shoppers running amok in the mall and learning the lessons of consumerism so early.

I work in retail. A specialty type of retail, to be sure; I help get people onto bicycles (and in many cases that means getting them out of cars at least part of the time, so that's good). I promote a healthier way of transportation, and of life. And I get to fix things, sometimes using recycled parts. That's good too, right?

Problem is, it's still all about buying and selling, buying and selling. And I have grown tired of all the buying and selling.

Taking the teaching position this year has been a real help. It gives me something to balance aganist the retail work, and gives me a sphere in which I encounter people in a very different way, a way that is not so quid-pro-quo and doesn't contain such a marketplace mentality. I hope I will get to continue to do this other work as a counterweight to my work in retail.

When you work in retail, it is easier not to ask the question: What would life look like if it wasn't all about buying and selling? What would society look like if consumer spending didn't comprise 70 % of our economy? In what ways would we encourage creativity and conservation instead of the throwaway lifestyles so many of us live now? Would it be possible to enjoy a healthy, decent standard of living if everyone was required to live on less, to be more resourceful and creative, and to rely on our families, neighbors and local communities more for companionship and cultural activities? What if we went back to communal gardens and used them to feed everyone, instead of relying on whatever came wrapped in mylar at the store? What if we had schoolchildren take part of each learning day and spend it working in the communal gardens, learning about science and nature while planting and studying the vegetables that would feed their communities? What if we got away from factory feed lots and raised livestock on a smaller scale, eating less meat and using fewer natural resources in the process? What if we tore up some of our city streets and turned them into bike-ped tracks, and made it more expensive and inconvenient to drive the way they've done in some Eupopean cities? What if we took the "American" psyche, that myth about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, and simply put it out with the trash? Couldn't we then we use the savings realized from these changes to create a more caring, close-knit, communal way of life where everyone's needs really could be met?

I think so. But I also fear that too many of us would not survive the transition into such a way of life, simply because our lives now are so dependent on those things which prop us up and make us complacent and lazy and too many people would rebel at such changes. If such change were possible, it would not be at all easy, and frankly would be fraught with risk.

As a friend pointed out to me at a gathering a few weeks back, we are excellent consumers of culture, and that may be the problem. Instead of consuming things and hoping that this will let us consume culture as well, we need to consume less and take back our ability to create culture for ourselves and our communities. In that way, we can own so much more while buying less.

Chanukah begins Tuesday evening. The Festival Of Lights is also the Festival Of Rededication, as we celebrate the reclaiming of the Temple and the work that was done to clean it up and re-dedicate ourselves to its service. Perhaps this is the year that I and those around me can re-dedicate ourselves to creating culture, instead of simply consuming it.

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