E.C.S.T.A.S.Y.End Consumption, Save The Air & Sea, Y'all!

A support group and discussion forum for those who want to kick the habits of consumption that are damaging the world we live in.

Preparing for this week's ECSTASY diary I was thinking about the addictive properties of the consumerist lifestyle. Consumption has to be addictive; otherwise we wouldn't go on doing it, because it makes us sick and unhappy.  For a perfect illustration of the relationship between addictive drugs and consumerism, spend a few minutes in the early 1960s:

It's revealing to see how many of us are wondering what we can buy that will help us break the habit of consumption.  Personally I really like reading the Lehman's Catalog; I feel virtuous every time I think about grinding my own grain.

Today we'll meet a couple of people who've thought a lot about the nature of consumerism and its impact on the environment and on our quality of life.  One is a journalist who's written about the complexity, difficulty and joy of integrating environmental and social responsibility into his purchasing decisions, the other a sociologist whose work exposes the inner structure of consumer culture, with a particular focus on how consumption became a self-reinforcing yet ultimately unsatisfying behavior pattern.

And as a coda, we'll have some thoughts about the meaning of recycling.

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But first:

Here are a few important links:

  1. Annie Leonard's crucial movie, The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff

  1. An invaluable tool for calculating the ecological footprint of your lifestyle, from the good folks at Redefining Progress.  After I took the test, I felt pretty smug, for my levels of consumption were almost always in the lowest 20% of Americans.  Then I went on to the next page, and discovered to my horror that my level of consumption (if practiced by the world's entire population) would require two and a quarter planets to sustain.  What's your score?

If you have a resource that should be included in ECSTASY diaries, please include the link and a few words about it in the comments.

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Let's meet a voice of sanity, shall we?

Julian Lee...

...is marketing reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. He was born and brought up in the UK.

After working his way up the journalistic ladder in London, he wrote regularly for The Times before moving to Sydney with his Australian wife in 2003.

A few years ago, Lee was given a short-term assignment: try consuming ethically for two days.  As he says in this television interview, it changed his life, making him think deeply and profoundly about the impact his life and lifestyle has on the environment and the world.

An interview with Australian journalist Julian Lee, author of "How Good Are You? Clean Living in a Dirty World."

You can listen to some radio interviews with him here.

Here's an excerpt from an article he wrote for an Australian magazine (note: link leads to a PDF file):

"...take time to read the labels.  Making an ethical choice is about being informed.  But if you don’t know what you are reading, then it isn’t going to make much sense. (snip)  How, for example, are you supposed to tell if a product has been made with that ubiquitous but virtually invisible ingredient, palm oil?

"...vast tracts of rainforests are being cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations, in Indonesia and Borneo in particular.  Once the rainforests are gone, we have lost the Earth’s means of capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and with them the habitats for countless species of plants and animals...

"Needless to say, most companies would rather not tell you if palm oil is in their products.  (snip)  It took...Procter and Gamble more than two months to get back to me about its use of palm oil.  For the record, the company uses about 1% of the world’s total production.  Not that you would know it.

"If Elaeis guineensis is listed on a product’s ingredients panel, then it contains palm oil or a by-product of it.  Often it will appear just as "vegetable oil."  However, a telltale sign is a high level of saturated fats listed in the ingredients box."

Julian Lee — M Magazine; The Age, February 2008, p. 2

You can find out more about Julian Lee's work and read some excerpts from Julian's writing here and here.

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And now let's meet another voice of sanity.  I stumbled on her work while casting about for diary material...and I'm now a major fan.  Please welcome someone who's done more to illuminate my understanding of how the inner structure of consumerism preys upon us all than anyone else I've ever heard of.

Dr. Juliet Schor...

...is a Professor of sociology at Boston College. She studies trends in working time and leisure, consumerism, the relationship between work and family, women's issues and economic justice. She received her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and her Ph.D in economics from the University of Massachusetts. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University for 17 years, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies. In 2006 she was awarded the Leontief Prize by the Global Development and Environment Institute.


Schor is author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need. The Overworked American...is widely credited for influencing the national debate on work and family. The Overspent American was also made into a video of the same name, by the Media Education Foundation (September 2003). Schor is also the author of Do Americans Shop Too Much? published by Beacon Press in 2000, co-editor of Consumer Society: A Reader (The New Press 2000) and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press 2002). She is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans' lifestyles.


I'm tremendously impressed by Schor's analysis of the roots of our consumerist dilemma.  She addresses the environmental impacts of consumption only peripherally, focusing instead on the impact that consumerism has on us, on our day-to-day lives, on the lives of our families and children.  Her analysis is revealing, and illuminates the inner workings of consumer culture's addictive properties.

Juliet Schor discusses the "upscaling of aspiration" in American consumer culture in this video from 2006 (can't get the embed code to work, so here's the link):

Excerpt: "If you look at what happened in the 1980s and 90s, you see a dramatic upscaling of the American Dream.  What used to be an aspiration for a comfortable middle-class standard of living: a small house with a white picket fence, 2.2 kids, a car — has morphed into widespread desires for McMansions...upscaling of vehicles; there’s been a dramatic upscaling to an affluent style of life.  Comfort is no longer enough.  People want luxury."

When you have the time, go and listen to Schor address the City Club of San Diego, discussing the indoctrination of American children into consumerism.  This is a long video (half an hour or so), so save it for when you've got the time. Her speech begins at around 2:45.  Link

Excerpt from the San Diego talk:

"The number one aspiration of our children in America today is no longer to be a great athlete or to be smart or to be a celebrity — the kinds of things that  in the past came at the top of the list when surveyors asked them "what do you want for your life?  What do you want to be when you grow up?" The number one aspiration of American youth today is to be rich.  And those intensified levels of materialism that we see among young people play out in a lot of different ways; one of the most destructive is the fact that increasingly, young people create their sense of identity and the social dynamics that they live in, the peer dynamics of — not just teenagers, but kids, even as young as in elementary school — are by: what you have, what you’ve bought, the kinds of shoes you wear, the clothes, the brands that you are able to get.  Social dynamics in schools are more tied up than ever with wanting, getting, spending and having."

At first blush, sociological analysis of consumer culture is pretty far removed from environmentalism.  But Schor's point is very convincing.  If we are going to stop consuming the Earth, we have to know how to end the addictive behavior, and how to ensure that our children don't get addicted to begin with.  And being aware of how consumption locks into our own addictive propensities makes it easier to disengage before it takes hold.

Here's an excerpt from The Overworked American:
"It's hard to imagine how having more of a desired good could make one worse off, especially since it is always possible to ignore the additional quantity. (snip) ...economists have championed the closely related ideas that more goods yield more satisfaction, that desires are infinite, and that people act to satisfy those desires as fully as they can.  Now anyone with just a little bit of psychological sophistication (snip) can spot the flaw in the economist's argument. Once our basic human needs are taken care of, the effect of consumption on well-being gets tricky.  What if our desires keep pace with our incomes, so that getting richer doesn't make us more satisfied?  Or what if satisfaction depends, not on absolute levels of consumption, but on one's level relative to others (such as the Joneses). Then no matter how much you possess, you won't feel well off if Jones next door possesses more.  (snip)  And the fact that many of these commodities are bought on credit makes the cycle of income-consumption-more income-more consumption even more ominous.  There is no doubt that some purchases permanently enhance our lives.  But how much of what we consume merely keeps us moving on a stationary treadmill?  The problem with the treadmill is not only that it is stationary, but also that we have to work long hours to stay on it. (snip) ...the consumerist treadmill and long hour lobs have combined to form an insidious cycle of "work-and-spend." Employers ask for long hours. The pay creates a high level of consumption. People buy houses and go into debt; luxuries become necessities; Smiths keep up with Joneses. Each year, "progress," in the form of annual productivity increases, is doled out by employers as extra income rather than as time off.  Work-and-spend has become a powerful dynamic keeping us from a more relaxed and leisured way of life."


Here she is, blogging at the organization she co-founded, the Center for the New American Dream:

People who are following the news on climate, bio-diversity and other ecological issues also understand that the standard remedy of getting consumers and/or government, to spend more can’t work this time around. We’ve lost the ability to profitably or responsibly grow our way out of recession. The usual kinds of consumer spending (cars, electronics, furniture, apparel, travel) degrade vital eco-systems and have an economic cost. BAU puts us deeper into an economic hole, because every dollar of GNP creates new and unacceptable damage to the planet. A government program which mainly goes to shoring up a failing automotive infrastructure (roads and bridges) suffers from the same problem. It’s throwing good money after bad. The latest findings about climate are that we need to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere immediately. Whatever government and consumers spend on needs to reflect that reality.

So where does that leave us? We need to do more sharing—job sharing, property and income re-distributing, and sharing of access and know-how. This time the economic pain needs to be assuaged by deeper structural changes that re-introduce fairness into our system. That’s not just moral, it’s also good economic sense. The deepest, underlying structures of inequality are ultimately at the root of why we got into this mess. Reversing the dramatic growth in inequality will help us get out of it.

And yes, there are opportunities for spending. But they are for purchases that enhance and re-generate the planet and its people, such as buying from local food systems, hiring the unemployed to provide services (especially green ones), and supporting non-profits that are solving, rather than creating problems. It’s good to spend on businesses that are truly sustainable, especially those that are expanding the green economy. Those patterns of spending, which new dreamers are in the forefront of, are key to the structural transformation toward more equality, fairness and sustainability. (snip) More music, less wrapping paper!


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Do you know people who are talking sense?  People whose wisdom and insight have offered you tools, concepts, perspectives?  Who should we be listening to?  Who do you trust?  Please suggest some of the important thinkers in this complex area in the comments.

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Recently I've been trying to practice extreme recycling.  I already separate my plastics & metals from my paper.  So why do I still have trash?

The occasional broken light bulb aside, much of what goes into the trash does so because it's made of more than one kind of stuff, and it's just too much trouble to deal with it.  Example: juice boxes.  We have a kid, and the juice box is a fact of life.  Even if you don't buy them (and we don't, or we mostly don't, anyway) other people give them to our kid.  If you take a juice box apart you'll see it's made of all kinds of different stuff.  There's a foil component and a paper component and some plastic, too, all laminated together.  There's a lot of technology in those things, and a lot of manufacturing time.  Probably a lot of shipping and transportation, too (which meanss a big carbon footprint relative to the size of the product).

Extreme recycling means that I scrutinize everything that would normally go in the trash, and I put extra time into taking things apart.  In the past week, we've had takeout Chinese food twice...and I've pulled off the little metal handles, wiped the oil off the paper, and recycled the components separately.  Same with the cardboard milk cartons with the built-in plastic spouts: late at night when I'm doing KP, I'll rinse out the cartons and then excise the plastic spout.  I'd like to reduce my non-recycled trash to zero.

Does it help the earth?  Is this useful for the recycling process in any significant way?  I dunno.  It often seems so utterly trivial that I'm tempted to say "the hell with it" and toss everything in the trash again.

But there's another aspect to this that has less to do with the environment per se, and more to do with me and my relationship to my culture.  When, for example, I take the cardboard can of frozen orange juice and slice off the metal bottom with a knife so that the paper and metal can be recycled separately, I'm learning more about my trash.  The more I learn about my own waste, the less inclined I am to continue wasting things.  

And that, I suspect, is how we are going to get the consumerist monkey off our backs.  What do you think?

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ECSTASY diaries will appear most often on weekends, and at other times depending on the convenience of the diary author.  All diaries dealing with the problems of living in a Consumerist society are potential candidates.  If you think you've got something to contribute, please contact WarrenS and he'll schedule you in.  

The next diary planned is expected to appear on Wednesday evening; G2Geek will continue discussing the importance of measuring your consumption.  On Sunday, March 21, we will hear from from RL Miller on the subject of Chickens.

The ECSTASY series thus far:

February 28: Introducing ECSTASY.
March 7: The Work of Julian Lee and Juliet Schor: Two Voices of Sanity.
March 10: G2Geek's Measure The Power.

Originally posted to WarrenS' Blog on Sun Mar 07, 2010 at 09:47 AM PST.

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