Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reluctant Writing on the Evolution of Overconsumption

On Friday afternoon, I read this Orion Magazine article, and immediately I knew that I wanted to write about it. I didn't have time to make it happen on Friday evening, but I figured I'd let it marinate overnight, read it again on Saturday morning, take some notes, and put something solid together over the weekend.

Well, it's Sunday night now, and things didn't exactly go according to plan. No shortage of marination. Plenty of re-reading. I talked about it with a bunch of different people. And I even sat down and started writing a few times. But I couldn't drag my thoughts out of my brain. Inspiration to communicate in writing just simply did not strike.


I've told myself that, as much as blogging is for fun, it's also about discipline: it's about making sure to get the thoughts down. As my uncle Jamie told me that day, as we drove through the anthills and ghost gums, we'll never think again as we think right now, and every moment of thought we honestly and carefully capture will be a moment of thought we'll likely never lose, a way of thinking to which we might be able to return.

So. Despite the fact that I'd probably be smarter to sleep than write right now, here's what I can muster.

The article is called The Gospel of Consumption, and it's a rave about American insatiability. It reminds us that we work too much — in order to overproduce — in order to overconsume. It makes the argument that we've exchanged our pursuit of happiness for a pursuit of productivity and profits.

I don't think it's going to appeal to a particularly wide audience. It's an attack on profiteering industrialists, and, while the attack is probably perfectly justified, populism is not exactly an easy sell these days. Nevertheless, I like it, for it takes a shot at telling a story that I reckon ought be told more often.

The article starts by introducing a moment in American history, the moment at which "the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them."

Technology had made it possible for Americans to achieve total material satisfaction by means of decreasing amounts of work.

Apparently, at that moment, American industry shifted its focus "from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones."

Businesses noticed that meaningful scarcity no longer existed, that they had achieved, for their customers, abundance. Markets were saturated. There wasn't room for growth. And that, for the aforementioned industrialists, was an unacceptable state of affairs.

So they went to work to change things. They held the World's Fair. They launched a public relations campaign called the "American Way." They used "advertising and other promotional devices" to increase consumer demand and, with it, industrial output.

In doing so, they shaped our culture. They marketed this country into an economy that runs on consumption based not on fulfillment of needs but rather on satisfaction of inessential desires.

And that, in my opinion, is a fascinating story, whether you're a populist, an industrialist, or any combination thereof.

The first question, of course, is whether or not it's true.

If it is, which I think it probably is, my next line of questioning gets evolutionary.

Just how important was that strategic persuasion campaign? Just how sophisticated did it have to be? Are people naturally ripe to overconsume, to hoard and waste and flaunt a bumper harvest? Or are we better than that, beings evolutionarily programmed to use every part of the buffalo?

Anyway, now that I've finally spit that out, I'm going to sleep. I'll revisit in the morning and maybe clean things up a bit. For now, though, I leave you with the dirty version.

Note: Thanks to Inspired Protagonist for introducing me to the article. If anyone doesn't know Inspired Protagonist, I recommend having at least a quick browse of the post titles. It's Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender's blog, and, not only does it open some windows into the thinking behind what seems to be a truly thoughtful and long term focused business, but it has personality, and I appreciate that.

Cleanup (June 23): I figure I can pretty much let that lie. Not my most coherent work. But not too bad. Certainly a quick jump from the end of the story into evolutionary root causes, but I often get carried away with evolution, and I can live with that. I do wish, however, that I'd been able to do some actual weaving last night, present more of what the article said. There's a fascinating little case study in there, for example, of the Kellogg Company and the 30 hour work week. Something we should probably keep in mind. Something that might connect to Michael Pollan's
call for gardening or Google's "20-percent time" philosophy. But weave I did not, so this'll have to suffice.


steve goodman said...

To address your first point, we are undoubtedly well past the point of economic scarcity. Usually I qualify my thoughts with "I think", but this one is too obviously true to bother with personalization. Watch Modern Marvels on the History Channel, and you'll be absolutely astounded by the level of production of some trivial products. Watch My Sweet 16 on MTV to see people who have been raised to think you are only as good as what you own. Google neuromarketing.

Jake de Grazia said...

Makes me think of bower birds. The birds that Jared Diamond references to explain the evolution of art.

The males build these gorgeously detailed but totally useless structures to attract the ladies. And they gather beautiful or colorful things and arrange them outside their bowers, showing the ladies how adept they are at (A) finding cool stuff, (B) stealing cool stuff from other males, and (C) protecting the cool stuff that they found or stole fair and square.

Is there a connection here? Our love for trivial stuff? The value we place on having stuff stuff stuff and NEVER STOPPING?

I want to ask Jared Diamond.

If you haven't read The Third Chimpanzee, I highly recommend it.

steve goodman said...

It's a question of whether you consider culture to be evolutionary, in the Darwinian sense.

I can point to your reference of Native Americans, a culture that seems to have been very frugal, having no concept of waste.

Compare that to the Roman Empire culture which has spread over the globe, which is bacchanalian. Waste is a glorification.

One can certainly make a case that a culture of overconsumption is evolutionarily more successful than a culture of conservation, just by looking at the general population of the US vs. the population of people on federally reserved land.

Just as valid is the case that overconsumption culture is just a blip on the radar that will snuff itself out, like a candle in a glass jar.

Obviously, there's no way to know right now.

Jake de Grazia said...

I think both those observations (that overconsumption snuffs out frugality and that overconsumption is likely to snuff itself out) make very good evolutionary sense, both intuitively and historically (see Collapse for historical examples of the self-snuffing).

One of the weirdest moments in The Third Chimpanzee is when Diamond drops a whole chapter into the middle of that book about his thoughts on extraterrestrial life. The thoughts are fascinating. Basically, he thinks that, while there's an extremely high likelihood that there exists "highly evolved" lifeforms* elsewhere in the universe, he thinks there's an extremely low likelihood that we'll ever find it. He doesn't think that any species that focuses on adaptation as strangely impractical as space travel (impractical as opposed to adaptations that lead to sustainability rather than need to find new habitat) could possibly persist long enough to travel far enough to find other life-friendly planets.

Diamond is a nut. In a good way, of course.

*By "highly evolved" neither Jared Diamond (if he uses those words) nor I mean to imply human consciousness-style high evolution. The wild plants on Earth are just as "highly evolved" as we are. They've been undergoing evolution just as long (we're all from the same common ancestor); it just happens that evolution has focused their superpowers in different directions: biochemistry rather than consciousness, for example.