The Rise of Consumerism and the Fall of Common Sense

Lately I have been thinking about stuff.  Not “stuff” like I am pondering our existence on this big blue marble, but actual stuff.

I am not sure what even triggered my philosophical musings, but if I had to pinpoint it, it might have been as I was driving away from a gathering of friends in our 12-year-old van.  This may not have gotten the old cogs on the rusty wheels in my ill-used noggin turning if my fellow party goers were driving 13-year-old cars, but they weren’t.  They all had fairly new rides.

This all got me thinking how I would love a new van.  Our van works great, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those Stow-N-Go vans?  Maybe with rear controls for when the kids are hot and we are cold?  It would be great to have a van with built-in TVs and navigation systems.  Heck, it would just be nice to have a van without rust on the sides that didn’t scream “I am old and on my way to the metal graveyard, just look at me, it’s so obvious!”

So why do I really want a new van?  Our van (named Van Morrison, so let’s just call him Van from now on.  Really.  That’s his name.  I did this just to annoy Mike because he hates it when vehicles have names.  This of course, makes me name our vehicles when I otherwise wouldn’t.  In this case, the genius name came from my mom.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).  Back to Van.  I get a lot of satisfaction from Van.  He runs great, other than the occasional minor breakdown, which is to be expected.  He gets me where I need to go every day.  He fits our whole family, our dog, and all the other crap we tote around with us.  He doesn’t come with a monthly payment and he is pretty cheap on the insurance side of things.  But he is old.  And that is really the only problem with Van.

So what happens when I see my friends drive around in their new vehicles?  I covet.  When I think about it, their vehicles offer the same benefits that Van does.  Sure, they are newer and prettier, and maybe they break down a little less, but once the novelty of that new vehicle wears off, they are most likely left with a large monthly payment and high insurance premiums.  But they are nice and new and shiny and we all want nice and new and shiny stuff.

The obvious answer to how this silly cycle came about it advertising.  We watch TV on our big flat screen televisions and they tell us what we need to own and why we need to own it and that if we don’t own it, we are not cool.  So we go out and buy it.  It seemed to me that there might be a bit more to the cycle of consumerism, which reminded me of a link my brother-in-law sent me of a 20 minute video he recommended watching that caught my eye but I never watched called the Story of Stuff.  It turns out this is exactly what I was looking for.  I recommend you watch it, it was quite the eye opener.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts that the Story of Stuff talked about was that only 1% of all products purchased in North America are still in use a mere six months after the date of sale.  That number is staggering.  And if you watch the video, you’ll see how devastating the practice of purchasing consumer goods at such a rapid pace is on our planet.

What really resonated with me was when Annie Leonard, the created of the Story of Stuff said, “our primary identity has become that of becoming consumers, not mothers, teachers, farmers, but consumers.  The primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is by how much we consume…the way we demonstrate our value is contributing to [purchasing consumer goods].”  It’s so true, and this is why I want a new van.  This is also why I can’t help but feel a little inferior when we get together for a play date with one of Hayden’s classmates and our house seems so small and crammed next to their newly decorated mini-mansion (OK, it’s not that big, it just seems that way in comparison).  This is made extra ludicrous by the fact that I actually love my house, despite its small size.

This gross mess of consumerism was actually planned and plotted after WWII, when retailing analyst Victor Lebow advised that the best way to ramp up the economy was to “make consumption our way of life.”  Our values have become so convoluted over the years, but I really shouldn’t open up that can of overfished, mercury-laden tuna.

So what does this all mean?  That’s a great question, and if you have a satisfactory answer for me, I’ll give you my iPod because I was thinking of getting a new one any way.

Other than each individual doing their part to reduce their consumerism footprint, there is no easy answer.  I do know that Mike and I have learned some hard lessons involving finances over the years.  These lessons, coupled with the fact that I stress more than a canary at a cat convention when it comes to money matters are part of the reason why our vehicles are old.  I do not like monthly bills and try to cut out as many as I can.  And here’s the kicker: if it wasn’t for our old jalopies, we might have run into some serious financial troubles this year.  Mike’s trade has been terribly slow and there has not been a lot of work for over a year.  If we had a car payment or two, if we had a big mortgage (our tiny house means an affordable mortgage and low property tax), if we had a bunch of fancy doodads, we may have had to declare bankruptcy, or at the very least I would have had to leave my little baby before my maternity leave ran out to find work just to pay for our meaningless stuff.  Instead, we are weathering the storm with our life raft still intact, albeit a bit battered and beaten.

We buy our kids a mountain of presents lest they be the only ones that Santa didn’t spoil, we buy new clothes every year because the styles change just enough so that last year’s rags don’t quite cut it, we buy new electronics because the iPad 3 has two new features that the iPad 2 is missing, and we forget that all of this stuff comes at a great cost and has to go somewhere, not to mention that there are people in this world who are lucky to get one meal in their bellies on any given day.  And sadly, even they are not immune to the coveting accompanied by consumerism.

So I am going to try to be grateful for my old, beat up stuff.  I am going to try to use it and love it and be thankful for it.  I am sure I will revert back to my coveting ways at least every day.  And when that happens I will remember that I get to stay at home with my kids and take them for rides on their hand-me-down bikes while wearing their used clothes, and not only will I offer up a prayer of thanks, but I will try to instil in my children that stuff doesn’t make happiness, friends and family make happiness.  It might be hard to convince them with our flat screen TV, our new computer and all the other stuff that we have but don’t need, but I’ll try.

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