A National Wake-up Call
Our days of delusion have finally caught up with us. Ever since the end of World War II, Americans have been told by their government and corporate government sponsors that the sole answer to economic, national and personal success is consumerism. During the war, the devastated Great Depression economy got a lift from war spending and war industries. At the end of the war, leaders and industry were challenged with providing employment for returning soldiers and creating new production vectors for factories previously occupied with producing bombs, munitions and chemical weapons. Luckily, the American public, worn out from years of economic and wartime depravation, were eager to comply with the new consumer mantra.
Buying stuff became a national obsession and was even touted by public officials as a patriotic duty to defend the United States from the evils of communism. The quest for private property in all its forms defined the new American culture. American consumerism propped up the post war economy and during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the strategy flourished. Ordinary citizens were buying homes with mortgages and cars with loans and sending their children to college, as dad went to work and mom stayed home and took care of everything else. As many politicians know, our image of ourselves as a people was formed during this time, and this era is hearkened to repeatedly in political appeals for a return to “family values” and other nostalgic remnants from those simpler times.
Our national and personal identities are defined by consumerism. We are judged by the house we live in, the clothes we wear, the car we drive and the job we do. Who among us does not aspire to be able to afford the finer things in life? We all want a nice home, a nice car and respectable profession and are told repeatedly by our culture that we will be a success when and only when we achieve this American dream.
The unfortunate reality for most Americans is that few of us in reality can actually afford the American dream. Our real wages have been stagnant for decades, while the cost of living continues to rise, particularly when it comes to housing and health care – two basic necessities of life. But up until recently and particularly since the deregulation of the banking industry starting under President Ronald Reagan, the market has had a solution for our problems. If we can’t afford something, we can borrow the money to pay for it. While in the 1950’s and 60’s one had to demonstrate the ability to actually pay before getting a mortgage or credit card, our new economy gives mortgages to people without any visible means of income and credit cards to indebted college students. People are free to buy everything they need to keep up the image of the American dream whether they can afford it or not.
For the past few decades, our economy was grateful for deregulation. As long as people were buying stuff, the economy appeared to continue to grow. GDP measures goods sold and does not subtract for personal debt, so the bottom line kept going up. With the recent housing market collapse and subsequent economic catastrophe in the United States, the cracks in the venire of our national image are beginning to show. Much of the economic growth of the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s was based on borrowed money that never really existed at all.
Conversely, the impacts of our consumerism are real. All of our imagined purchasing power has had a devastating environmental impact. As our outdated, unnecessary stuff rots in landfills, we must now pay off an environmental balance sheet along with our maxed out credit cards. Our once burgeoning oil fields lay depleted. Old growth forests that once ranged from sea to shining sea are all but obsolete. Birth control pill residues, pesticides and manure from factory feedlots clog our water supply. Our air is so contaminated with the byproducts of industry and electrical generation our children are literally gasping for air. If we do not act soon to curb our behavior, we may soon find ourselves literally extinguishing life on the planet as we know it by altering the climate so drastically that our beautiful, precious earth is no longer fit for life. Our white picket fences can no longer hide the ugly residue of our years of self indulgence.
When Adam Smith envisioned a world liberated from its poverty by the forces of man’s own selfish drives, the world was an unexplored, seemingly inexhaustible resource. The United States did not exist as a nation, and the Midwestern United States were still roamed by Native American Tribes. Smith underestimated the power of man’s unfettered self interest to consume everything in its path.
Living in a period of great human poverty, he also failed to see that the accumulation of wealth alone would not alleviate all of man’s miseries, but Smith’s ill-conceived theory has been absorbed into our culture. It is a cultural mandate to pursue the American dream of self interests, while other, more substantial values go neglected. As our relentless pursuit of material wealth and personal property leave us feeling dissatisfied, our society only offers us one choice, consume more. In the end, we find ourselves spent, empty and living in the cesspit of our own reckless excess.
We are now all suffering from the wakeup call that ends our mass delusion. It is a painful awakening, but presents an opportunity for us as a people to move beyond the shallow and meaningless identity of consumerism into a new culture that will undoubtedly be more circumspect and will hopefully bring hope to the future of our earth. It is time to change our national values of greed, gluttony, consumption and self gratification for the deeper values of compassion, community, reverence for earth and service. In doing so, we may surprise ourselves to discover the joyfulness of ordinary living that seems to have escaped our American culture for too long.