Do We Have a Duty to Shop?

I often wonder how Americans would react if the government tried to ration something today. Sugar, aluminum, meat, gasoline, butter . . .CIS:E.981-2004

References to rations in books or movies set during World War II seem quaint, and our reaction—consciously or not—is probably something along the lines of “glad we don’t have to do that anymore!” And it is a good thing we don’t “have” to do that anymore–because Americans today would go ape-shit (pardon my French) at that kind of government control on their daily lives. Not to mention that, in general, we don’t have a whole lot of self-control when it comes to eating and buying whatever we want!

So that’s why I wonder if it is economic reality that shifted over time—or just acquiescence to our preferences as a society—that in recent decades, the patriotic mandate has been not “use less” but “buy more.” The U.S. is unique in this, apparently.

That article highlights a 2011 book by Sheldon Garon that I definitely need to read: Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends while the World Saves.  

Spending, of course, is shaped by deliberate government policies. Notably, during wartime, governments all over the world often start huge public-information campaigns to promote saving.

The United States, however, is something of an exception. More than any other country, Professor Garon argues, it elevates consumer spending to a virtue, sometimes minimizing saving. There is even an idea here that it is patriotic to spend, rather than to save.

I’m thinking of examples like George W. Bush after 9/11 telling people to travel, take vacations, keep “living your life.” On one hand, yes, carrying on and traveling unafraid of future attacks is a way to show that terrorism will not defeat us. (That speech was in the context of the airline industry in particular, so you can understand people might have needed extra encouragement to fly.) But that pattern continued over the next few years, encouraging people to keep spending, to keep our economy running, until we ended up in the Great Recession.

Black Friday will be here soon, and we’ll be hearing about anticipated holiday spending and what a great sign that is for our booming economy, but what does it mean for our families and our future?

Not shopping altogether isn’t feasible on a personal or national level (check out this Aussie article on what would happen if everyone actually cut out all non-essential spending) but I can’t help but feel that if the health of the economy relies on ever-increasing spending, ever-increasing production, we have a problem. This (frankly, terrifying) article in The Guardian about GDP and global resource use emphasizes that “continued economic growth is incompatible with sustaining the Earth’s systems.”

“While 50bn tonnes of resources used per year is roughly the limit the Earth’s systems can tolerate, the world is already consuming 70bn tonnes. At current rates of economic growth, this will rise to 180bn tonnes by 2050. Maximum resource efficiency, coupled with massive carbon taxes, would reduce this at best to 95bn tonnes: still way beyond environmental limits. Green growth, as members of the institute appear to accept, is physically impossible.

Admittedly, I need to learn more about economics—that’s one goal of mine as I pursue this Living Lighter venture. I want to reduce my family’s consumption of resources, but what effect does this have on the system at large? Am I helping to transform our profit-obsessed culture? Or am I hurting minimum wage workers (and worse, laborers in near-slave conditions overseas) by not buying the goods they produce?

These are not answers I’m going to find today. I’m going to keep researching, listening, and learning. In the meantime, I’m going to keep in mind the mantra that “every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the world you want” (Anna Lappé). To me, this means buying experience gifts and sustainably-sourced stuff. It means shopping with small businesses and local stores. It means buying secondhand.

We will be spending money this holiday season. There will be gifts under the tree. I’ll be helping to keep that economic machine rolling, one way or another. I’m going to do what I can to steer it even the slightest bit in the right direction.

Black_Friday money vote



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