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How Much Is Enough? by Alan Durning


“Consumption, an essence of the profane, has become sacred. Attack goods and you attack the American way of life.”

--Alan Wolfe


All societies are unsustainable, at least to the extent that if they keep trying to do the same things they are doing now forever, they will not survive.


The individuals speaking glowingly of the future ignore a problem. You cannot build a bright future filled with toys that nudge citizens to jump off the reality train for colossal chunks of their lives.


Not only are the number of consumer alternatives increasing but incentives to choose bad alternatives may be increasing as well. The consumerist cant is "Just buy, baby." Too hell with the consequences of the purchase or the pursuit of the purchase. If you want to know your real values, someone once said, look at your receipts. A product and a meaning to go with it are sold together.


Excess consumption:

·        Causes self-identification with ludicrous logos, products, advertisements, and celebrities. The awards for best infomercials are beyond ridiculous.

·        Encourages individuals to be overly concerned with status, to create harms in the pursuit of status. The pitch to the consumer: Buy our product and you will be hip, free, happy, powerful, beautiful, intelligent, attention worthy, purpose-filled, and in control. Never mind the reality.

·        Creates ugly public spaces.

·        Takes up too much of that valuable human window of consciousness. You can't think "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" and "What is game-theory?" at the same time. Actions become habits. Important matters fade.

·        Increases Alienation. Advertisers market alienation because alienated individuals seek relief in products, a temporary relief that demands the buying of more products in a spiral of alienation relieved only by really, really good distractions.

·        Multiplies opportunity losses. Working for eight-cylinder cars, three bathroom houses, and 100-channel cable instead of better things is often mutually exclusive. Consumerism keeps some individuals from worse evils. Individuals distracted by amusements may not be distracted with fascism, but better choices exist. The possibility of worse evils does not make excesses good.

·        Increases sales of harmful products while reducing sales of beneficial products.

·        Hinders the development of autonomy. The more influence toys have over us, the less influence we have over ourselves. The more we "need" toys, the easier we are manipulated.

·        Creates too much debt.

·        Creates declining marginal utility for additional purchases. Green beans taste great on a 1800 calorie diet. They taste terrible when eating 4000 calories a day of junk food.

·        Reduces overall economic growth: Too little savings, causing higher long-term interest rates (which restricts growth). Too much of the workforce devoted to unproductive activities--advertising, bill collecting, repairing the damage of gambling related crime. (Blake Hurst claims that, "a survey of pathological gamblers... found that 75 percent of pathological gamblers have committed a felony to support their habit." There are about 1.1 million pathological gamblers. They commit $1.3 billion worth of insurance fraud each year, and they carry near six-figure debts.)

·        Keeps us shallow. The consumerist incantation: Indulge, then ignore the effects or allege there are no bad effects.

·        Influences us to think that what we have is more important than what we do.

·        Increases cynicism because airwaves become spaces for relentless deceptions.

·        Encourages us to want more things that will not make us good or happy.

·        Provides instant gratification, yet instant gratification is unrelated to long-term benefit.

·        Treats individuals as merely a means, yet claims that anything we agree with is good or acceptable. (Whether citizens agree is irrelevant to whether they are merely being treated as a means. We often treat others as merely a means and they treat themselves merely as a means.)

·        Gets want declared need. Need becomes must. Must becomes habit. Yet mere criticism of the habit is considered oppressive. According to the old cliché, do not talk about sex, politics, or religion. Now that talking about sex, politics, and religion have become therapy a new rule exists: Do not talk about the ethics of consumerism--as if talking about it were a crime against America or autonomy. No matter the everyday actions, we state that we value individuals, families, communities over money, power, and status.


Much of the ideology sold along with goods is rubbish. As long as someone makes money, we think it must be good for others and the economy. Products only liberate. They only improve happiness. We assume what we intuitively want and what is in our best interests are automatically equivalent. We always control objects. Objects do not influence us. Go with the flow, flow with the go. Resisting causes anxiety.


Excessive consumerism, of course, did not invent bad desires. It may not even make desires worse, but consumerism does little to direct individuals to better things.


We must not suspend the judgments we need most because of consumerist homilies about popularity, inevitability, and imitation autonomy. We must not make ourselves weak, needy, and dependent for the sake of faddish objects. We must not accept passivity, impulsiveness, and isolation, and we must not accept a culture being designed toward those ends.


One theory claims consumers are at fault. Another that sellers are at fault. Yet another has it that no one is at fault. Alan Durning finds fault with consumers and sellers.


Durning's work is a laudable effort, but it has major weaknesses. First, it is a laundry list of items consumed. It fails to distinguish among beneficial and harmful consumables. Consuming a thousand tons of something is no big deal if it has negligible harms.


Second, it fails to emphasize that Western nations produce about as much as they consume. Products shipped to the West from destitute nations are a fraction of the world economic total. Overpopulation and poor productivity by destitute nations are bigger problems than consumption in the West.


Third, it lacks plans other than grass roots reformations. The Tightwad Gazette does not stand a chance against hundreds of billions in advertising dollars.


Fourth, recycling and attacking nuclear power have low or negative expected values. Time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.


Fifth, it has a large number of appeals to tradition and inadequate experts. The scathing parodies of consumption in The Onion are more hard hitting than this work. Not recommended.

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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