Is consumption really anyone’s highest value?

Posted: May 29, 2013 in Consumer campaigns
Tags: ,
The Las Vegas Strip World of Coca-Cola museum ...

The Las Vegas Strip World of Coca-Cola museum in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the penultimate page of his book Story Wars, Jonah Sachs warns against a culture in which “consumption remains our highest value”. If we don’t change our values, he says, we will end up looking like the Negev, a desolate region of Israel containing the scattered ruins of several pre-Christian civilisations. This also is the implied conclusion of my favourite film, Baraka, which ends with scenes of several benighted human empires.

The line stuck with me. I think it represents a widespread view, that people being unreasonably materialistic are the problem and that, of course, “I’m” not one of them. The suspects are the SUV-driving, supersize-drinking, Walmart shoppers of the world.

That view is a distortion of reality.

We are all consumers: yes, even those of us who believe we are having a minimal impact.

Take a closer look at cars for example. For many years the eco-car of choice has been the Prius. While yes, it is more efficient than many other vehicles, it still relies on fossil fuels – plus it consumes more rare earth metals in its manufacture because it contains two engines: one gasoline-powered and one electric. Public transport is a little better but still not great, as it is ultimately powered (in my city) by coal-burning power stations. The emissions are merely hidden from sight.

Then let’s look at large retailers compared to, say, farmer’s markets. Believe it or not, because of their efficient distribution and need for fewer visits, supermarkets and their shoppers leave a smaller per-person carbon footprint than do farmer’s markets.

(I’m not going to defend bottled soda though – sorry Coca-Cola!)

My point is that this moralism isn’t helping; a person’s outlook does relatively little to alter impact on the planet and fellow human beings. Unless you are prepared to go the whole hog and travel everywhere on foot or by bicycle, make and then wash your clothes by hand, and go without a mobile phone or computer (really?) then ‘you’ and ‘they’ are in this together.

Moreover, how many people are really certified mindless consumers? Sure, now and then you might hear someone say “Yay, shopping!” but it’s pretty judgmental to extrapolate that their entire outlook is fixated on shopping. A short conversation would be enough to learn that such a person does indeed have higher priorities such as self-development and the quality of their relationships with family and friends. People don’t buy Coke because they want the chemicals, they buy it because they associate it with having a good time.

In his one throw-away line, Jonah Sachs did not say any of this. Quite the opposite: generally his book is directed at companies, imploring them to appeal to the best in people, so I suspect he would agree that we can’t rely on individual-level change to fix the problems we have created for ourselves. Even those who have seen the light are still contributing to it.

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