Con­sumer so­ci­ety no longer serves our needs

The Western Star - - SCIENCE - BY DAVID SUZUKI David Suzuki David Suzuki is a sci­en­tist, broad­caster, au­thor and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion.

My par­ents were born in Van­cou­ver — Dad in 1909, Mom in 1911 — and mar­ried dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. It was a dif­fi­cult time that shaped their val­ues and out­look, which they drummed into my sis­ters and me.

“Save some for to­mor­row,” they of­ten scolded. “Share; don’t be greedy.” “Help others when t hey need it be­cause one day you might need to ask for their help.” “Live within your means.” Their most im­por­tant was, “You must work hard for the ne­ces­si­ties in life, but don’t run af­ter money as if hav­ing fancy clothes or big cars make you a bet­ter or more im­por­tant per­son.” I think of my par­ents of­ten dur­ing the frenzy of pre- and post-Christ­mas shop­ping.

We moved to On­tario af­ter the Sec­ond World War. We were des­ti­tute. (As Cana­di­ans of Ja­panese des­cent, we had been treated as en­emy aliens and lost ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing all rights as Cana­dian cit­i­zens.) I needed a coat for the cold eastern win­ter, so my par­ents pur­chased a new one — a big ex­pense for farm labour­ers. Un­for­tu­nately, I was 11 and go­ing through a growth spurt and quickly out­grew the coat, so it was passed on to my twin sis­ter, Mar­cia. She wore it for longer but also out­grew it and gave it to our younger sis­ter, Aiko. My par­ents boasted that the coat was so well made, “it went through three chil­dren.” It’s been a long time since I’ve heard durability as a pos­i­tive at­tribute of a prod­uct. In to­day’s fash­ion-ob­sessed world, how many chil­dren would ac­cept hand-me-downs from sib­lings?

How did “throw- away”, “dis­pos­able” and “planned ob­so­les­cence” be­come part of prod­uct de­sign and mar­ket­ing? It was de­lib­er­ate. Wars are ef­fec­tive at get­ting economies mov­ing, and the Sec­ond World War pulled Amer­ica out of the Great De­pres­sion. By 1945, the Amer­i­can econ­omy was blaz­ing as vic­tory ap­proached.

But how can a war- based econ­omy con­tinue in peace­time? One way is to con­tinue hos­til­i­ties or their threat. The global costs of ar­ma­ments and de­fence still dwarf spend­ing for health care and ed­u­ca­tion. An­other way to trans­form a wartime econ­omy to peace­time is con­sump­tion. Adam Smith, the fa­ther of mod­ern eco­nom­ics, wrote in 1776, “Con­sump­tion is the sole end and pur­pose of all pro­duc­tion.”

Seized upon by the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers to the President un­der Dwight Eisen­hower in the 1950s, con­sump­tion was pro­moted as the en­gine of the econ­omy. Re­tail­ing an­a­lyst Vic­tor Le­bow fa­mously pro­claimed in 1955: “Our enor­mously pro­duc­tive econ­omy de­mands that we make con­sump­tion our way of life, that we con­vert the buy­ing and use of goods into rit­u­als, that we seek our spir­i­tual sat­is­fac­tion and our ego sat­is­fac­tion in con­sump­tion. We need things con­sumed, burned up, worn out, re­placed and dis­carded at an ever-in­creas­ing rate.”

Now, we are no longer de­fined by our so­ci­etal roles (par­ents, church­go­ers, teach­ers, doc­tors, plumbers, etc.) or po­lit­i­cal sta­tus (vot­ers) but as “cus­tomers,” “shop­pers” or “con­sumers.” The me­dia re­mind us daily of how well we’re sup­port­ing con­tin­ued eco­nomic growth, us­ing the Dow Jones av­er­age, S&P In­dex, price of gold and dol­lar’s value.

But where is the in­di­ca­tion of our real sta­tus — Earth­lings — an­i­mals whose very sur­vival and well- be­ing de­pend on the state of our home, planet Earth? Do we think we can sur­vive with­out the other an­i­mals and plants that share the bio­sphere? And does our health not re­flect the con­di­tion of air, wa­ter and soil that sus­tain all life? It’s as if they mat­ter only in terms of how much it will cost to main­tain or pro­tect them.

Na­ture, in­creas­ingly un­der pres­sure from the need for con­stant eco­nomic growth, is of­ten used to spread the con­sump­tion mes­sage. Na­ture has long been ex­ploited in com­mer­cials — the lean move­ment of lions or tigers in car ads, the cute­ness of par­rots or mice, the strength of croc­o­diles, etc. But now an­i­mals are por­trayed to ac­tively re­cruit con­sumers. I’m es­pe­cially nau­se­ated by the shot of a pen­guin of­fer­ing a stone to a po­ten­tial mate be­ing den­i­grated by an­other pen­guin of­fer­ing a fancy di­a­mond neck­lace.

How can we have se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions about the eco­log­i­cal costs and lim­its to growth or the need to de­grow economies when con­sump­tion is seen as the very rea­son the econ­omy and so­ci­ety ex­ist?

Now, we are no longer de­fined by our so­ci­etal roles ( par­ents, church­go­ers, teach­ers, doc­tors, plumbers, etc.) or po­lit­i­cal sta­tus ( vot­ers) but as “cus­tomers,” “shop­pers” or “con­sumers.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.