American culture has assigned its fate to institutionalized overconsumption to such an extent that, for many, life masquerades as a kaleidoscope of mindless consumer choices. As it arrives at capitalism’s dead end, we witness a human tragedy that was foreseen by Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There he describes a people who are “drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires”.
In an interview, Albert Einstein once said: “The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth. The trite subjects of life — possessions, outward success, luxury — have always seemed contemptible.” Late in his life Einstein expressed grave concerns that trite commercial values were beginning to silence loftier human motivations among Americans and he feared the wider consequences of the social sanctioning of greed. Yet not even he could have foreseen the degree of authority that would eventually be commanded by all things trite.
However, as is well known, the person-as-customer cultural strategy is a sure winner from the standpoint of an economy driven by overconsumption. The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation.
In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries. Virtually all shame has been erased from indebtedness.
When it comes to the physical-waste side of the equation, Americans are leaving Sasquatch-sized footprints. The strategy of overproduction, overspending and overconsumption sees Americans piling up far more solid waste than any other nation. The typical US family of four amasses a seemingly impossible 13 kg of solid waste per day.
Like guns and God, overconsumption has very special meanings to Americans. Most feel proud as well as fortified by the cultural assumption that overindulgence is good for the country. By sheltering them from all the bad news about overconsumption, the US media has suppressed most environmental awareness, even in the face of an impending ecological holocaust.
The bulk of the American public accepts the primitive economic reasoning underlying their collective assault on the world’s resources. The triumph of consumer consciousness has seen banality and vulgarity anointed with respectability. The utterly superfluous has become a noble pursuit and the quest for personal and intellectual growth is fading quickly. Greed has lost most of its negative connotations.
So just how shallow have we Americans become under the reign of consumerism? In 1970, a large scale survey of US university students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal “the development of a meaningful philosophy of life”. By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those aiming to be very well off financially increased from 39 per cent to 75 per cent – which explains the wholesale shift to studying “marketable” subjects.
American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point that social analysts now speak of things like “consumer trance” and “ecological dissociation”. Take the fascination with sport utility vehicles (SWs). Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75 per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s?
Escalating materialism is one of the largest contributors to Western society’s tenfold increase in major depression over the past half-century. In shifting meaning to the object world, also features prominently in the emerging plague of existential disorders such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to as all-pervasive “psychic deadness.” Once materialism becomes the epicenter of one’s life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless gadgets that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported feeling in an “existential vacuum”.
Tragically, children are on the frontlines of the consumer blitz. An average eight-year-old in the US can list 30 popular brand names. More than 90 per cent of 13-year-old girls in one survey listed shopping as their favorite pastime, followed by TV watching. In 1968, US children aged 4-12 spent around $2 billion a year; today they spend upwards of $30 billion. Savvy marketers now concentrate on ‘cradle-to-grave’ indoctrination strategies.
The world seems hell-bent on following America’s lead even though there is nothing useful to be learned from the American Dream in its present hyper-commercialized form. The toxic consciousness that it fosters has transformed the dream into a nightmare. Finding an antidote to the Americanization of the world must be the top priority of the international community.
John F. Schumaker is a clinical psychologist and social critic whose latest book is “In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind” (Penguin, 2006; Praeger USA, 2007).