Edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca
MIT Press, 2002, 390 pages, $26.95Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
I “confronted consumption” many years ago and it wasn't pretty. I saw the cost in my own “life energy” of everything I bought. I saw what I sacrificed when I pulled my attention away from the pleasures of existence and undertook the burdensome practice of shopping, buying, mending, manipulating and generally taking care of things. I learned how imaginative and empowered I became when I turned my own intelligence to problems rather than turning to (often clueless) salespeople to sell me the product that might meet my needs. Those products that did merit a place in my life had to meet one or more tests: they were durable, they were fanciful but cheap and/or they were beautiful or yummy. They needed to make it easier for me to grow in wisdom, understand my world, or serve others, or they were physical necessities. I wasn't stupid—better to buy paper, a printer and a computer than to try to write (my calling) on birch bark.
What is wrong with the thrift, creativity and honesty of the above paragraph? For one thing, the word “I” appears in it 10 times. Confronting Consumption, a collection of essays edited by Michael Maniates, Ken Conca and Thomas Princen, explicitly challenges the reader—indeed, all Americans––to notice distortions like this and see the inadequacy of the consumption debate to our looming environmental and political crises. No amount of personal effort at consumer sanity can adequately alter our deadly course.
Consumption isn't just a rational act on the part of isolated consumers. People don't buy just things, they buy the meaning of the things. The editors call this the social embeddedness of consumption. In America, consumption is embedded in the belief in the primacy of the individual, which creates the false notion that all consumption problems can be traced to and corrected by personal choices, with no reference to social, political or economic forces. This renders invisible commoditization, the creep of the commercial into the social—everything, including one's choice of mate, college, therapist and church, is now a consumer choice. Everything becomes an item to acquire in a competitive marketplace.
Second, they point out that “consumption” involves the whole chain of resource-use decisions from extraction to manufacture to workplace issues to transportation to ultimate disposal. Price is an inadequate feedback mechanism for the costs to people and nature of the things we buy and throw away—we can afford these things because of a host of policies that shield us from the consequences of our actions. They call this distancing. We consume “out of context”—making questions of environmental protection and justice rarified virtues rather than visceral experiences of pain or joy.
Third, they point out that production itself is consumption. Fishermen are consumers of many resources for their craft, and also of the viability of a fishery. Furniture, and auto and shoe makers are consumers. And every producer-consumer is to be held accountable.
All of this is an attempt to remove “consumption” from something individuals do (and could do better or differently if they were only educated or assisted) to something a whole society does. Confronting consumption is questioning the goals and aims of our economy, our politics and our norms—not just haranguing people to be a little less greedy.
As the Chair of the Simplicity Forum, an alliance of authors, academics, social activists, artists and significant thinkers committed to achieving and honoring simple, just, and sustainable ways of life, I took special note of Michael Maniates' chapter on voluntary simplicity. Maniates asks the crucial question: Can the simplicity movement really challenge consumerism and create a revolution? The answer: only if the individuals in this movement get political. If they remain smart rats who have learned self-protective ways to run the current consumer maze so they get more cheese for themselves, then they truly have abandoned the whole of civil society for their private—albeit simple—heavens.
But if they take on the political task of making balance, thrift, security and fulfilling leisure accessible to everyone—especially the “involuntary” poor—then their personal liberation from the rat race can have real social force. The meek shall not only inherit the earth, but they can make it better for everyone. There's plenty to fight for: a slew of tax shifting measures, better ways to measure progress than GDP (Gross Daily Product, which goes up with tragedy—accidents, divorces, illness—and counts environmental depletion as prosperity), and work-time legislation that would give everyone a break.
The first test of whether the simplicity movement is meeting his challenge, Maniates says, is whether it takes on time-justice. The movement may pass that test; Simplicity Forum's first major initiative is Take Back Your Time Day (www.timeday.org) which will be to the social dimension of sustainability what Earth Day was to the environmental crisis. The launch is October 24, 2003. Put it on your calendar and take a day off to teach, learn and take political action on the issues of overwork, overstress, over-business and over-scheduling that make simplicity so hard for so many.
Are you willing to confront consumption? Not just by personal virtue but by a rigorous and systematic look at how the consumption-production machine hums daily to meet your needs (but not the needs of many others)? Are you willing to be part of the simplicity movement, changing your life and the way of life in America? Then read this book.