The Economic Taproot of Consumerism


The Cambridge Galleria—about as non-Minimalism as one can get; a three-story temple to Consumerism.

(Note— I’ve written this post, but I’m not sure exactly what to think of it. This subject of how-much-advertising-is-too-much is one that cries out for nuance. I think I’ll go ahead and post it as food for thought; feel free to chime in with your two cents, sometimes there’s real wisdom in group-think.)


I always tell people, when they ask about our off-grid house, that “we live like normal people”. We cook, eat, sleep, work, wear clothes, drive cars, pay bills, etc., pretty much like everybody else. But maybe we don’t live like normal people. We recently took a short family vacation to the Boston area for four days, and my sudden exposure to other people’s “normal” was a bit of a shock.

First of all, we’re about one fast charger short of being able to easily take one of the Leafs to Boston (anyone listening, Lebanon, NH?), so we rented a gas-mobile. It was a Nissan Sentra, and it got really good mileage, over 40 mpg according to the readout. But, I haven’t had to pump gas into a car for well over a year, so that alone was something new.

And, this is probably true for anyone, but it’s hard to “live sustainably” while out of town. We ate lunch at the Boston Science Museum the first day, and the mountain of trash we generated was just shocking; probably more trash than we generate in days here at home. Plastic-ware, paper cups and bowls, lids, foam plates, napkins, little salt and pepper packets, ketchup containers… A good portion of it could have been composted or recycled, but alas, there were no bins for either. Our hotel had complementary breakfasts that were also served on disposable-ware, so that same trash scene got repeated every morning as well, and then other days while out for lunch. Worse, we twice brought food that we couldn’t finish at a restaurant back to the hotel in take-home containers, but there was no refrigerator in the room, so both times that too ended up in the trash. Then there were the paper cups in the room, the daily washing and drying of all the sheets and towels, and the running of the AC because there was no good way to open the windows. All told, we were “consuming” at way, way higher rates than we normally do.

Now, all of that above-mentioned consumption and waste was mostly a function of sustainable systems not being in place. But, when we went to the Galleria mall in Cambridge, I was once again struck by how there is a whole other class of consumption out there. The Galleria contains a hundred stores or more, glitzy signs and ads, seemingly almost completely centered around fashion, appearance, or the latest gadgets. A veritable Temple of Consumerism; shoes for women who probably already have closets full, clothes that will likely only get worn a few times, high-priced sportswear with all the desirable designer labels. Some of the women shopping, judging from their appearance, would rank fashion and cosmetics as a driving force in their lives. The whole place just gave me an overwhelming sense of shocking superficiality, of uselessness, of waste. And most of those purchased items, in their specialty packaging, were being carried around in largish plastic or paper bags emblazoned with yet more designer logos, with both packaging and bags soon to go into the trash after their few minutes of use, where they would be transported still more before being buried in some landfill by fossil-fuel burning machines.

Then, back at the hotel, we were treated to the latest in cable TV; channel after channel of high-definition distraction, our modern day “opiate of the masses”. In fact, every single restaurant we went to, for four days, also had a television prominently blaring. Every single one, even the nice ones, and the hotel breakfast area as well. Inane “news” reporting, hyped up and rather ridiculous game shows, reality-style fix the house shows, morning shows, the list went on.

But, there’s a common thread between the TV and the mall. In 1904, J.A. Hobson wrote “The Economic Taproot of Imperialism”. Well, I believe what we have today could be called “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism”. The TV shows are evaluated and re-evaluated by the networks, to see which ones get the biggest share of the viewing audience. If a show (or the news) doesn’t “perform”, it gets replaced. The result is that every show, on every channel, is expressly designed to hold people’s attention (and it works; try having a meaningful conversation with your family while a TV is on nearby). And the purpose of attracting this audience? To sell advertisements, in the form of commercials, which play for huge chunks of every broadcast hour. And, the commercials themselves, created by America’s 300-billion-dollar ad industry, are scientifically designed and focus-group tested to ensure their own effectiveness at holding people’s attention. They are all finely tuned to convince people that they need this product, that food, this image, that vehicle. They are also finely tuned to convince people that what they already have isn’t good enough, so that those people have to go to… the mall. They have to go to the mall to shop, to replace, to keep up with the moving target of fashion, all carefully crafted by the puppet-masters in the looming skyscrapers above. Thus, the Galleria. (And this isn’t a new idea, Herbert Marcuse discussed this exact topic in his 1969 book “An Essay on Liberation”. A short and insightful excerpt—“…The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man, which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form…”)(Good short overview of his book here.)

Marcuse bookAnd to pay for all this consumption, for all that stuff and the big houses to store it in, people work, forty hours a week or more.

Then, in Boston, there were the many, many disadvantaged people we walked past every single day, waiting on buses and living in the poorer parts of town, who would clearly be unable to shop for much of anything at the Galleria.

So, waste and uselessness on one end of the spectrum, and privation on the other. It sometimes makes me wonder about our system.

Anyway, the above is a bit of a rant, but it seems that this media/consumption cycle isn’t in any way helpful in moving our systems and social structures toward some semblance of sustainability. I realize there’s a middle ground in terms of how to think about this topic—the market system creates the wealth and choices we all enjoy, name brands and advertising convey information that serve some useful purposes, and I enjoy a funny TV show just as much as the next guy. I also realize that human nature drives much of this; biology causes us to attempt to exhibit our evolutionary fitness and status with our clothes and belongings, and we all have hardwired conceptions of beauty that the fashion and cosmetic industries tap into. But, just as we have to use some self-control when eating, because evolution wires us to enjoy eating salt, fats, and sugars, we all need to use some self-control in the media and consumption arenas.

So, if you want to be part of the solutions, it might be good to turn off that TV, and give some thought about what the root motivations are that drive your purchases. And for me, the next time we go on a vacation like this, I might want to throw a recycling tub into the car. After all, why be normal?

veggie grill

Hanging out with George this evening, grilling garden veggies. Simple pleasures, and much less consumption than in the big city.

Top and bottom images: Me

3 thoughts on “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism

  1. Gary Smith

    Enjoyed your post “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism”!

    I was struck by your observation about sustainable systems not being in place. Which, of course, is correct. In “So Far From Home”, Margaret Wheatley notes that existing systems have come into being through a history of complex interactions. She goes on to say that trying to change extant systems most often doesn’t reach to the deeper understanding of the energies/circumstances/interactions that made them manifest in their current state. It’s kind of like a Dr. trying to find a cure by looking at symptoms only.

    Couple that with the propensity for systems to resist change for self-protection and we find ourselves in our current conundrum! We’re stuck in the dance of addiction … An aspect of the larger social self “knowing” (conceptual knowledge) the distructive outcomes of our action and “being” ( a state of experienced habitual behaviors) that really don’t want to change.

    As I write this the image of consumerism (intended/designed I believe) and all that grows from it, as an invasive species comes to mind.

    So no real suggestions here, just trying to explore where we really are at the moment, culturally speaking. I’m still spinning on how one addresses all this … Certainly the limitless seed that is our personal lives should be planted and tended in authentic relationship to the greater world … But is that sufficient? Still pondering that!

  2. Taborri Post author

    Gary, very good thoughts on systems being resistant to change. Economic systems are very much in this category… That being said, I think there is room for optimism here— ten years ago when we put solar panels on our house, we seemed to be virtually the very first in the whole area. Today it seems like every fourth house has some form of solar up. Likewise with electric vehicles— just a few years ago they essentially weren’t available, and now there are roughly 500,000 on the road worldwide. And, nearly all of this change comes from individuals, who vote with their dollars and help change the world. So, systems being resistant to change– very very true. But not impossible to change; plenty of work for all of us to do… -t

  3. Gary smith

    I hope my comment sounded neither optimistic nor pessimistic! I have over the arc of my little life seen immense acceptance and growth in solar and alternatives. I can recall a conversation I had with my dad, an architect, many years ago, where he held the informed position (informed for the time) that solar just wasn’t cost effective. He was right at that particular moment! Certainly things are different now.

    I guess what I was trying to explore was how to approach large systems that are already fully in play and that we recognize as unhealthful. Does one attempt to change that system, one that has come into being over many many years, and that is driven by a particular set of imbedded (and probably not explored) values? Or does one, working in the current, fully informed moment, put in place the seeds of a potentially new system based or more healthful values? So for me it’s neither hope nor dispair, but rather seeing current complex circumstance with authentic clarity that informs (as best one can ascertain) appropriate action/ choices!

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