Incomplete Human :
consumers rather than thinkers
by Dan Hamburg
is most striking about American culture, aside from its unprecedented
ubiquity, is its celebration of consumption. The economy is our religious
faith, consumption our orthodoxy.
Advertising is our culture's propaganda,
its clarion to consumption. Our children
are spoon-fed a daily mega-dose of
ultra-sophisticated marketing, even on
the campuses of public schools. Bloated with corporate hype about everything
from crotch odor to gas
additives, we practice our patriotism at the mall. Feeding the beast has
become our national raison d'etre.
No group is more exploited by our market culture than teenagers.
Remember how important it was to fit in in high school? Remember how
painful it was when you didn't think you did? Joe Camel is such a powerful
messenger to teens not just because of the drug he deals but because of
the savoir-faire he exudes. Then there are the clothes, the cars, the
booze and the sexy bodies that look just so.
Despite our flashy modernity and bull markets, ours is the
imagination of scarcity, of economic paranoia. No amount of wealth can
ever fully assuage our fear of not having enough. When Thomas Malthus
argued at the end of the 18th century that human population inevitably
outstrips its ability to produce, he laid the groundwork for the harshly
competitive society Darwin would soon stamp with a ``scientific''
imprimatur. ``The Descent of Man'' replaced the Bible as our origin
Because we perceive that there isn't enough to go around, winners
and losers have to be determined. Our children learn that society is a set
of stairs; they must compete and prove their merit first in the classroom,
then in the marketplace. Their relative success is evidence of their
relative stature as humans, of their degree of selectness. Those who fall
short fall back -- even to the street, to joblessness, homelessness,
hunger. As Thomas Hobbes said, for the riffraff, life is ``nasty, brutish,
and short.'' Welfare moms, illegal aliens, SAT flunkers -- bring on
Nature's broom and sweep them down the drain of history! Progress is the
province of the winners, of the strong.
As parents, we send our children a mixed message. On one hand, we
teach compassion, generosity and humility. These are the attributes that
create strong families and communities. On the other, we teach that “out
in the real world”' they will contend aggressively for the top job, the
prestigious address, the glitzy car. For consolation, it is considered
normal, even noble, to “burn out” from 60-hour weeks and
Consumer culture, bourgeois culture, is threatened not because it
is wrong or bad, but because it is incomplete. While it has done a
terrific job of mastering the processes of material production, it has
failed almost as grandly to answer fundamental questions about ecological
sustainability and the ethical distribution of the Earth's resources.
In fact, we are much more. We are the only creatures who define
ourselves, who define what it is to be alive. We are the only beings who
create culture, even as culture is creating us. We must teach this lesson
to our children -- that they live in a specific culture, that they can
know it, and therefore, that they can change it.
We need a shift in thought no less dramatic than that of Columbus
when he insisted he could reach the East by sailing west, no less dramatic
than that of Copernicus when he said, “It may seem absurd, but the Earth
We stand at a crossroads. A turn toward a better world is both necessary and attainable -- necessary because the environmental and social costs of this culture are too high; attainable because we have the capacity to do so. Imagine a world in which our young people could grow up without constant admonishment to get those grades, get into that school, and follow the narrowing pathway to material salvation. Imagine a world in which success had more to do with personal peace than with purchasing power. Imagine a world in which every human being was valued simply for being the remarkable creature each of us truly is.
Dan Hamburg, a former member of Congress, is executive director of Voice of the Environment, a Bolinas-based nonprofit.
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