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June 1998, Volume 5 Nr. 10, Issue 58

Doing Bad and Feeling Good

During the height of the Nuclear Freeze campaign and anti-nuclear movement in the late seventies and eighties, there was a concomitant increase in good-works volunteerism. Interestingly, the same people, who daily worked in the plutonium reprocessing plants and nuclear facilities, were the same folks who were performing increased community service. Social activism apparently increases with social crisis, personal conflict within oneself, one’s place of employment or change in position.

Finding this to be the case is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that in the past twenty years, capitalism has so reinvented itself, that it has co-opted not only the word, but the concept of doing good and community service.

I’ll begin by discussing an unlikely but, relevant topic: music. Anyone who listens to popular music knows that there is a category called, alternative rock. The name itself suggests that this music is either from musicians who are outside the mainstream of the music industry or that it is intended for the alternative audience, those outside the status quo of the acceptable musical genre. It is neither.

Instead of offering or being a music option, alternative rock is simply, another clever marketing ploy. It is designed to clearly identify and predefine a group of people who do not fit into a present music consuming public. The idea of alternative rock is to offer the people yet another reason to consume. There is little or no altruism, nor rebellion in the production of the alternative rock product, though rebellion too, is easily marketable. Unfortunately, this marketing concept has so become ingrained within our consumer society that we no longer recognize when we are being duped. And, we are. Constantly.

Yum

On the back cover of the June 29, 1998 issue of the The Nation magazine, there is a full-page spread by Food & Water of Walden, Vermont, whose headline reads:

Ben & Jerry’s wants to save the Rainforest. But who will save us from Ben & Jerry’s?

Food & Water attempts to portray the Vermont premium ice cream maker as a multinational corporation whose product is made from raw materials by farmers who "use thousands of pounds of the carcinogenic herbicide atrazine every year." Food and Water’s main point is that Ben & Jerry’s, just like many other socially responsible (and irresponsible) capitalist corporations, while selling us their products, has successfully convinced us that through increased personal consumption, we can produce more social good. That is, rather than working for Peace through being active in groups such as the War Resisters League, International League for Peace and Freedom, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, etc., we can save the world by buying a Peace Pop. Rather than working to save the rainforest, we can buy Rainforest Crunch.

It’s all so easy. We can simply spend and feel satisfied that we are doing something when, every time that we make a phone call, some amount of our money is making its way to groups working for social change.

Ben & Jerry’s is not alone. Think about all the so-called socially conscious products and services we can now buy which have a portion of their purchase price, some percentage or dollar amount, go to some cause. There are many and we will discus some of them.

Interestingly, the very next issue of The Nation, in the same location as the Food and Water spot, there appeared a Working Assets ad with a half-page picture of a modern, very young and successful looking woman. Under her picture appears the heading, "Hates Polluters, Loves Plastic. Her credentials? Member: Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, Working Assets Credit Card."

Working Assets provides Visa and MasterCard for the same purpose as any other financial institution, that is, for the consumer to spend and for the financial institution to profit. The Working Assets ad reads,

So you’re committed to preserving the environment, but you can’t exactly commit to 40-hour weeks protesting toxic polluters. Well, here’s a quick way to tell eco-villains to clean up their act: rather than using your regular credit card, use Working Assets Credit Card instead. We call it ‘Plastic with a purpose’ because with every purchase that you make, we donate ten cents to nonprofit groups working for peace, human rights, social and economic justice, and the environment. And while we’ve already donated $13 million to organizations like Children Now, Friends of the Earth and Oxam America, it won’t cost you an extra penny. You get a low introductory rate, full member benefits, a competitive APR and no annual fee. So pick up the card that helps clean up the world."

When I read that I began to think of the new kilobuck computer that I purchased in January. Think of it. If I had purchased the machine on a Working Assets credit card, then according to the ad, there would have been $0.10, a dime, that would go to these organizations. Certainly incentive enough to switch credit card companies and save the world.

Those on the left (which by the way is quite differently defined whether one considers oneself left or right of center) need to recognize that those on the right (also defined differently depending upon one’s political spectral position) have also been identified and targeted as prime candidates to do good while consuming more. Food and Water calls it the New American way: doing bad and feeling good. The difference between the two should at least be that the left recognizes what is going on and does something about it.

I would assume that a right wing fundamentalist Christian who buys, let’s say, a country music album, feels just as good about having 10% of their purchase price funneled to a religious based organization as much as a progressive activist, who has 10% of their phone bill going to Greenpeace does.

What these two groups, and the hundreds of others, have in common is that both are being conned. Food & Water states,

...when glutinous consumption is at the heart of so many of our problems, it’s going to take a lot more than consumption-oriented gimmicks to save the day.

I agree with them. Most thinking and caring people do. Greed capitalism will not save the planet from the impending environmental and population problems. We cannot continue increasing our consumption in the hopes that enough of our spent money will make its way into groups and activities that will make a difference. Money which amounts to a mere pittance when compared with the money spent on damaging consumption. At least, not with a dime at a time.

Reverse Consumption

Boris Sedunov, Ph.D., Deputy Director of Innovative Technology at the Moscow College of Business Administration, in his work, Global Demography Historical Lessons, after careful mathematical analysis of population and crisis points throughout history, concludes that,

A new life supporting technology is needed: based mainly on the renewable resources and minimizing the irreversible consumption of the resources.

Sedunov claims that the world’s population is increasing hyperbolically. The hyperbolic law means,

…that population grows inversely proportional to the time left till some crisis point in a future.

Few would deny that we are fast approaching some form of crisis, whether it be environmental, biological, climatic, war, etc. Though the crisis need not necessarily be catastrophic, many indicators suggest otherwise. Perhaps, it is time we give up our fantasy of preventing the crisis through more of the same consumption, that is, doing bad and feeling good..

Reverse consumption is the term used to depict a change in the mindset of the addicted consumer. It suggests buying and consuming less in order to have more. Not more things - more time to enjoy our families, nature and friends, and more time not to worry about increasing debt. Imagine a debit card that gives us ten minutes of extra time in our workweek to be active working for those causes that we believe in whenever we don’t use it.

Consumerism and Poverty

Reverse consumption is not an easily acceptable nor cherished belief of the massive corporate elite, a elite hell-bent on achieving the opposite. More and more, people are beginning to believe that the global economic system, largely capitalist, will, if we do not alter it sufficiently soon, come to a screeching meltdown.

First, there was Thailand. Then Indonesia and Korea. It became southeast Asia and may spread to Pakistan, China and Japan. Russia is in tough economic straights and it may be followed by Brazil. The capitalists believe that neo-liberal perpetual economic crisis will go away through more trade, freer markets, more consumption and more profit for corporations. It will not. The International Monetary Fund cannot help as its policies are and have been part of the problem

Calling it anticonsumerism, the Never Enough Anticonsumerism campaign,

...challenges many of the assumptions about what is needed in contemporary society. Taking the view that the rich nations of the world are fundamentally damaging the planet and themselves in the pursuit of material acquisition, it raises the question, ‘How much is enough?’ Rather than just buying green or ethically-produced goods, different ways of living, trading and working are advocated in order to 'live more lightly' on the Earth and be less dependent on buying things to feel good about ourselves.

The vast majority of people living in poverty in the world live in the so-called Third World countries. During the 1970’s, the global banking industry heavily invested in them. With the increase in interest rates, by 1993, every dollar of aid accorded required $3.00 in debt repayment. And, most of the aid did not reach the poor. We need to understand, for example, that the funds given through loans for agriculture in many countries is used to grow cash crops sold back to the First World at a high price rather than using the money to insure that everyone is well fed.

Oil Crisis?

Readers of Metaphoria may be old enough to remember the oil embargo and crisis of 1973. I remember waiting in line for hours during a cold winter in New Jersey, wasting fuel to stay warm, in order to buy $5.00 of gasoline. The prevalent belief at the time, or so we were orchestrated into believing, was that the world was quickly running out of oil. I recall the State of New Jersey returning to Eastern Standard Time during the winter in an attempt to warm the schools through opening one hour later, time for the sun to heat the buildings in an attempt at saving energy. Another example of doing bad to feel good. One consequence of starting school and hour late was that students were more prone to vehicular accidents. They became pedestrians going home in the dark.

Instead of setting in motion plans to meet the "energy shortage", such as national solar, wind and alternative energy development, companies like ARCO bought up as many solar technology patents as possible, not in an attempt to develop cheap, reliable alternative sources of energy but, rather, to prevent any competitive threat from decentralized energy production. We wouldn’t want people to meet their own electric needs, would we?

During the oil crisis of 1973 and its aftermath, the price of gasoline went up. So did profits during this time of "shortage." And, we had the Arabs to falsely blame. Today, we know that the entire event was contrived by the transnational oil corporations who wanted to set the price of gasoline, which not coincidentally, has stayed pretty much the same over the past twenty-five years, and consolidate their holdings and position,

Today, compact cars are being replaced by large pickup trucks, sports utility vehicles and sedans with not much better fuel consumption that a quarter of a century ago. In the rural community of Manchester, Vermont, where I teach, I have seen at least three Hummers. A Hummer is a vehicle styled after a tank and designed for both military and commercial applications. It is quite heavy, with the civilian version weighing in at 3.4 tons. So, is its selling price,

The price of the Hummer is also pretty heavy, the basic price is $44,000 (but that's not all...), additions like Diesel Motor ($4,300) luxury pack ($9,500), central wheel inflation ($2,700), inside fancy finish ($2,700) can raise the price up to $82,000.

I wouldn’t want to hit a Hummer with my Hyundai. Then again, I could buy six Hyundai’s for the price of one basic, stripped Hummer. A better discussion, however, might be why a U.S. family requires three separate automobiles whose total annual driving mileage is three times the distance around the equator?

Since 1973, speed limits have gone back up, as have personal driving miles. Reduced fuel consumption of petroleum products is no longer the issue. Increased consumption is. It never was.

Would it not have made sense, back in 1973, when polluting diesel engines became popular in an attempt at driving with cheaper home heating fuel, to establish alternative fuel laws with teeth that really made a difference. Not, if the goal was more fuel consumption instead of less.

Imagine, if twenty-five years later, today, the homes, apartments and offices that were built during 1973 "embargo" and the cars and mass transportation that are used to commute to and from them, were powered by fifty-percent or more alternative energy resources. Imagine the conservation that would be realized. Imagine the decrease in pollution. Imagine what it might have done to globalization?

What to Do?

All of the above not withstanding, there are examples of successful anticonsumption. Success, however, comes at the expensive, or perhaps it is better called, the celebration of activism, that is the personal commitment of being involved in the process. That process may include and should include the political. To those who reject politics, I would ask,: Are you willing to give up Democracy? Are you content with having others make critical decisions with which you are dissatisfied?

Consider the well-established Green Movement in Europe. In Germany, on October 7, 1996, a new Recycling and Waste Management Act tool came into effect.

Manufacturers are now responsible for the entire life-cycle of a product, from the moment its materials leave the ground until the time that it is recycled, and must take into account the energy used for the product's transportation as well.

William Kowinski, in his book, The Malling of America, writes,

Someday it may be possible to be born, go from preschool through college, get a job, date, marry, have children...get a divorce, advance through a career or two, receive your medical care, even get arrested, tried and jailed; live a relatively full life of culture and entertainment, and eventually die and be given funeral rites without ever leaving a particular mall complex because every one of those possibilities now exists in some shopping center somewhere.

We can avoid malls, which when you think about it, not only will reduce conspicuous consumption and save energy, but will allow us to place at least a dime into social justice coffers of our choice and have more time for anticonsumerist activism. The Never Enough Anticonsumerism Campaign accuses malls of commercializing social interaction. We can obtain much better social interaction with a peace and social justice group than we can at the mall.

There are groups who espouse and act upon cultural strategies for anticonsumersim. One of these is Adbusters magazine of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Their credo, perhaps, deserving more of our attention and participation follows:

  • We will take on the archetypal mind-polluters - Marlboro, Budweiser, Benetton, McDonald's, Coke, Calvin Klein - and beat them at their own game.
  • We will uncool their billion dollar images with uncommercials on TV, subvertisements in magazines and antiads right next to theirs in the urban landscape.
  • We will take control of the role that the tobacco, alcohol, fashion, cosmetics and fast-food corporations play in our lives. We will hold their marketing strategies up to public scrutiny and set new agendas in their industries.
  • We will culture jam the pop culture marketeers - MTV, Time-Warner, Sony - and bring their image factories to a sudden, shuddering halt.
  • On the rubble of the old Media culture, we will build a new one with a non-commercial heart and soul.

The least we can do however, is not fall into the trap of believing that we can spend our way out the problems facing our world.

Quotes

A large number of people, who have either chosen voluntarily to change their lifestyles or were forced, or at least nudged, to change through corporate or government downsizing, have found they feel much better---physically, emotionally, spiritually---as a result of the changes they have made.

  • Keith C. Heidorn

There is more to simplicity than saving money and cleaning out your clutter. Once the clutter is cleared and you're no longer working overtime in order to pay off debt, you'll have time for you.

  • Janet Luhrs

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.

  • PBS On-Line

Consumerism and psychopathy are two illnesses that feed each other. A psychopath or partial psychopath has an impaired capacity to form intimate, trusting mutually satisfying relationships with other human beings as a result of impaired attachment in the earliest years. Unable to find pleasure and satisfaction from others, the psychopath or partial psychopath must turn to things -- goods and services, toys and travel -- to fill the emptiness within.

  • http://www.bconnex.net/~cspcc/psychopathy/

Bibliography

Never Enough Anticonsumerism Campaign. "A Critical Look at Consumerism, Poverty and the Planet." 
[http://envirolink.org/issues /enough/enough01.html
Internet. Accessed, 25-June-98.

Huss, Chagia and Rosner, Danny. Civilian Humer. Internet. 
[http://www.geocities.com/Baja/8876/civilian.htm
Accessed, 25-June-98

Kowinski, William. "The Maling of America." Internet. 
[http://envirolink.org/issues/enough/enough08.htm
Accessed, 20-June-98

World Development Movement. "The Mechanisms of Inequality." Internet. 
[http://envirolink.org/issues/ enough/enough04.htm
Accessed, 15-June-98

1998 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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