Eleven misconceptions that make us slaves to desire
The Care and Feeding of Stuff
Don't Buy These Myths
My Not-So-Simple Resume
Before you pat yourself on the back after hauling your bin of newspapers to the curb for recycling, think about the numbers?all the numbers. As recyclers, most Americans are doing just fine: We currently recycle about 27 percent of our waste, a vast improvement since 1960, when it was 7 percent. Between 1970 and 1994, paper recycling went from 15 percent (6 million tons) to 35 percent (28 million). So what's the problem? Well, during that same period, the amount of paper we dumped into landfills increased by 14.7 million tons.
In Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are (Fawcett Columbine, 1998), authors Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje claim that we're not the first civilization to pin our hopes on recycling; we're just the latest in a very long line of well-intentioned but misdirected consumers. Consider our predecessors.
Ur, Sumeria (now Iraq). 4,000 years ago. With the advent of permanent settlements, the squandering that characterized hunters and gatherers declined, and recycling caught on. Ur residents reused metal utensils and weapons, anything of wood, even broken pottery. They spruced up deteriorating temples and palaces. But they also celebrated their prosperity by creating fancier ones?the last one built was 100 feet long and 80 feet high, and sat atop a 50-foot platform. Productivity was high, workers prospered, farmers overplanted fields to feed them, soil fertility suffered, and Ur died.
Yucatan Peninsula. Ninth century C.E. Classic Mayans worked broken, chipped tools into new shapes. They never razed a building; they added a thick outer shell instead. They also lived ostentatiously and erected grand monuments. Once again, productivity soared and farmers overplanted?and the Mayans fell to ruin.
Even the United States had its bout with unsuccessful recycling. In 1942, citizens responded admirably to the war effort's scrap drives. They were, in fact, overzealous; the resulting wastepaper glut pushed collection costs too high, and the War Production Board finally asked people to stop saving.
We haven't learned yet; we just keep on generating. In 1995, after recycling, we discarded 152 million tons of waste?nearly twice what we discarded in 1960. And about those papers: One-third of today's landfilled municipal solid waste is paper, more than any other category.
MYTH #2 VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY WORKS
The current back-to-basics movement, launched in 1981 with the publication of Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity, is probably more popular than its predecessors have been. It has spawned 'simplicity circles' in Seattle and other enlightened cities, a national conference held in Washington, D.C., in 1997, and enough books to fill whole new sections in bookstores. To the extent that it provides respite to reformed shoppers, transformation to values-shifting seekers, and overall reduced consumption, it does work. For a select few.
As Harvard economist Juliet Schor explains in The Overspent American (Basic Books, 1998), the voluntary simplicity movement engages a small group that does not represent the population at large. Simple-livers, as they're called, tend to be white, single, without small children, older?and not poor. They can survive on less, writes Schor, 'because they are rich in cultural capital and in human capital. Some started with hefty bank accounts or homes of their own. Because they tend to be at least middle-class and well-educated, they can manage the world around them. They have social and personal confidence, know how to work the system, and have connections to powerful people and institutions. Unlike the traditional poor, they have options?including the option of jumping back into mainstream culture.'
Meanwhile, 'simplicity' is involuntarily imposed on millions of Americans who still associate consumption with social identity, and personal worth with car model and house size. Schor's surveys found that 12 percent of the population involuntarily lost income in the '90s; many will bear permanent scars, she says. Even for the 19 percent who voluntarily downshifted within the past five years, results were uneven: Of those who said they were happy about the change, 35 percent missed the extra income, and 19 percent found losing it a real hardship. Fifteen percent of the voluntary downshifters were downright unhappy. And almost half considered their lifestyle change temporary.
For those willing, as Schor puts it, to 'struggle against the dominant cultural assumptions about consumption, continually chipping away at the symbolic meanings of consumer objects,' voluntary simplicity offers ample rewards. But for society at large, she cautions, 'just dropping down doesn't work.'
MYTH #3 KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES IS A CHOICE
If you could choose between making $100,000 a year or $110,000, you'd choose the higher amount, right? Economists, who base their behavior models on the assumption that consumers are logical, rational beings unswayed by emotion, would say of course. But evolutionary psychologists know better. The choice, they would argue, would be based not on absolute values, but on relative ones.
In his new book, Luxury Fever (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Cornell economics professor Robert Frank postulates that a substantial proportion of people would choose to make only $100,000 (as long as everyone else was earning $90,000) rather than $110,000 (if everyone else was earning $200,000). Some might even feel sheepish about that choice, thinking they should choose the scenario in which all incomes are higher. But for the individual, rank, not wealth, is what counts; survival has always meant climbing to the top of a relative scale.
Scientists have begun describing how that survival mechanism works on a biological level. When UCLA neuroscientist Michael McGuire and his collaborators studied 19 groups of adult vervet monkeys, they found that the serotonin concentrations in each group's dominant member were about 50 percent higher than in the subordinates. (A neurotransmitter and mood and behavior regulator, serotonin enhances feelings of well-being.) But when the top monkey was removed from the group and isolated for 72 hours, its levels dropped; meanwhile, the levels in the new leader rose. When the top monkey was returned to the group, all serotonin concentrations returned to their previous levels. So for monkeys, at least, the explanation is simple: Being number one feels good.
Is high serotonin the effect of high status, or the cause? One UCLA research team found that animals whose serotonin levels were boosted with drugs were more likely to ascend in the social hierarchy than others treated with a placebo. And in human males, studies have shown a similar correlation between high status and high testosterone: When one rises, the other does, too.
'Suffice it to say that no matter how the relevant mechanisms work,' writes Frank, 'there is compelling evidence that concern about relative position is a deep-rooted and ineradicable element of human nature.'
MYTH #4 CONSUMPTION CAN BE REGULATED As political activists working for sustainable systems, shouldn't we take collective action to curb conspicuous consumption? No, argues Frank; it's been done, and it doesn't work.
Sumptuary laws, as they were called, once invaded virtually every aspect of life. In Rome in the fourth century B.C.E. , for example, laws restricted funeral spending on everything from mausoleum size to lavishness of meals, and even stipulated that funeral pyres be constructed of unfinished, not polished, wood. Often such laws served only to keep the lower classesówhose only way to achieve status was by owning things that connoted itódown where they belonged. During the T'ang Dynasty, Chinese law prohibited commoners from taming peregrine falcons, and, about a thousand years later, from wearing fine silks and using gold on saddles. Ottoman Empire merchants couldn't wear furs, but government officials could.
While these laws prevented escalation in certain forms of spending, wily humans simply transferred their status-seeking to other forms that became just as costly. In medieval Europe, regular folks couldn't wear linen and lace, so they turned to buttons for status; by the 14th century, buttons became coveted ornaments, worn from elbow to wrist and neckline to waist. The elite opted for gold, silver, and ivory ones, promptingóyou guessed itóbutton laws.
In 16th-century northern Europe, clothing had to be a single color. So status seekers merely wore an inner lining of a different hue, slashed the outer garment, then pulled the inner one through and puffed it up for emphasis. When medieval Florence restricted the number of courses in a meal, cooks devised a 'pastry-wrapped meat-and-pasta torte' and other elaborate single dishes. In both cases, the laws are gone, but their influence on fashion and cuisine remains.
By 1900 most of these laws had disappeared, but their legacy 'lives on in memory,' says Frank, 'so strongly that all subsequent attempts to curb conspicuous consumption have carried a heavy burden of guilt by association.'
MYTH #5 A NEW BATHROBE IS ALWAYS NICE
We all delight in acquiring new things, but seldom do we consider the resulting ripple effect described by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot. In an essay entitled 'Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,' he wrote about receiving as a gift a beautiful scarlet dressing gown, tben quickly discarding his old one. But as he began to sense that his surroundings now appeared shabby and unworthy of the grandeur exuded by the new garment, his pleasure turned sour. As Juliet Schor recounts, 'He grew dissatisfied with his study, with its threadbare tapestry, the desk, his chairs, and even the room's bookshelves. One by one, the familiar but well-worn furnishings of the study were replaced. In the end, Diderot found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of his new surroundings, regretting the work of this 'imperious scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.' '
Schor calls this 'the Diderot effect': the perceived need to buy new furniture for the new house, new goblets to go with the new china, a new blouse to match the new skirt. And it's what keeps the consumer escalator moving ever upward. If we want to get off, we need to develop a new consumer consciousness and new behaviors, and that may be harder than it sounds.
MYTH #6 IT'S ALL ADVERTISING'S FAULT
Television has long been blamed for promoting consumer desire, and indeed it does. But program content, not advertisingówhich mostly promotes low-cost household itemsóis the primary culprit, according to Schor. TV programs and movies typically present an upper-class picture of American life, leading viewers to assume that nearly everyone, except for themselves, shares that opulence. Schor's research shows that people who watch more TV spend more money, and routinely overestimate others' standards of living. In one study, participants overstated ownership rates for 22 of 27 consumer products. Heavy watchers also overestimate the percentage of the population who are millionaires, have had cosmetic surgery, and belong to a private gym. And doesn't everyone have private planes and swimming pools?
Excessive viewing correlates with indebtedness as well, making TV a significant part of the 'see, want, borrow, buy' pattern that Schor targets. As she puts it, 'Television lets everyone see what these [upper-income] folks have and allows viewers to want it in concrete, product-specific ways.'
MYTH #7 WHAT'S GOOD FOR ONE IS GOOD FOR ALL
'The conflict between individual and group is the single most important explanation of the imbalance in our current consumption patterns,' writes Frank. 'Authors invariably attribute our failure to achieve better balance in our lives to dark forces: some rooted within, such as greed, impatience, or stupidity, and others outside us, such as exploitation by powerful corporate interests. Yet these forces could be swept aside entirely and the fundamental problem would remain, for its primary source lies not in individual or corporate imperfection, but in the cold, impersonal logic of competition.'
What's smart for one is often dumbóand costlyófor all. The individual who stands up at a concert achieves a better view, until everyone else stands; then no one can see very well, and everyone pays the price of tired legs. Those who can't hear at a cocktail party raise their voices; soon all ears are ringing and everyone is hoarse. If your challenging, meaningful job means a lot to you, think twice before asking for Fridays off to raise your kids; there aren't enough jobs like yours, and someone else might be happy to work weekends to get it. And is it worth opting for a smaller mortgage, if it means moving to a less safe neighborhood?
'Having simpler things works fine if you don't have to give up your spot in the queue,' says Frank. 'If we all cut back, it all works. But if I cut back, the cost to me may be too high.'
MYTH #8 ONE TELEVISION IS PLENTY
Just what does 'the good life' entail? A lot of stuff, according to a Roper Center survey published in 1993. And more stuff than it used to.
In 1975, 10 percent of those surveyed said a second color TV would be part of the good life; by 1991, it was 28 percent. A second car? Thirty percent included it in 1975, 41 percent in 1991. Vacation home? That went from 19 percent to 35 percent.
We're doing better in the 'necessity' department. A second TV was considered necessary by only 3 percent of respondents in 1973; that number escalated to 10 percent in 1996óbut that was down from 15 percent in 1991.
There is still the matter of the gas grill. In his book, Frank recounts the dilemma he faced when a malfunctioning ignition button and rusty metal baffle threatened the longevity of his $89.95 propane grill, purchased in the '80s. Repair would be possible, but impractical and uneconomical. His subsequent search for a new model was vastly different from his quest of a decade ago. Back then, he writes, 'there was nothingóabsolutely nothingólike today's Viking-Frontgate Professional Grill,' he writes. Powered by natural gas or propane, it measures seven feet across and has an infrared rotisserie capable of broiling two 20-pound turkeys, an 828-square-inch grilling surface, a built-in smoker system, and two range-top burners that generate 15,000 BTUs, twice the capacity of those on a standard kitchen stove. 'If you've ever longed to throw together a Szechwan pork dish on your backyard patio,' he goes on, 'or feared getting off to a late start when you have guests about to arrive and 40 ears of corn left to cook, the Viking Frontgate has the extra power you need.'
Today's premium grill costsónot including shipping and handlingó$5,000. It also represents what 'the good life' has become, at least in barbecue land: Even though cheaper models are still available, grills that cost more than $2,000 are, according to Frank, 'by far the hottest growing sector in the $1.2 billion-a-year industry.' The proliferation of such upscale products drives our runaway spending and boosts the ever-escalating desire that seems to infect us like a communicable disease. In another 10 years, will we be lusting after grills that also bake bread and do dishes? And where will it all stop?
MYTH #9: STUFF IS EVIL
The more bombarded we are by uncontrollable chaos, from crashing planes to brutal wars, the more we seek security through what we can control: the things we own. For most of us, stuff serves a positive purpose, even though accumulating it may result in our feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. For some, accumulation becomes pathological.
Stuff itself is not the culprit; it's our growing inability to distinguish good from bad. In Josie Rawson's 'Behind Closed Doors' (City Pages, March 12, 1997), a story about people who live in garbage houses, University of Minnesota psychiatry professor Thomas Mackenzie offers this insight: 'How do you know what's of value and what's not? All the ads, all the news scream out that 'This is important, this is essential!' And somewhere in the imagination the idea gets planted: Without this stuff, I'm without protection. I'm lost. Anything could happen. The possibilities seem infinite, in part, I suppose, because there's so little evidence that as individuals we can control much of anything.'
He suggests that the human nervous system is not evolving as rapidly as technology and information; we're at saturation point, maybe even overkill. We collect things as a way to secure meaning in the midst of confusion, even as we lose the ability to get rid of all we're made to take in. Mackenzie asserts that garbage-house dwellers were functional at first, just like everybody else. The example he cites is a woman who saved 20 years' worth of newspapers, intending to cut out the recipes. For her, says Mackenzie, 'it was a solution onceóa way to secure a future. And then, in time, it became a kind of surrender. With garbage houses, we surmise that the resources their occupants have and the demands of the universe are badly mismatched.'
While most of us remain functional, that edge is not far away: It may be as close as the pile of unread newspapers, magazines, and junk mail that hovers nearby, waiting for you to catch up. Which you will do, of course. Tomorrow.
MYTH #10 CONSUMING LESS WILL WRECK THE ECONOMY
Before you start diverting funds to your savings accountóif you even have a savings accountóconsider the damage it might cause. If everybody follows your example and quits spending, demand for products will fall and business will suffer. Then businesses will quit investing, and recession and unemployment will set in. This argument, promulgated by Keynesian-oriented economists, has merit, says Schor. But timing is everything.
A gradual shift to saving would give companies time to develop new customers and greater efficiencies. People who quit spending as much would probably want to work less, which would keep the unemployment rate down. On the other hand, growth and productivity would slow, which would worsen the United States' competitive position in the globalized worldóand that, Schor says, would be 'the most significant effect of a shift to less consumerism.'
But, as the world's leader, can't we afford to take risks? And can't we figure out how to compensate for productivity lossesóthrough greater efficiency and heavier government investment in education, research, and developmentóas postmaterialist countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have done? Schor claims that the United States is mostly to blame for creating an international competitive structure that now has even us struggling valiantly to keep pace.
'Throughout Europe, people are wondering whether the globalization of consumer markets isn't proceeding too rapidly, with too little thought,' she writes. 'They're worried that they will not be able to maintain their quality of life in a world where making as much money as possible has become the reigning religion. And they are trying to find another way, a model of a decently functioning economy coexisting with a decent cultural and daily life experience. Isn't it time Americans started asking some of the same questions?'
MYTH #11 NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE, SO LET'S JUST GO SHOPPING
So how do we deliver ourselves from our obsession with stuff? There is no dearth of solutions being bandied about; the challenge is figuring out which of them will work, long-term, not only for inviduals but for society as a whole.
First, says Schor, we need to rein in desire: Stay away from malls and avoid catalogs if you must, and when you buy, go for quality rather than novelty. Do the SubZero fridge and Coach bag really project your distinctive personality when everyone you know has them, too? Make exclusivity uncool. Learn to share: Do you and your neighbor each need a lawn mower? And could you start lending libraries for tools, toys, or other products?
Schor also recommends 'deconstructing the commercial system,' educating ourselves on the finer points of advertising and marketing communications and how they influence our decisions. We could avoid 'retail therapy' during stressful times and learn to substitute other more effective ways of soothing ourselves. We could join simplicity circles. We could also 'decommercialize our rituals': Special times don't have to be Hallmark holidays in order to be meaningful, and Santa Claus and his reindeer might appreciate a lighter load.
But individual action is not enough. 'Competitive consumption creates a 'prisoner's dilemma'óboth prisoners would be better off if neither one talked, but only the one who talks first gets a good deal from the prosecutor,' writes Schor. 'The well-being of everyone could be improved if there were a way to harmonize individual behavior and minimize the competitive incentives.' That implies government intervention.
To that end, Frank proposes a progressive consumption tax, which essentially would tax the difference between income and savings (after a generous standard deduction); as a result, luxury items would wind up costing much more. 'People do respond to prices,' he says. 'Even those who could afford to buy more don't buy more.'
In Frank's view, 'we spend far too much on conspicuous consumption and far too little on inconspicuous consumption. Our goal is to shift from one category to the other.' And while we're all working together on ways to accomplish that, we could each, individually, go back to the basics: Just use less stuff.