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I'm having trouble knowing where to begin, so I'll take the easy way out and refer to my dictionary. Here's how it defines consumerism.

  1. The movement seeking to protect the rights of consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging, labeling, and advertising, fair pricing, and improved safety standards.
  2. The theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial.

The first definition is not at all what I want to talk about. In fact, I am in favor of that kind of consumerism.

The second definition is much closer to the point. It does seem plausible to me that the theory is true, that progressively greater consumption is beneficial to the economy, but it also seems to me that it is not beneficial to people … and that leads me to a definition of the kind of consumerism I am opposed to.

The idea that the way to achieve happiness is to consume.

Advertisers, of course, are all in favor of this kind of consumerism, because it makes it easier for them to sell their products.

Anti-consumerism is the opposite idea.

The idea that you don't need to own or consume things to be happy.

Among other things, that reminds me of What Are You Doing! What Are You Saying! (quoted in Favorite Koans) and of one of my favorite bits from The Dispossessed.

The father picked him up and held him. “There, now, Shev,” he said. “Come on, you know you can't have things. What's wrong with you?”

Now that I've stated both ideas, let me backtrack a little and explain why I don't like consumerism.

First of all, I think it's harmful to those who buy into it. It encourages them to trade time for money and so helps to create the modern overworked lifestyle. On the other hand, who am I to judge? Maybe some people are genuinely happy just working and consuming.

Second, I blame consumerism for the fact that the world is getting more and more polluted with advertising. Now there are even ads on the supermarket floors! If consumerism weren't so prevalent, if people only bought things when they needed them, there wouldn't be any need for advertising—if you decided you needed, say, a car, you could go to some central forum to gather information, and other people wouldn't be bothered.

Third, I see the whole advertising-consumerism thing as a big waste of collective time. Think of all the time and energy that people must spend filming commercials, printing junk mail, making telemarketing calls, and so on … and then think what would happen if we shut all that down and had that many more people to do actual productive work! I don't blame the individual people involved, they're just trying to make a living, but I'm sure they could easily find other ways to do so.

To put it another way, the companies involved are nasty parasitical superorganisms that we should destroy without sympathy.

Fortunately, there are signs that anti-consumerism is catching on.

  • The magazine Adbusters is an interesting thing, interesting enough that I wrote a subessay about it. Just as an example of a definite anti-consumerist idea, though, I'd like to mention Buy Nothing Day.
  • I like the meme Kill Your Television. It's true that television could have been a great force for good, but in practice it has turned into an instrument of consumerism.

    Speaking of television, while I was getting the links to Adbusters in order, I happened to find the excellent article The Zen TV Experiment, which is very much in agreement with my way of thinking. There's even a better version of my theory about television being neutral!

  • The movie Fight Club had a nice angle on anti-consumerism.
  • Over the past year or two, I've noticed a lot of anti-consumerist sentiment in the funny pages, of all places. A fair amount is aimed at the commercialization of Christmas, but there have been plenty of other targets as well. The criticism of SUVs in Jump Start was especially welcome.


  See Also

  Daytime Running Lights
  Environment Free of Distraction
  Methods of Choosing
  Separation Effect, The

o March (2000)
@ October (2001)