5.13.2010

Filling the Space



"Monoculture" refers to planting only one type of crop over a very large area of land. This method can often lead to the quicker spread of disease becuase if all of the crop is the same, a single pathogen can affect the entire harvest. In what way, however, does this apply as an appropraite metaphor for our societal norms, where an entire "field" contains one type of human? One answer points us to the culture of consumerism. In America (and certain other parts of the world as well), we are bombarded daily with ads for products we usually don't even need: hats, toys, gum, cosmetics, celebrity work out equipment, ShamWow, etc. We have become part of the consumer monoculture without even realizing it and this type of culture isn't without negative impacts.

A very poignant example of the growing consumer monoculture is Black Friday. The Friday after Thanksgiving is set aside as the biggest sale day of the year and thousands of people flood stores to get first pick of the items. You would think that goods crucial to survival like food or blankets would cause such a passionate fight for material possessions, but most often the things being fought over on Black Friday are Barbie Dolls, video games, footballs, or Hot Wheels. It would certainly be agreed that none of these items are crucial for survival, but people literally die for them nevertheless. A walmart worker was trampled to death in New York City. Also, two shoppers in a California Toys R Us were shot and killed during a dispute over an item. Even when people don't actually die there are still often severe casualites, to view just how crazy Black Friday can get check this jaw-dropping list of disasters HERE. Yet, these deaths and injuries have not prompted any consideration by Black Friday advertisers, who apparently believe the profit potential for this day is worth the physical violence.

Black Friday is quite an extreme example of the consumer monoculture; yet, you may be surprised at how accustommed to consumerism we all have become in our daily lives. In 1960, just 50 years ago, the median annual income was $6,180. Recalculating for inflation, today that would be approximately $42,000. However, $42,000 is not our current average income, it's actually over $52,000 (as of 2008). Therefore, regardless of inflation, people were apparently able to live on less in 1960. Whether people were more frugal in the past or there were simply less things available to buy, these figures are telling of how much we've come to spend our money on the consumption of goods.

Rev. Billy from The Church of Life After Shopping said it best when he proclaimed that "the corporations want us to have experiences only through their products." The Life After Shopping crew is dedicated to preaching about the value of buying locally and warning about the dangers of large corporations - the main force behind our embrace of mass consumerism. Especially during Christmas time, members of The Church of Life After Shopping visit centers of corporate commerce and encourage customers to reconsider if they really need what they are there to buy. The group often visits Walmart and Starbucks, for example. Rev. Billy also speaks to communities and churches to better educate individuals on consumerism and the role it plays in our lives.

In one of his lectures, Rev. Billy may tell you that it's not only on Black Friday or through infomercials that we have been trained to be consumers. Have you ever seen an advertisement for a bigger, newer television for sale and thought to yourself, "well my tv is a few years old and I can afford that new one," so you go out and buy it? But was it really about time to get a new tv; was the old one not working? Or what about kitchen equipment; you had an old fashoined kind of juicer, but why not get an electric one with all those fancy parts and eliminate having to use your own elbow grease, right? But is putting a few minutes into twisting an orange really all that much of a hastle? Corprate-sponsored media would tell you that it is, and that's why you have to buy more things to keep making your life more and more... well... lazy.

An aspect of consumerism that is important to understand is that corporations play on the fears of Americans. Life without possessions, for the average American, is scary and lonely. Though we have the Earth, our friends, family, and our own bodies, we have become conditioned to fill the empty space. On top of the Earth we fill the space with buildings. Then, the space inside the buildings must be filled. There is something to fill the space everywhere in an office or home: the eight piece dining set on the table, the books on the bookshelf, the coats on the coat rack, and a bucket for the trash; trash that once was a valued possession but now is burried beneath the ground only to be replaced with an updated version of itself. That is one reason that Rev. Billy named his church what he did: to show people that there is in fact "Life After Shopping", or as others may think of it, "life beyond shopping".

What does all this matter? One importance in examining the consumer monoculture has a lot to do with the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean (article on this subject coming soon). When you buy an item it often is to replace something else (like getting a new couch) or is only used for a short time (like getting a to-go cup of coffee). Therefore, much garbage is produced when purchasing an item. Consumerism contributes greatly to this type of pollution. On a different note, however, what life can be led happily when solely based on materialism? It's not this article's point to ward everyone away from any and all spending, but to get people to consider how far we've fallen into letting our possesions own us. Re-evaluate what's worth being trampled over; it could lead to more productive and enriched living.


Also, please note that Black Friday coincides with International Buy Nothing Day. Can you really go a whole day without buying anything?

If you're interested in knowing more about The Church of Life After shopping, AKA The Church of Stop Shopping, check out the documentary called What Would Jesus Buy?

8 comments:

Mindbender said...

It's amazing how much of this gets instilled in our American minds in just the first few years of life. My daughter is two and has toys filling every crevasse in her room and most of the things she has all came from other people. My daughter is growing up with not five or six toys but over a hundred. Maybe I should reevaluate her toy status.

The other problem is, back in the 50's 60's things were made to last. People who have their old vacuum from back then, still use them today and work just as good as they did fifty years ago. It's sick, cheaper laptops today are only meant to last about a year or so. What a world we live in. Somethings got to give.

Great Post!!

Jayna said...

Hey thanks for reading and commenting :)

You have such a good point about how things used to be built to last 50 years ago (in fact if I had thought of that I'd have included it in my post!). It's a shame to realize that companies actually make your items less reliable and hope that they break because it forces you to buy a replacement. They really are trying to pull one over on us!

Thanks again for the great comment.

Arthur Gelsinger said...

Work Buy Consume Die - IT'S AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE!!!

okjimm said...

Boy..... youse getting pretty highbrow here kiddo!

//Can you really go a whole day without buying anything? //

My larger concern is ... Can I really go a whole day without drinking a beer?

and you should visit... okjimm's eggroll emporium.... one of the neatest small blogs around.

Jayna said...

hey Jim thanks for reading. The beer question is a good one! haha.

I checked out your blog, it's cool man! I followed, you should follow mine ;-)

HH said...

There are many changes that have occurred since the 50's that were building blocks to our current consumerismn. Not the least of which are our increasing exposure to advertisements (via TV, radio, internet, billboards, mail, email, etc.), the two income households (our median income may be a bit higher but it's taking two people to make even that little bit more), the lack of time needed to enjoy the little things in life or to raise our children while we work, and the need to find a source of fun in our meager time away from work. It's just too easy to say "stop buying!"
There is also the matter of consumerism supporting our country. People buying means jobs. People may be spending more money than they should but it's almost a socialism of sorts by keeping unemployment down. Honestly, I think the only way we're going to be able to reduce our consumerism and our trash is to create jobs based on recycling.
Anyway, that's my two cents. See how I like to make things difficult. :)

Jayna said...

Thanks for reading and commenting HH!

I think you raise some good points in your comment but I think what you've really highlighted is that many people believe it's nearly impossible to break out of the system that's been created for us. "They" absolutely want us to work hard and have barely anytime to enjoy ourselves therefore needing cheap and nearly-useless goods to "find fun" and entertainment. They also tell us that we need to buy buy buy to support the economy. Well that isn't true. It's simply the system we've come to accept and, believe it or not, we have a choice whether to buy into it or not.

You'll note that I said "It's not this article's point to ward everyone away from any and all spending, but to get people to consider how far we've fallen into letting our possesions own us." Therefore I am not saying "stop buying" altogether but just to reconsider the things we consume. Although I will admit that I feel that it IS "that easy". Just stop buying so much shit. It's only hard because it's as if people can no longer differentiate between what they need and what they want.

Anyway, thank you again for your comments I appreciate you taking time to read my article :)

okjimm said...

I just linked you. Keep writing!