The Respectable Social Disease

Phil Anderson

“Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like.” Will Rogers, Great Depression era comedian   “Consumerism [is] the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life...consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.” Amitai Etzioni, sociologist  

In recent articles, we have been discussing the huge amount of waste in our society. Much of this waste results from our own overly consumptive habits. We all know that good things in life are free. Time with family, friends, or enjoying life is more important than stuff. But the siren call of consumerism reinforced by constant advertising can be hard to resist.  

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs says we have to satisfy basic human needs (safety, food, shelter, and clothing) before higher needs (for affection, self-esteem, contentment, feelings of accomplishment) can be achieved. Professor Etzioni, quoted above, defines consumerism as the attempt to satisfy higher human needs with the acquisition of more stuff. He says when we attempt to buy a better life it doesn't work. We actually have very “limited real needs.” Buying more stuff than we need turns consumption into consumerism and “consumerism becomes a social disease” (Google “The Crisis of American Consumerism,” Huffington Post, for more).  

“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” William Wordsworth   All this consumption doesn't make us happier or better off. I wrote about this in the May 17, 2017 article “Spend Less Have More” which is updated here.   There are two ways to become financially secure. One is to have more income. The other is to spend less money. Since most of us have limited ability to generate more income, it would make good personal financial sense to spend less. But shop-til-you-drop consumerism is ingrained in our modern American culture.  

A great deal of consumer spending gets paid for with credit card debt. USA Today reports the average consumer has $6,194 in credit card debt and pays $1,045.55 in annual interest. Many of us have have no savings, no retirement plan, and inadequate health insurance. Most people can't cover a $400 emergency like a care repair. But we have smart phones, big screens, cable TV, and monster trucks!  

Getting more stuff is a national obsession. This obsession is fostered by our mega-corp dominated economic system. It is driven by the artificial needs created by advertising. We have to have the latest fashion, the latest electronic gadget, or all the other stuff we see in the mall. Shopping is not just a household chore, it is a recreational activity. It is entertainment. It is sometimes therapy for the stress of our crazy lives. We spend 3–4 times as many hours shopping as people in Europe. But we don't have to be caught on the treadmill of consuming. We can have a life instead of a lifestyle.  

Being more sensible about our consumption is not only good for the family budget, it is better for you, your family, and the planet. We all know that good things in life are free. Time with family, friends, or enjoying life is more important than stuff. But the addiction to consumerism, reinforced by constant advertising, can be hard to resist.  

All this consumption is unsustainable. It is unsustainable for the average consumer whose real income has gone down in buying power. It is unsustainable for businesses that think they must grow or die. We think sales, market share, or stock prices, should go up endlessly. Businesses can't be content with providing needed goods and services and making a reasonable profit each year. At the national level we think GDP has to endlessly increase. The economy has to have more production, more jobs, more growth to supposedly alleviate all our social ills. But in reality all this is not possible as the many periodic economic meltdowns prove.  

Unlimited economic growth is also environmentally unsustainable. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. The extraction and production of stuff is wrecking the planet and we are running out of many natural resources. In America we have 5% of the world's population but consume 30% of the world's resources. But there are not enough resources to grow forever or to provide American lifestyles to 7 billion people. So the economy can not grow endlessly.  

Much of our consumption is pure waste. We generate 7 pounds of garbage a day per person. In The Story of Stuff Project says 99% of the stuff we purchase gets thrown away within 6 months. We all have garages, basements, and closets full of things we haven't touched in years. When is the last time you used that fondue cooker? Or that exercise machine? How about that collection of VCR tapes?  

Waste wasn't the norm in the past. Our grandparents valued frugality, thrift, and making do with what they had. Often they had no other choice. They recycled and reused long before it was cool. The shop-til-you-drop culture is relatively new. It has only existed since the 1950s.The Story of Stuff ( is an interesting short video that talks about our stuff, where it comes from, and where it goes. It says we consume twice as much as people fifty years ago.  

Are we happier for all this consumption? Are we better off? In the U.S. our national happiness peaked sometime in the 1950s.

Many indicators say we are more stressed and unhappy because of or consumptive, commercial culture. As John Denver sings about in the song written by Guy Clark:

“Home Grown Tomatoes,”  

“Only two things that money can't buy That's true love and home grown tomatoes”  

We don't have to be on this consumer tread mill. We have the power to just say no to accumulating more junk. We can reject the dominance of Mega-Corp and the advertisers. We can build better personal finances, get out of debt, save for the future, and have better lives. But we will have to change how we view consumerism. We may need to apply some social sanctions – some level shame and disapproval – to the social disease of consumerism.