Consumerism gone mad

Recently, after coming back to SSE as an intern for a few months (info at the bottom), I came across The Story of Stuff, a 20 minute web documentary hosted by "American critic of excessive consumerism" Annie Leonard. In the video Leonard goes through the process of consumption in five steps from extraction, production, distribution, consumption and then disposal. Though the video at times seems meant for younger age groups, perhaps a straightforward approach is what we all need; mixed in between the jaw dropping statistics Annie's message is clear and obvious: ever-growing consumption has become a dangerous force in human society.

As Leonard explains, this didn't just happen. In the 1955, economist Victor Lebow prophesied a version similar to our contemporary environment: "Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption
our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into
rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction,
in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and
discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

What does this have to do with social entrepreneurship and our current financial environment?
As Leonard amply points out, environmentalism affects us all, in all sectors. It is a timely reminder that while 'going green' has become a fad of its own, there is still much to be done. Here SSE Fellows like Becky Barrett at Love Eco and Dave Miller at Bikeworks play crucial roles. That being said, they are continuously dependent on you, the consumer, to purchase products strategically. It is no longer about finding the cheapest price, but rather the locally produced, environmentally friendly, and sustainable product.

That's easier said than done, particularly with the economy down the tank. Thus, we must not only buy smart, but also defy Victor Lebow and his theory of an ever-accelerating rate. Here is where the economic crisis may help us all, by forcibly slowing down our rate of purchasing. However, as we have seen such a change will lead to a slow-down in production, higher unemployment, higher prices. So what do we do? Leonard is brilliant in her analysis, but not so much in her aim. Next time I would like to see a video where she debates and convinces a parent who is fighting to keep his or her job, to shop more sustainably. Until then I won't hold my breath for a new type of consumerism.

Thor Steinhovden currently interns with the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bethnal Green, London. He recently finished a BA in Political Science and History at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. This fall he will embark on a MSc in Comparative Politics (Nationalism and Ethnicity) at the London School of Economics.


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