Silencing the News about (Over)Consumption

hooray landfillIn a January 4 SF Gate article, Carolyn Lochhead raises creepy, blasphemous questions, like:

  • Can the earth sustain the (misguided) notion that a healthy economy must grow – constantly and indefinitely?
  • Can we trade “having stuff” for a better way of life?
  • Can we share resources — cars, power tools, etc — rather than approaching everything with a mindset of ownership?

I know. Scandalous.



In America, consumption is such a marker of “health” that even some conservative Christian leaders — who still btw sermonize about camels and needles and storing up treasures in Heaven — would rather question Pope Francis’s Capitalism Cautions than risk an economic dip caused by Americans actually reining in their greed. In a culture in which buying things is patriotic, contentment will feel like treason. No wonder we can’t have a conversation that seriously addresses the impact of over-consumption.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with the consequences either way. Lochhead’s questions, above, are driven of course by the inarguable depletion of natural resources. Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily states unequivocally that, “We’re driving natural capital to its lowest levels ever in human history.” Lochhead mentions that this is particularly clear when one considers fisheries: “Scientists estimate that commercial fishing, if it continues at the current rate, will exhaust fisheries within the lifetime of today’s children.” Um. That’s soon, kids.


Glen Libby and his brother, Gary, prepare a batch of crabs in Port Clyde, Maine, Dec 2013. (Craig Dilger/The New York Times)

Annie Leonard, the founder of Story of Stuff — a project aimed at taming mass consumption — told Lochhead, “It’s not just a bummer for us to not get sushi.

“We are approaching the planet’s limitations. So when I see the media barrage about buying more stuff, it’s almost like a science fiction movie where […] we are undermining the very ecological systems which allow life to continue, but no one’s allowed to talk about it.”


It’s common sense: Limited resources cannot support unlimited growth. Meanwhile, our culture continues to esteem possession, seeing in it an affirmation of human value, dignity, or achievement. We often sense that ownership signifies independence, but this is a dubious connection, particularly since the motives behind compulsive consumption are hardly individual. We’re manipulated into desires (and their accompanying frameworks of value) via media, marketing, and our own envy – which is itself socially constructed. Then we quiet any suspicion of mindless apery by seeing our buying power as a marker of choice and thus dignity.

Ew.This is old news, and I don’t claim to be outside this Web of Ew. But we should at least be able to talk about it. An honest confrontation with excess won’t require us all to join communes and burn our nonessentials, but it will require that we stop pretending that “overconsumption” is impossible dialogic territory.

We can talk about this.

For example:

Christian leaders on the right should be able to acknowledge that, by encouraging capitalism, they’re ultimately encouraging ongoing consumption — which is not easily reconciled with the lasting contentment they claim to offer. Such an acknowledgment wouldn’t preclude Christians from being capitalists; only from pretending that a Christian/Capitalist identity presents zero conundrums.

Similarly, economists and politicians must be able to acknowledge that nearsighted policies can have dangerous, irreparable repercussions. Yes, the felt impacts of detrimental policies are often a long way off, while the felt impacts of “Omg! Growth!” are gratifyingly now-ish. But seriously, people who work with stats and projections shouldn’t be so threatened by the logic of finite resources.

And finally, the rest of us should be able to talk about (over-)consumption without debilitating guilt, or the fear that we’ll turn into miserable, austere crusts.

Besides, it’s not like Buying-and-Owning-Shit has a solid rep for making people notably happy. Maybe trying a different tack is less scary than just — sensible.

Louder, Please.

The thing about silence is that it’s a symptom of fear: that we won’t be able to handle the response that truth demands of us. Easier not to know. So, although experts assert that an economy can be healthy even at a “steady state,” that health should be measured by more than financial figures, or that people can successfully share their possessions, such assertions are often dismissed, mocked, or actively silenced. Meanwhile, we miss out on strategies for Better. This is what makes Lochhead’s article so significant, and why we should be writing, sharing, and searching for more like it.

The breaking of the silence around overconsumption is a call to creative intellects: to re-imagine what it means to be successful, to exercise options, and to have dignity.
More of that, please. And a little louder.

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One thought on “Silencing the News about (Over)Consumption

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