Monday, September 29, 2008

Consumers Among Us

This week's newspaper column:

When did the term “consumer” replace “citizen” in our national lexicon?

The press, politicians, economists, and especially shopping mall marketing professionals now routinely refer to individuals not by their race, creed, sex or nationality, but by their spending habits. When is the last time you heard anyone refer to Americans as anything but consumers? (“Citizen” sounds so Ozzie and Harriet.)

We as a society have officially defined ourselves by our collective addiction to “buying stuff,” much of which we don’t need, and by our willingness to devour natural resources, most of which are non-renewable and polluting.

Fifty years ago, it took one income to support a family with money left over to put into savings. Now, in early twenty-first century America, most families have two income earners along with some additional influx of cash - up until recently this may very well have come in the form of a home equity loan - just to get by. And savings accounts have been replaced by debt burden.

Americans now own one car per adult, have more TV’s than people, and demand houses twice the size of homes built fifty years ago. If one person on the block gets a giant SUV, everybody else has to have a bigger one.

Let’s face it: In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, Americans have embraced an unsustainable lifestyle. We’ve gone from a society of hunter-gatherers to a nation of borrower-purchasers.

But all is not lost. The road to sustainability is paved with simple acts of conservation. Even modest efforts to conserve more and consume less lead to significant savings.

Buy or build a right-sized energy-efficient home instead of a super-sized energy sucker. As Sarah Susanka illustrated in her classic book, The Not So Big House, eliminating unused space in the design of your home saves construction and energy costs without sacrificing quality of life.

Bike to work instead of driving. You’ll save on gas and be healthier to boot; studies show that much of our spending on health care, and we spend more than twice as much as any other country, is due to lack of adequate exercise.

Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, turn your computer off at night, and unplug your appliances when not in use. You’ll see a substantial reduction in your electric bill.

And the list goes on and on.

The crisis we are witnessing now in banks and financial markets is the direct consequence of conspicuous consumption run amuck. And now it’s time to pay the piper; government’s proposed 700 billion dollar (and some experts say that may not be enough) bailout plan amounts to about $7,000 per taxpayer.

In a stroke of grand irony, this comeuppance could, by default, turn the “American consumer” into the “American conserver.”

No comments: