Story of Stuff

i can’t, for the life of me, remember who originally told me to see this video, but thank you to whoever did.

i’ve been watching it this morning and stopping periodically when something doesn’t set just right – checking sources, etc. (finally, i found an annotated copy of the script)

There’s a quote in the ‘Consumer’ part of the video by a 20th century economist named Victor Lebow. From Price Competition in 1955:

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.

There’s apparently a debate about whether that quote has been taken out of context or chopped up to support her point, so like i said, i decided to get to the source and find out.  And on the way I found a number of other ‘interesting’ (read terrifying) quotes I found, direct from the article:

“In 1953, 69% of families in the US have an total family income of less than $5000 a year, 37% of all families have a median net worth of $1300, another 32% had a median net worth of $3500, but 31% of all families were in debt and had less than no net worth.”

His point being, as far as i could tell, that the consumer’s buying power is limited. Whew – we’re a much different people now, right?  Hmm.  It then goes on to the nature of competition and the best possibilities within competition between producers.  This is where it gets interesting:

Probably the most powerful weapon of the dominant producers is the use of television. To a greater degree than ever before a relative handful of products will share a monopoly of most of the leisure time of the American family. We will have over 30 million television households next year. And television achieves three results to an extent that no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family…

That makes my skin crawl.

…The total result of this pressure is to change the pattern of living. The persuasive techniques for instilling new wants into the consumer may result in buying the new Hi-Fi set, or the new refigerator, or the new car, and result also in displacing or postponing the purchase of clothes, or furniture, or vacation trips.

This is followed directly by the quote that’s found in the video. I’ve provided the direct quote, without breaking it up:

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. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumption patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives is today expressed in consumption terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, teh more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats – his home, his car, his patters of food serving, his hobbies.
These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace. We need people to eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption.

I’d definitely encourage you to read the full article (especially p.3 “The Nature of Competition” until p.6 “Why Brand Loyalties Decline”), but I’d say we can rest assured that he’s not critiquing this stance, but rather vehemantly encouraging it. That’s downright scary to me. And the do-it-yourself movement being an attempt to make people spend MORE money? It’s never crossed my mind! But think – how many power tools are in closets and garages on your street? How many times a year do you think they’re used? How many times a year do you use your own? Even if they’re used once a week, that’s 6 days a week (approximately 24 days a month, 288 days a year) that they just sit. But everyone owns their own, because ‘sharing’ is certainly not a part of our social norm. Whew – marketing gets us even where we had no idea we could be ‘got’.

Anyway, watch the video and tell me what you think. There are certainly some points that are really good, and there are others that seem more like propaganda from the other side. It definitely makes you think.  And maybe we could do more than just “think about it”.  I know people are shy about commenting, but why?  I’d love to hear ways that you step outside this linear cycle.  Maybe some of you braver folks can start and others will follow suit.  My sister has been refusing to buy new clothes – she only buys from thrift now.  A friend and his family of 5 did a “buy nothing year.”  Pretty intense.  Do you buy bulk to cut down on packaging?  Have you limited the number of shoes you’ll buy?  Had the same car for 10 years?  Here are 10 ways to “help” that might both help you realize what you’re doing already without knowing it, and what you can do to make an even bigger impact.  I’d really like to hear how people are combatting this consumer identity and moving towards a more sustainable north america.


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Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.
-Kahlil Gibran

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