Taking Responsibility (Part 3)

When our elected governments and institutions do the things we asked of them

We make implicit or explicit demands upon our institutions and we must follow them to their origins. A society in denial can not properly function in a competitive world. Here are some examples of current concern:

Keeping up with the Joneses

Follow this line of argument.

The Industrial Revolution created abundant manufactured products.
In prior ages most people had little in the way of material possessions. They lived a simple lifestyle centered around work and family. Most owned only clothing, a bit of furniture and household utilities. Even farm families usually worked someone else's land.
The rise of industrial age led to the capability to produce many items in large quantities at low cost. The need to find markets for these items led to the development of advertising.

Advertising leads to increased demand.
The need to sell mass produced items meant that a desired needed to be created in the buyer's mind. Advertising that just informed of the existence or properties of a product was no longer adequate. Without a demand being created there was no market. Thus, the rise of persuasive advertising. This is designed to appeal to a person's inadequacies or fears. Especially social inadequacies.

Increased demand requires increased income.
Prior to the industrial age people earned just enough to get by. Excess wealth was of little practical use since there was little that could be purchased by the average person. Local villages and towns produced mainly utilitarian items. Once you have a table and chairs, you don't need another set. Desires fueled by advertising are not aimed at utility, but inadequacy. If your neighbors have something which is seen as a mark of status than you will feel you need it as well. So having clothing gets replaced by the need for "fashionable" clothing. What was once a need for adequate supplies is replaced by the need to substitute the latest fashion for perfectly adequate objects. Thus a continual need can be generated. This need to purchase new items requires a larger income.

Increased income requires more work effort.
Where one would stop working when an adequate amount of supplies was assured, now one must earn income continually to be able to afford desired possessions. This leads to longer work periods and more people entering the paid labor force.

More work requires more raw materials.
Once the cycle of materialism is started there is a simultaneous rise in the need for raw materials. More of the landscape is taken over by extractive industries. Mining, forestry, factory scale farming and energy supplies need to be expanded. The waste from these industries becomes a concern as well as the potential for eventual shortages of raw material. Since one society cannot produce all the raw materials needed there is an increase in foreign trade. This is followed by a need to protect sources of supply and transportation routes. This is usually accomplished by the establishment of armies and navies.

More work creates stress in society.
The pressure for more work creates stress within the workers. Fear of loss of income or economic status makes people fearful. The marshaling of vast industrial enterprises to find and move raw materials also puts stress on the overall society. A typical example can be seen in the clogged roads leading to road rage. Rather than the pursuit of material possessions leading to greater life satisfaction many people find themselves less happy.

So our unreasonable desires for more and newer material possessions lead to less free time, additional stress, despoiling of our environment and socially unproductive pursuits such as drugs and alcohol as an attempt to cover up our dissatisfaction.

How would we have to restructure our lives and society in a less material setting? Government and industry have no suggestions on how such an economic system would be structured. When the economy turns down in modern society the only thing that is suggested is for people to go out and spend money. Shopping is now the number one leisure activity. People go to a site like the Grand Canyon and spend about an hour viewing the natural beauty. They spend over three times as much shopping!

Perhaps the rise of religiosity in recent times is a reflection of the dissatisfaction with peoples materialistic strivings. Most traditional religious teaching favor modesty in lifestyle and concern for other over self indulgence. Is it possible to devise a secular philosophy which promotes the same values without appealing to religious exceptionalism? Can our planet continue for much longer along the path of unbridled consumerism?

If we wish to change how would we accomplish it? With consumerism as our guiding principal what would we do instead? Can we design a society that is less dependent on "things"? We need to set humanistic goals for our society, but at the same time we need to establish a realistic transition plan. Letting the "market place" decide produces vast inequalities in social position and this creates resistance to change as well as unnecessary hardship. After World War II there was conscious planning in this country on how to move from a war economy. Specific plans such as the G.I. bill were created to help with the transition. Similarly, the Marshall Plan was established to help rebuild the economies abroad. Such planning can be done and done successfully, but it requires determination and a willingness for real planning, not appeals to the mystical "invisible hand" of the marketplace.

Moral: "We have met the enemy and he is us" -- Pogo

Read Part 2 - The Automotive Society

Read Part 1 - Outsourcing

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If you have any comments you would like to add email me at robert.feinman@gmail.com
Copyright © 2005 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.