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Materialism and consumerism have gone too far in american society

Laura Cloer Dan Cloer Over the past 100 years, scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations have radically changed the human experience. Today the world is awash in material goods and a higher standard of living for increasing numbers. In short, we are the greatest consumers in the history of life on earth. Yet we seem to be less happy and more anxious.

We are surrounded by a manufactured world. Almost everything we touch or use in our homes, our garages, our offices is the by-product of an intense and complex industrial system: Ours is a world of mass production.

  1. In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now [in 1955] it is two years. This degrades human relationships both near and far.
  2. These were astonishing numbers, and this new form of mass production attracted widespread attention.
  3. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.

Clothes, furniture, toys, cars, food are produced in factories—large factories—somewhere. Because only a very few of us participate in the actual making of these everyday items, we tend to take their existence for granted; it is as if they magically appear on the shelves of our ubiquitous superstores.

Do we need this story line? The tragically poor and exploited lives of Chinese chip makers and Indian and Bangladeshi seamstresses are gaining worldwide visibility. Recent news concerning the unsafe living and working conditions of great masses of people is likely merely the tip of the exploitation iceberg. There is a certain satisfaction in making something yourself; a life seems fuller in the producing rather than just the using.

To build something is participatory in a way that simply consuming a product is not. Covetousness is a temptation to which we are all certainly prone.

Manufacturing a Consumer Culture

It is no small thing to recognize that the Ten Commandments warn against being overtaken by covetousness, because its consequences quickly spiral out of control Exodus 20: They valued stability, thriftiness and family. But in the mid-1800s, a cultural shift was beginning. In the United States, the measured pace of rural life was being replaced by the hurried tempo of urban commerce.

Land became a commodity, a standardized resource to be bought, sold, and exploited to generate economic growth. Roads and railways soon crisscrossed the country; people began to travel and to move away from their homes and extended families.

Trips that had taken weeks at the beginning of the 19th century took only days by 1860. Communication for a spreading populace was made possible by the inventions of the telegraph and the telephone. Business could be conducted, orders taken and filled in hours or days instead of weeks or months.

Cultural Shift

In demonizing it, in seeing ourselves as helpless and innocent victims of its overpowering force. These were astonishing numbers, and this new form of mass production attracted widespread attention. Understanding that products needed buyers, Ford decided to pay his workers double the going wage of the time.

In addition, with the increased productivity that the assembly line made possible, the prices of goods could be lowered.

Workers at the new Ford plant were happy to have steady jobs and better wages. Because the price of the Model T actually came down year by year, they could now afford the automobiles they made. The advantage of mass production—using an assembly line that moved the work to the worker—was not lost on other industries and products.

Mass marketing became an industry of its own as manufacturers realized they would have to keep the consumer coming back for more to keep the money coming in. In time it was a relatively simple task to make minor modifications to existing products and then advertise them as new and improved so that consumers would feel they needed the latest version. A perfectly working five-year-old auto was merely considered outdated in terms of features. In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now [in 1955] it is two years.

When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.

  1. Business could be conducted, orders taken and filled in hours or days instead of weeks or months.
  2. To build something is participatory in a way that simply consuming a product is not. But with the entry of the United States into World War II, mass production ramped up and once again turned toward the war effort.
  3. Because the price of the Model T actually came down year by year, they could now afford the automobiles they made.

Production and consumption waned. But with the entry of the United States into World War II, mass production ramped up and once again turned toward the war effort: Thus we find ourselves in a quandary: Yet, to continue at an ever-increasing pace—a pace that meets the growth model of increasing profits, wages and employment—requires more feedstock materials, energy and capital.

It is easy to become entangled in simply consuming for the sake of consuming. But we need to have our priorities in order. Wanting, getting and having are not the point of life Luke 12: The desire that all people have a decent standard of living is certainly commendable; things in themselves are not necessarily bad, and having a mass production system that meets the needs of the masses is not intrinsically wrong. This degrades human relationships both near and far.

Like an addiction, we can become trapped in a downward spiral of both financial and mental consumer debt. American Families and the Nostalgia Trap 1992, 2000. William Leach, Land of Desire: Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America 2007.