The ubiquitous narrative and its consequences
Do you find yourself working hard every day, feeling trapped in a work-spend cycle? Consumerism could be the reason.
According to Communicating Nature by Julia Corbett, the U.S. workforce’s productivity has doubled since 1948 but that extra cash has gone out the window as we shop (89).
Though we have only 5% of the world’s population, we use 20% of all natural resources and 25% of the global energy supply (90).
The market system has created planned and perceived obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is when a product is designed to fail so consumers need to replace it, like a laptop with a lifespan of maybe 4–6 years.
Perceived obsolescence is when something just seems like it doesn’t meet our needs anymore like last year’s style of iPhone. This is achieved by making products with new colors and designs to shame people with older models into buying the latest.
The market views our whole lifestyle is an oportunity for consumption. We’re caught in a cycle, working to earn money to pay for the rest of our lives and spending it all so we have to go back to work for more.
The book I Want That! calls this concept the buyosphere (Corbett 93), the idea that the market dictates our behaviors and choices by playing to our emotions, desires, self-image, what we perceive as needs, etc., making us into “a nation of consumers” (94).
Corbett suggests consumption is often for social status, because others are doing it or we want to fit in or create a favorable image of ourselves.
A personal example:
A few weeks ago, I went to the lake with some friends. Our hard-earned cash was used to purchase a ticket — yes, a $10 parking permit— rent a paddle board for $40, and buy lunch ($8 personal pizzas). And of course gas for the car.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, going to the lake became more than just going — there were things we needed to complete the experience.
Each year, the outdoor recreation industry makes $5 billion and is growing about 7% annually (111).
I used to work for REI and I can attest to this. Though I loved my job, I can’t deny that the market drove most of our business choices. We were salesmen — as much as we truly wanted people to experience nature we wanted them to buy our products.
Consume and Dominate: The Commodification of Wilderness Access
Photo by Alana Redden The creation of wilderness, literally (in the designation of national parks and protected lands)…
Paddle boarding, climbing, camping, and hiking are just some of the activities that require the purchase or rental of stuff. We need the ropes, correct footwear, a special backpack for the hike, a new bathing suit…the list goes on.
Even our landscapes are controlled by consumerism. How they look is used to send messages of status and a desired experience to others.
This brings up the issue of urban sprawl. To combat this, many have turned to “smart growth” which implements more human and eco-friendly methods of development (118).
Though it is helpful to rethink the way we grow to better care for the wellbeing of humans and the planet, Corbett points out:
“smart growth has not necessarily altered our attitude that growth is good and inevitable” (118).
It surprised me to learn that we actually don’t get a lot of messages about the environment on TV at all. A study on nonnews programing from ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX found only 0.5% of the sample 410 hours contained topics related to environmental issues, which came out to only 2 hours and 22 minutes (126).
The environmental themes we do receive are frequently human-centered. Disney’s animal protagonists have human motives and problems, movies involving nature often focus on the themes like triumphs of the human spirit, winning the West, or science solving problems nature creates (129–34).
We are often not getting accurate portrayals of the real natural world — we’re being sold entertainment and contrived experiences through a human-centered lens.
“Commodification of nature… cheapens it and does nothing to clarify or deepen our relationships to it” (146).
We use vacations to escape the mundanity of our lives, to experience an exotic land and capture it in “Kodak moments” (135–36).
Tourism represents 10.2% of the global gross domestic product (134) and yet another realm where marketing experiences and products dominates. And often we don’t even get an accurate expereince of a place because it’s filtered though a vacation lens.
As Corbett says, “…we look to the marketplace to provide answers to our problems and a sense of fulfillment” (94).
Believing consumption can complete us is a dangerous assumption to buy into. Communities are devastated by degradation from our consumeristic society and the environment is trashed by our insatiable thirst for stuff.
Though I believe we should continue to create experiences, travel, enjoy life, etc. — heck, all of the photos used to illustrate these points are from MY life! — I think Corbett’s arguments are important to consider as we make choices about what and how to consume.
She reminds us, “commodifying leisure means convincing you that leisure requires a lot of material goods, and that you can purchase things which are ultimately incapable of being bought or sold: peace, relaxation, spirituality” (146).
I think commodifying everything — not just leisure — creates a false narrative that even the intangible can be purchased, and distances us from the consequences of our consumerism.
Corbett, Julia B. Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages. Island Press, 2006.