June 25th, 2009 | Published in Current Events
I saw something in the NYer a few weeks ago that really piqued my interest and made me look at the issue of American mass-consumerism in a new way.
By American mass-consumerism I mean the meteoric rise in America’s consumption of foreign-made goods over the last 30-50-odd years. I.e. the simply and well known fact that America doesn’t make stuff anymore. We buy stuff.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because it is really confusing to me. I can give you a short story to explain my confusion. A year ago I bought a couple of wool Pendleton blankets at a thrift store in Portland. The blankets are beautiful, tartan, a little scratchy but warm in the winter. Their tags say they were made in Oregon. They were used, and they still cost $20 each, but they were worth it. A few months after I got the blankets, I noticed that the Pendleton store in the Portland airport was having a sale; I went in the store and starting trying on sweaters I am not old enough to want to buy, when I noticed that all of the Pendleton tags now said “Made in China”. Apparently Pendleton still makes some stuff in America, but most of their stuff is made in Mexico and China. But why was this fairly well-known American brand outsourcing its manufacture to China? Isn’t it bad enough that Wal-Mart makes everything in China; why do small locally recognized manufacturers do it too? And additionally, since it’s so hard to find American-made stuff anymore, how is it possible that America manages to consume so much, whille making so little? What is it that we do that makes us the richest country in the world, the biggest consumer of the world?
So, the point being that this is something that I have been confused about for a really long time, and a little bit pissed about. I like buying American made stuff. I try, sometimes, to buy American made stuff. But it’s not always easy. It’s not that stuff made in America is any more expensive. It’s not. American Apparel makes pretty nice clothes (I have an American Apparel hoodie that is well made and comfortable and good-looking enough), and their stuff is not that expensive (I think the hoodie was $30) and the souls of small Vietnamese children do not have to be trampled for the clothes to get made. A bunch of Americans make American Apparel stuff, presumably, since the AA store windows all say “made in downtown L.A.”.
(As an aside, I want to cue the “Flight of the Conchords” song here for anyone that might remember it — “They’re turning kids into slaves / just to make cheaper sneakers, / but what’s the real cost / ’cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper. / Why are we still paying so much for sneakers when you’ve got them made by little slave kids? / What are your overheads?”)
So finally to the NYer quote. I feel like I’ve got you pretty well set up for the idea here so I’m just going to spit it out:
[A Columbia professor] explained that we [the U.S.] are, in some respects, the victims of a structural imperative reaching back to the waning days of the Second World War. The Great Depression in Britain, he said, started in the late nineteen-twenties, owing to structural deficits in the nation’s balance of payments, a result of the pound sterling’s role as the world’s reserve currency. Bretton Woods, the global economic conference in New Hampshire in 1944, replaced the pound with the dollar.
This meant that debts tended to be denominated in dollars, and other nations had to hold dollars in reserve, to pay them off. Not having dollars would expose your country to the risks of currency fluctuations. And so other countries coveted dollars. To get them, they sold goods. There was, therefore, in the Bretton Woods arrangement, a structural demand for current-account surpluses, and for someone to eat up all those surpluses. We had to be the consumer of last resort. “We’ve been living beyond our means for the sake of the world,” Greenwald told me. “Where else would all that crap go?”
–Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, May 18, 2009
So without spelling it out too much, the interest that I had in this quote was basically derived from the fact that I had never thought of that before (nor did I really know what Bretton Woods was all about, though I had heard of it…). It’s interesting to me to think that in a sense, although the way of life of America is in many ways shortsighted–that we overconsume, that our culture has become and is becoming hollower by the day, and that every day we seem to consume more and more and do less and less–there is, however, at least one way in which that overconsumption is not due to some inherent greedy gene in America, so much as to the doomed circumstances of our currency, the fact that if any country wanted to have a pretty safe outlook in terms of being able to pay off its debts in the event of a drop in the value of its currency, it had to buy a lot of American dollars (like actually buy money, the way you would buy a Big Mac or a car); and the only way it would buy that money was buy making shit. Lots and lots of shit. Mountains and valleys and plateaus of endless piles of shit. To sell us. For dollars.
In a sense, then (in the sense that human life expands to fill the space available, always and everywhere, even when that expansion threatens the extinction of that life), American mass-consumerism was in a certain light inevitable because of the status of the dollar after WWII. As I was thinking about writing this post, I re-read some passages from Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse”, about human civilizations that have collapsed or failed throughout history (like Easter Island, the Vikings, etc.). One of the constants that he points out is that when civilizations fail they often don’t take seriously the manipulative affect their abuse or overuse of resources will have on their own longevity. This ultimately, and almost, almost inevitably causes some kind of terrible, unimaginable disaster that causes starvation, war, despair. Due to a lack of resources.
It seems to me that consumption of resources is inevitable for humans when those resources are available, because one of the rules of life is that happiness can only be achieved intuitively, and intuitition often guides us to do things that are disastrous, sustainability-wise. I think humans are in trouble because of that. I think this dollar thing is one of the most compelling reasons I’ve heard of so far for American mass-consumerism, because I don’t believe that Americans are just more greedy or more selfish than the rest of the world. I think the circumstances were there, at a certain point, for us to gorge ourselves more than anyone else in the world, and we did it.
There is a hopeful section in Diamond’s book, where he talks about the inhabitants of Tikopia, a small island off the coast of New Guinea. Apprently the little island could support barely enough human life for a civilization to stay there, but only if the people who lived on the island made concessions not to reproduce except rarely (even practicing abortion and infanticide to keep the population low — not that either of those things are “hopeful”), and agreeing not to raise pigs or food sources that would disproportionately damage the environment. They made a number of other concessions (voluntary suicide and celibacy among them) that, to put it mildly, did not sound easy. But because of the concessions that they were able to make, people were able to continuously inhabit Tikopia for thousands of years.
Of course, Diamond contrasts Tikopia to Easter Island, where overconsumption of humans and disregard for the environment caused most of the humans on the island to die of starvation.
Tikopia also seemed definitively to be the exception not the rule.
I guess the point of all this is, the little bit of that New Yorker article made me feel a little better about America’s role in the world; but it didn’t necessarily make me feel much better about the fate of the whole lot of us.
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