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  > > e-Bulletin: 02/08/02

Buying and spending we lay waste

Jennifer Thurber's letter on advertising-fueled consumption (December/01) raised issues which have been of great concern to me for a long time. While I recognize the long-term risks to the environment of overconsumption, I am more concerned about what our society has become, with much of human activity centered around work and making money for the specific purpose of funding that consumption. My wife and I have always been underconsumers; not because we're miserly or want to make a statement about the "evils" of chasing material goods, but because there are not many things advertised to the public that we have any interest in owning or consuming. We have never owned a minivan or SUV, solely because we have never had a need for either.

While I totally agree with Ms. Thurber's point that this "need" is artificially created and manipulated in a significant percentage of the population, my principal reaction is to feel pity for these people, who are driven by a need to conform, to be accepted, to be "in style," a need which, of course, tragically, can never be satisfied. As I'm sure we all do, I know many, many people like this and have always had the opinion that most are not truly happy or content with their lives.

One other point Ms. Thurber makes is that she would like advertising to motivate people to consume less. Surely she realizes that this is the antithesis of their raison d'être and could never happen. As with most of the ills of our world, education of the public is the only effective answer.

Lawrence S. Marden, SM'73
East Brunswick, New Jersey

I was stirred by Jennifer Thurber's letter, "Advertising-fueled consumption," feeling, Hurray! someone else feels the way I do about mindless consumerism. In fact there may be many of us, though obviously not a majority. But, I wonder, can more be done about it?

I don't think mindless consumerism indicates that most people are mindless-except maybe where some advertisement touches one's desire to be fashionable, adventuresome, or to outdo one's neighbors in potlaching as by lighting up the entire sky with one's holiday decorations. However, such motives are pretty nearly universal, and they contend with other motives like preserving our future.

No less than our president and other leading public figures were urging us all to go out and spend after September 11 put another downspin on our already plunging economy. I wonder if the real problem isn't deeper: we have evolved an economic system in which so many livelihoods depend on the continual production and purchase (I don't say consumption, because much of it just sits there taking up space) of junk.

Those who made the plea focused on just one problem-the need of incomes for companies and employees. They focus at other times and in other ways on pollution of the oceans, loss of the ozone screen, eradication of the forests, etc.-or maybe they don't, lulled by still other advertising, the kind claiming these are false fears.

If our economic system is indeed locked into the need for producing ever more junk in order for people to gain the income needed to survive, condemning the advertising that keeps pushing the wheel seems to offer an unlikely prospect for a cure.

Anthropologists can show us many simple societies that seem idyllic in their balance with nature, but even the most disenchanted of us are not going there. For the same economy that seems to have us locked into swelling junk has made possible the excitement of contemplating new frontiers in space, longer lives for many of us, more options for all of us, and more.

So, I repeat, what is to be done? I can't think of any grander solution than for Jennifer and me to hold back, as much as we can, and hope others become persuaded and join in. Her letter, along with warnings from others, is itself a counteracting force.

We also need to broaden our focus. Take one example she cites: SUVs. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal stated that the big three automakers are making SUVs even more powerful, even more luxurious, even more prodigal of natural resources and detrimental to the environment. Oops, they didn't say that last one directly. Interestingly, I have not seen hype about the "real" reason many people give in private for owning one, namely that they are "safer." Maybe it is embarrassing to say in public that-if we smack someone-we would prefer that they rather than we might die. But if that is the real reason then that is an important reason, and it will be hard to convince people that sparing the environment outweighs personal safety. Only when some genius aligns these values on the same side of the fence is it realistic to expect any improvement in that market.

R. J. Robertson, PhB'48, AM'52, PhD'60
Glenview, Illinois



  > > Volume 94, Number 3

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Liberal talk, realist thinking
  > >
The winning punch line
  > >
Physics for breakfast
  > > The young and studious

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