by David Suzuki
My parents were born in Vancouver – Dad in 1909, Mom in 1911 – and married during the Great Depression. It was a difficult time that shaped their values and outlook, which they drummed into my sisters and me.
“Save some for tomorrow,” they often scolded. “Share, don’t be greedy.” “Live within your means.” The most important: “You must work hard for the necessities in life, but don’t run after money as if having fancy clothes or big cars make you a better or more important person.” I think of my parents often during the frenzy of pre-and post-Christmas shopping.
We moved to Ontario after the Second World War. We were destitute. As Canadians of Japanese descent, we had been treated as enemy aliens and lost everything, including all rights as Canadian citizens. I needed a coat for the cold eastern winter so my parents purchased a new one, a big expense for farm labourers. Unfortunately, I was 11 and going through a growth spurt and quickly outgrew the coat so it was passed on to my twin sister, Marcia. She wore it for longer but also outgrew it and gave it to our younger sister, Aiko. My parents boasted the coat was so well made, “it went through three children.” It’s been a long time since I’ve heard durability as a positive attribute of a product.
How did “throw-away,” “disposable” and “planned obsolescence” become part of product design and marketing? It was deliberate. Wars are effective at getting economies moving and the Second World War pulled America out of the Great Depression. By 1945, the American economy was blazing as victory approached.
But how can a war-based economy continue in peacetime? One way is to continue hostilities or their threat. The global costs of armaments and defence still dwarf spending for health care and education. Another way to transform a wartime economy to peacetime is consumption. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”
Seized upon by the Council of Economic Advisers to the President under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, consumption was promoted as the engine of the economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously proclaimed in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
We are no longer defined by our societal roles or political status (voters), but as “customers,” “shoppers” or “consumers.” The media remind us daily of how well we’re supporting continued economic growth, using the Dow Jones average, S&P Index, the price of gold and the dollar’s value.
Nature has long been exploited in commercials: the lean movement of lions or tigers in car ads, the cuteness of parrots or mice, the strength of crocodiles, etc. But now animals are portrayed to actively recruit consumers. I’m especially nauseated by the shot of a penguin offering a stone to a potential mate being denigrated by another penguin offering a fancy diamond necklace.
How can we have serious discussions about the ecological costs and limits to growth or the need to degrow economies when consumption is seen as the very reason the economy and society exist?
Excerpted from Consumer Society No Longer Serves Our Needs. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org