Please, May I Have a Little Less?: America’s Consumer Culture

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

I was recently in the States for the first time in almost a year. Now, a year may be long enough for my parents to redo the landscaping, but it is hardly long enough for me to feel like a stranger in my own home. Yet this trip found me in tears in the snack food aisle.

“Do I want barbeque or sour cream and onion? Baked or fried? Do I even like potato chips?” What had started as a simple trip to the supermarket had turned into an identity crisis. Aisles later, I realized that my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t pick a flavor, it was that I couldn’t find the right product. Back to my senses, I returned the box of chocolate chip cookie cereal to the shelf, and as I left the store empty handed I wondered: if America is the land of plenty, why doesn’t it have anything to offer me?

Groceries come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors but they all belong to the same category: artificial. I don’t want to microwave it or just add water. While I appreciate convenience and efficiency, I prefer to have the time, energy, and materials to cook it myself. But Americans don’t create, they consume. This cultural phenomenon, reflected in the supermarket, was the true cause of my culture shock.

Americans, it seems to me, are in a never-ending pursuit of products, because “stuff” has become synonymous with happiness. Money dictates moods. People are defined by what they have and they are haunted by what they have not. Because new and improved products constantly enter the market, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and relative deprivation.

Perhaps worst of all, the availability and accessibility of top end consumer goods has caused Americans to lose perspective and to miscalculate their own quality of life. Some of the wealthiest people in the world believe themselves to be poor. Clothes purchased at Target are often better than those found at top stores in Argentina. Luxury has become the new basic. Yet Americans go into credit card debt over Louis Vuitton purses.

My preferences and priorities are somewhat simpler. This is not to say that I don’t like pretty things or that I don’t miss certain products from the States. Garbage disposals, tampons with applicators, and pumpkin bagels all spring to mind. However, I am not defined or motivated by them. And for me, the cost of living in a society that offers those products is too high. I don’t want to trade my interests, passions, talents, and health for purchasing power. Houses, cars, clothes, and iPhones are not worth my soul.

Personally, I would rather pay less and receive less. There are even times when I would be willing to pay the same and receive less. One night while in the States, I went to the mall to treat myself to frozen yogurt. The boy behind the counter grabbed what looked to be a venti frappuccino cup stolen from the neighboring Starbucks. “Is that really the smallest size there is?” I asked in disbelief. He assured me that it was. Before he had finished filling the cup, I shouted to him in desperation, “That’s enough!” I wanted dessert, not Thanksgiving dinner. In the end, I had to throw most of it away anyways.

25% more free is wasted on me. I don’t have the space to store it and I can’t possibly consume it before it goes bad. What I want is moderation. But that option is now obsolete.

Finding balance in the States is it not impossible. But when the pervasive culture is to always strive for more, you have to fight if you want less. Or if not fight, at the very least defend. You have to defend your lifestyle from the judgment of others and from the temptation to keep up with the Jone’s.

When I explain to people that I would rather enjoy my life now than spend it collecting objects, they look at me like I’m lazy, crazy, or a Socialist. If you ask me, lazy is letting a machine do all the work for you. And crazy is starting to save for retirement the day you graduate from college, saddling yourself with debts and loans so that you can buy things that you can’t afford, wasting your days inside chained to a desk, and looking for fulfillment in material possessions.

Ultimately, this is not about ideology. I’m not trying to start a revolution. And I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with having expensive tastes. I just don’t want to live in a place where comfort kills creativity, where salvation is found in shopping, and where fear of financial insecurity in the future prevents people from living the present. Personally, I don’t want to have to be rich to be happy.

For more on the paradox of choice, check out Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk

2 Responses to “Please, May I Have a Little Less?: America’s Consumer Culture”

  1. 1 Farolera December 4, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    “What I want is moderation. But that option is now obsolete.”

    “You have to defend your lifestyle from the judgment of others and from the temptation to keep up with the Jone’s.”

    Brilliant. Simply brilliant. 🙂

    Screw the Jones, I think you found yourself a whole new personal philosophy –and, certainly, it wouldn’t hurt to try and promote it as an alternative ideology. We need more of these thoughs said out loud if we were to achieve a true, silent, peaceful and happy revolution. Thank you A.!

  2. 2 Rachel December 9, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Never thought about that “Consume” and they don’t create in America. How true!

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