RSSCategory: Consumerism

Culture as a collective fabrication facilitating our quest for immortality

October 7, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Culture as a collective fabrication facilitating our quest for immortality

I often wonder how people are capable of simply going about their business, chatting about last night’s sporting event, working on crossword puzzles or thinking about buying a new car, despite the fact that they will be dead someday, maybe even someday soon. And for those with children, their children will also be dead a few decades later. How can we possibly live with those dreaded thoughts hanging over us? In fact, every person now living will likely be dead in 150 years. How can we engage in mundane things like gossiping, consuming, traveling and amusing ourselves when every person on the planet is facing annihilation? How do we put death out of our minds so easily?

Ernest Becker would suggest that I have it all backwards. According to Becker, people intensely amuse and distract themselves, and immerse themselves in culture, because they are anxious about death. They are not necessarily consciously aware of their impending deaths, but they feel it deeply, and their minds grind and sputter on this topic, under the surface, unconsciously.

We do the best we can to deal with this terrifying thought that we will all be dead, and the best we can think of doing is to distract ourselves with the many bright and shiny bigger-than-us, bigger-than-life things offered by culture. We put these things on a pedestal and then we cling to them as if they were life preservers. We embellish our cultural treasures with accolades recognizing their “eternal” significance. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Babe Ruth, stamp collections, being a trivia pursuit star, triathlons, Michelangelo’s David. And for some of us, Jesus Christ loves us and He will let us live with him forever in heaven. According to Becker, these cultural mainstays are important for keeping us steady, even while death (and the threat of death) lurks around every corner.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the highly acclaimed low-budget 90-minute 2005 documentary titled “Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality,” produced by Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick. The film is based on the works of Ernest Becker’s “terror management theory,” (TMT) on which I’ve written several times (see here and here). Even though I was well acquainted with the works of Becker prior to viewing this video, I found the film to be transformative, in that it offers a schematic of underlying “hydraulics” that help us to understand many things that otherwise seem so puzzling about culture. I’d highly recommend “Flight from Death” whether or not you sometimes find it stunning that you live on a planet where mobile intestinal tracks scurry about, drive buses and even serve you meals at your local restaurant. Here’s the trailer.

Even though I was already familiar with Becker’s theory and many of the experiments substantiating Becker’s theory, I found the film illuminating. “Flight From Death” includes well-chosen imagery and music to accompany the interviews with thoughtful and eccentric people from a wide variety of backgrounds (including psychologist Sheldon Soloman and writer Sam Keen, among others).

[More . . . ]

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More stuff = lower self-esteem

September 15, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
More stuff = lower self-esteem

The Daily Galaxy reports on the inverse relationship between self-esteem and materialism:

Researchers have found that low self-esteem and materialism are not just a correlation, but also a causal relationship where low self esteem increases materialism, and materialism can also create low self-esteem. The also found that as self esteem increases, materialism decreases. . . . The paradox that findings such as these bring up, is that consumerism is good for the economy but bad for the individual.

The study announcing this finding was by Lan Nguyen Chaplin (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Deborah Roedder John (University of Minnesota), to appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Is USDA Organic Certifiably Insane?

September 2, 2010 | By | Reply More
Is USDA Organic Certifiably Insane?

I saw a very brief and hurried post from ERV on ScienceBlogs. In it, she noted that organic farmers let their animals die from treatable diseases, because to do otherwise would deny them the valuable ‘organic’ label.

WTF?

In Europe, organic livestock MUST be treated humanely, and may receive therapeutic medication (including antibiotics) – to do otherwise is a complete denial of everything science and medicine has learned in the past three hundred years.

But, apparently, that’s what Organic means in the US!

As ERV says

‘Organic’ farmers? All concerned about their free-range, cage-free, at harmony with the Mother Goddess animals? They let their fucking animals die from treatable diseases, because if they treat them with even one dose of antibiotics, the animals are no longer ‘organic’.

She quotes Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association

Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope”, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”

Never mind the epic FAIL in Ronnie Cummin’s statement about the dangers of vaccines – that woo is worthy of a post all by itself! The issue is that animals are allowed to die, often painfully, from completely preventable and treatable diseases.

Why is this so?

ERV linked to her source (this article at the blog “In These Times”). According to that article,

Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations defining organic standards mandate that if [a] calf had gotten one dose of antibiotics, even to save her life, she could never give organic milk—even after the two years it takes for her to become a milker, and even though neither she nor her milk would retain any trace of antibiotics.

So why would the USDA have such nonsensical standards for ‘organic’?

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Instant Rockstar and Instant Respect

August 27, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More
Instant Rockstar and Instant Respect

Now you don’t have to learn how to play the guitar. All you need to do is pretend that you can play guitar. At my neighborhood Walgreens, there is now a big display featuring Paper Jamz plastic and cardboard string-less guitars (electronic sensors pick up where your hands are). For only $25 ($15 extra if you want a separate amp made mostly out of cardboard), you can be an “Instant Rockstar.” I picked up one of these “guitars” to see whether I could feel like an “Instant Rockstar” right there in the aisles of Walgreens. I felt the glow of stardom for only a few seconds, because you can’t actually play Paper Jamz guitar like you can play a real guitar (I play the guitar professionally). You can’t play individual notes, you can’t play precise rhythms, the sound range is extremely limited, there are no dynamics and there is only one genre offered: distorted rock chords.

Each of these five models of “guitar” is loaded with only three songs. Once you master the three songs on one of the guitars, you’ll need to go back to Walgreens and pay $25 for a different model in order to play three more songs. Instead of real guitar lessons, just go to Rockstarz Academy.

The manufacturer of the Paper Jamz “guitar” tells you that you’d be wasting your time and money to buy a real guitar and learn how to play it. The Paper Jamz display actually includes a video promo with this opening line: “Why play an electric guitar when you can play Paper Jamz?” Why, indeed? I would offer one good reason why you might want to forgo the Paper Jamz “guitar.” When you play a fake guitar instead of a real guitar, you will get fake respect, instead of real respect. To paraphrase and expand the Paper Jamz motto, “Why live a real life when you can watch TV and pretend to be living a life?”

Amotz Zahavi made it clear that in order to be reliable, a signal means to be expensive. If you want lots of respect, then, go practice hard so that you really learn how to play the guitar, and then come back and impress people by playing real songs. Paying $25 and then banging on a piece of plastic and cardboard isn’t going to get you much respect, unless your audience consists of three-year-olds. Then again, I’m probably missing the point because massive numbers of Americans are under the delusion that reality is the way they desire it to be, rather than the way it actually is. Buying a cardboard guitar can bring instant respect to many teenagers because they believe it can.

We are a society that craves instant respect. We show off our gadgets and toys to the have-nots for instant respect. We join the military so we can carry guns, wear uniforms and blow things up in order to get instant respect, even though we’ve floundered through life until then. We celebrate family tragedies, sickness and addictions because these bring us respect as high-ranking victims. We strive to shake hands with Hollywood and sports celebrities, because this brings us instant respect. We become fans of professional sports teams in the hopes that they will win their championship, which seems to bring us respect.

I hope that everybody buying a Paper Jamz guitar really takes the time to impress their friends by “playing the guitar” before they lose all interest in “playing” the three songs programmed into their “guitar.” I’m not denying that this gadget is technologically impressive or that it could be fun for a small child. But within a few months after buying a Paper Jamz guitar, this gadget will undoubtedly end up in the back of the closet, and it will eventually be tossed into a landfill with all the other gadgets we buy in our attempts to gain instant respect.

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Arms race

August 15, 2010 | By | Reply More
Arms race

This web page reminded me of the ongoing arms race between cheaters and cheaters of cheaters.

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Whose oil spill was it?

August 11, 2010 | By | Reply More
Whose oil spill was it?

The Editors at Scientific American have reminded us that oil users (and that includes all of us) are pushing the big oil companies into taking the drilling risks they take:

[I]f we expect oil companies to manage risk better, then society as a whole needs to do the same. The market forces that encouraged BP to take ill-considered risks are largely of our own creation, as stockholders, consumers and citizens. The hodgepodge of subsidies that masquerades as our current national energy policy invites disaster; it fails to grapple with the urgent need to stop wasting energy and start encouraging clean sources. Every day we still need 85 million barrels of oil—the equivalent of more than 25 Ixtoc spills—to keep the wheels of our society turning.

If you do the math, you’ll see that 85 million barrels of oil equals 3,570,000,000 gallons per day. That equals 148,750,000 gallons per hour, 2,479,166 gallons per minute, and 41,319 gallons per second. Americans are currently using an amount of oil that makes us staggeringly dependent on a dwindling natural resource that is mostly imported. And most of that imported oil is sending huge quantities of American dollars to regimes whose interests run counter to American interests.

Our oil dependence should thus be seen as a major risk to our national security. We could slash this usage dramatically with reasonable conservation measures. But politicians believe that it is suicide to ask Americans for any form of sacrifice, even when national security depends on it.

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Capitalism under the microscope

August 3, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Capitalism under the microscope

Annie Leonard has passionately researched and written a book she titles: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with the Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change (2010).

I haven’t yet finished her book, although I’d like to post on one point she strongly makes early on, a point that is the elephant in the room regarding most discussions of the American way of life. It is a topic not far from the hearts of the many free market fundamentalists out there. The topic is whether it’s time to put capitalism under the microscope. Here’s what Leonard has to say:

[There is no doubt we will reach the planet’s carrying capacity; we’re heading in that direction now…. a big part of the problem we face today is that our dominant economic system values growth as a goal unto itself, above all else. That’s why we use the gross to metric product, or GDP as a standard measure of success….

All right. Are you ready? I’m going to say it: this critique of economic growth is a critique of many aspects of capitalism as it functions in the world today. There. I said the word: “capitalism.” It’s the Economic-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.

When writing the film script of The Story of Stuff, my intent was to describe what I saw in my years on the trail of trash, visiting factories and dumps and learning about how things are made, use, and thrown away around the world. I certainly didn’t sit down and figure out how to explain the flaws of capitalism. It was trash, not economics, that was originally on my mind. So at first it took me by surprise that some commentators called the film “an ecological critique of capitalism” or “anti-capitalist.”… it turns out that a hard look at how we make and use and throwaway Stuff reveals some pretty deep problems caused by core functions of a specific economic system called capitalism. There’s no way around it: capitalism, as it currently functions, is just not sustainable….

Yet, in the United States, were still hesitant to broach this unmentionable subject, fearful of being labeled unpatriotic, unrealistic, or insane. Elsewhere in the world, there’s a widespread recognition that some aspects of capitalism aren’t working well for the majority of the world’s people or for the planet; people talk about it openly….

Can we put capitalism on the table and talk about it with the same intellectual rigor that we welcome for other topics? Can we examine the failures of capitalism without falling into generations-old stereotypes and without being accused of being un-American? Refusing to talk about it doesn’t make the problems disappear. I believe the best way to honor our country is to point out when it’s going astray, instead of sitting here silently as many economic, environmental, and social indices worsen. Now would be a good time to start looking at what we could do differently, and what we could do better….

The belief that infinite economic growth is the best strategy for making a better world has become like a secular religion in which all our politicians, economists, and media participate; it is seldom debated, since everyone is supposed to just accept it as true.

Why are so few people willing to challenge, or even critically discuss, an economic model that so clearly isn’t serving the planet and the majority of its people. I think one reason is that the economic model is nearly invisible to us. … [W]e tend to forget that were viewing the world through the paradigm, like it’s a pair of contact lenses…. before we can change a paradigm, we need to identify it as a paradigm rather than assume it is truth.

[Starting at page xviii]

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Net Neutrality: The first amendment issue of our time?

July 27, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Net Neutrality: The first amendment issue of our time?

Please watch Senator Al Franken explaining why Net Neutrality is one of the most important issues of our time:

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Debtors’ Prison Still A Reality?

July 19, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Debtors’ Prison Still A Reality?

According to a recent article by Chris Serres at the Minnesota Star Tribune, courts still order debtors to go to jail when they can’t afford to pay a judgment.

Not only are the national media largely unaware of this phenomenon, but The New Yorker published an article last April that characterizes debtors’ prisons as a pre-20th Century institution, and describes the America as a refuge for debtors.

As many as two out of every three Europeans who came to the American colonies were debtors on arrival. Some colonies were, basically, debtors’ asylums. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause.

Jill Lepore of The New Yorker goes on to describe how American treatment of debt has evolved to allow bankruptcy and why this is a good thing.

Debtors’ prison was abolished, and bankruptcy law was liberalized, because Americans came to see that most people who fall into debt are victims of the business cycle, and not of fate or divine retribution.

Even Wikipedia describes debtors’ prisons as a thing of the past, or at least an unconstitutional one, according to this 2009 New York Times editorial, “The New Debtors’ Prisons.”

20th Century Debtors’ Prison

Times have changed. To be sure, most Americans who are deep in credit card debt do not have bench warrants issued for their arrest. However, in Illinois, Indiana and other states, a person who’s gotten a judgment entered against them can miss a court date and find themselves being hounded by the police.

What about the argument that defendants may owe the money they are being sued for, and should have gone to court? Perhaps the threat of jail is the only way to make them appear in court.

Reporters from The New York Times and The Federal Trade Commission have found that the collection industry is in dire need of repair, and cited numerous, ubiquitous problems. Some of these problems are startling. To wit:

[More . . . ]

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