Dead Zone - the monster of
American consumer culture
by John F. Schumaker
New Internationalist magazine, July 2001
Dead Zone - the monster of American consumer culture
by John F. Schumaker
New Internationalist magazine, July 2001
On a recent visit home to Wisconsin I found myself sitting
alone in a crowded shopping mall, feeling the same intangible
revulsion that eventually banished me from America. Above me towered
a brutish vending machine, complete with celestial chimes, rotating
lights and a steely synthesized voice beckoning the assembly of
dupes. A miserable young lad approached, dragging the body of
his package-laden mother. He searched her eyes repeatedly until
she finally fed the machine, got a Rocket Ranger toy and stuck
it out to her child.
He slapped it onto the floor and screeched for still another
selection. Mom stuffed in more bills until finally the boy was
out of choices. 'Well, for God's sake, what do you want,' she
In a confused rage the boy bawled, over and over again, 'I
want something, I want something, I want something.' As I watched
the boy I thought that, after all these years, America is still
shooting up the town, still digging its heels unnecessarily deep
into the precious elements that sustain us, and still making me
glad that I now live in New Zealand.
The boy seemed to forewarn of capitalism's psychological dead
end where life masquerades as a kaleidoscope of consumer choices.
His was the collective voice of mindless consumerism as it has
been perfected and amplified in America. It spoke too of the existential
loneliness that gnaws at me whenever I return to the 'all-consuming
society' as some sociologists have come to call America.
American culture has assigned its fate to institutionalized
overconsumption. This radical psycho-economic device lies at the
heart of the country's much celebrated economic boom. What we
see unfolding in the US is a human tragedy that was foreseen by
Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There he describes
a people who are 'drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals
that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires'.
Scratch the surface of the economic boom and you see a grotesque
epidemic of desire and greed. This is what America's bold experiment
with radical consumerism is all about.
As I sat in the mall that day I wondered what my hero Albert
Einstein would think about the patterns of cultural consciousness
that are encouraged in present-day America. In an interview he
once said: 'The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after
time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness,
beauty, and truth. The trite subjects of life - possessions, outward
success, luxury- have always seemed contemptible.'
Late in his life Einstein expressed grave concerns that trite
commercial values were beginning to silence loftier human motivations
among Americans and he feared the wider consequences of the social
sanctioning of greed. Yet not even he could have foreseen the
degree of authority that would eventually be commanded by all
However, as we all know, the person-as-customer cultural strategy
is a sure winner from the standpoint of an economy driven by overconsumption.
The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in
America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more
than any other nation.
In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than
Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest
rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent
greater than in all major European countries. Over the past five
years the savings rate in the US has fallen to a negative rate
so that we now spend around $35 billion more than we earn. Virtually
all shame has been erased from indebtedness. In 1999 US citizens
racked up credit-card debt of $1.5 trillion, while total consumer
debt reached a mindboggling $6 trillion. The one million bankruptcies
filed annually due to credit excesses are readily absorbed by
an economic system that flourishes on consumer foolhardiness.
When it comes to the physical-waste side of the equation,
Americans are leaving Sasquatch-sized footprints. The strategy
of overproduction, overspending and overconsumption sees Americans
piling up far more solid waste than any other nation. The typical
US family of four amasses a seemingly impossible 13 kg of solid
waste per day.
Like guns and God, overconsumption has very special meanings
to Americans. Most feel proud as well as fortified by the cultural
assumption that overindulgence is good for the country. By sheltering
them from all the bad news about overconsumption, the US media
has suppressed most environmental awareness, even in the face
of an impending ecological holocaust. The bulk of the American
public accepts the primitive economic reasoning underlying their
collective assault on the world's resources. The triumph of consumer
consciousness has seen banality and vulgarity anointed with respectability.
The utterly superfluous has become a noble pursuit and the quest
for personal and intellectual growth is fading quickly. Greed
has lost most of its negative connotations.
So just how shallow have we Americans become under the reign
of consumerism? In 1970, a largescale survey of US university
students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal 'the development
of a meaningful philosophy of life'. By 1989, the percentage had
fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those
aiming to be very well off financially increased from 39 per cent
to 75 per cent - which explains the wholesale shift to studying
American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point
that social analysts now speak of things like 'consumer trance'
and 'ecological dissociation'. Take the fascination with sport
utility vehicles (SWs). Who would have thought in these delicate
environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode
of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75
per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have
guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year
2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s?
Environmentalists have calculated that the SW fad has caused Americans
to waste 70 billion gallons of gasoline in the past 10 years -
an immense price for an outdoorsy image.
An article just appeared in my local Christchurch Mail newspaper,
titled 'New Zealand Fails To Measure Up Against United States'.
Comparing ten economic indicators across the two countries it
left no doubt that America was leaving New Zealand in the dust.
It is a standing joke that New Zealand is 20 years behind developments
in the US. Yet many Kiwis are catching up. Imported SWs parade
through the streets of Auckland, 24-hour shopping is being tested
and Kiwis are becoming gradually fatter. But New Zealand has not
yet made overconsumption its national pastime and the core of
its national identity. Eighty-five percent of Americans indicated
in a recent poll that a 'six-figure' income would be required
to service their yearned-for lifestyle. Yet, nearly 30 percent
of those actually earning six-figures reported that their 'basic
needs' were not being met. This dizzying degree of consumer desire
and the exquisitely concocted discontent underlying it cannot
be achieved overnight.
While most societies throughout history have organized themselves
in order to curb natural greed, America's devoted consumers are
encouraged to respect, nurture and act on the subtlest stirrings
of their avarice. As a result materialism has reached fever pitch
and continues to rise sharply. In a 1976 survey of US high-school
students, 38 per cent indicated that having 'a lot of money' was
a primary goal in life. In 1988, the figure had risen to 63 per
cent. Today one would feel downright silly for even asking if
a lot of money' is important
Of special concern to mental-health professionals are studies
showing that high degrees of materialism have a toxic effect on
psychological and social well-being. A strong materialist orientation
has been associated with diminished life satisfaction, impaired
self-esteem, dissatisfaction with friendships and leisure activities,
and a predisposition to depression.
Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor
to Western society's tenfold increase in major depression over
the past half-century. It certainly features in the worrying rash
of 'consumption disorders' such as compulsive shopping, consumer
vertigo and kleptomania.
Hyper-materialism also features prominently in the emerging
plague of existential disorders' such as chronic boredom, ennui,
jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys
of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy
today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to
as all-pervasive 'psychic deadness'. Once materialism becomes
the epicenter of one's life it can be hard to feel any more alive
than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a
recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported
feeling in an 'existential vacuum'.
And children are on the frontlines of the consumer blitz.
An average eight-year-old in the US can list 30 popular brand
names. More than 90 per cent of 13-year-old girls in one survey
listed shopping as their favorite pastime, followed by TV watching.
In 1968 US children aged 4-12 spent around $2 billion a year;
today they spend nearly $30 billion. And savvy marketers now concentrate
on 'cradle-to-grave' indoctrination strategies.
The world seems hell-bent on following America's lead. But
there is nothing useful to be learned from the American Dream
in its present hyper-commercialized form. The toxic consciousness
that it fosters has transformed the dream into a nightmare. Finding
an antidote to the Americanization of the world must be the top
priority of the international community.
As a very first step we can discipline ourselves to be critical
of all the 'positive economic indicators' that we hear about the
American economy. We do not want to measure up to the cultural
greed and shared mindlessness that has earned America its preeminent
The footprints of tomorrow's people must be very light indeed.
Let it be our job to set an entirely different example that can
take us more safely into a highly uncertain future. Buy nothing
for a day and try to rise above your sense of cultural failure.
by John F. Schumaker now lives and works in Aotearoa/New Zealand