I have an unfortunate tendency to falter at crucial moments. For instance, standing at the altar in a church in Vermont, waiting for my wife-to-be to come down the aisle to marry me, I start to feel horribly ill.
Not just vaguely queasy, but severely nauseated and shaky – and, most of all, sweaty. The church is hot that day – it’s early July – and many people are perspiring in their summer suits and sun-dresses. But not like I am.
As the processional plays, sweat begins to bead on my forehead and above my upper lip. In the wedding photos, Susanna is glowing; I am glistening. By the time she joins me in the front of the church, rivulets of sweat are running into my eyes and dripping down my collar. We turn to face the minister.
Behind him are the friends we have asked to give readings, and I see them looking at me with concern. What’s wrong with him, I imagine they are thinking. Is he going to pass out? Merely imagining these thoughts makes me sweat even more. My best man, standing a few feet behind me, taps me on the shoulder and hands me a tissue to mop my brow.
The wedding readers’ facial expressions have gone from registering mild concern to unconcealed horror: Is he going to die? I’m beginning to wonder that myself. For I have started to shake. I don’t mean slight trembling – I feel like I’m on the verge of convulsing. I am concentrating on keeping my legs from flying out from under me and am hoping that my pants are baggy enough to keep the trembling from being too visible. I’m now leaning on my almost wife and she is doing her best to hold me up.
With Christmas past, household consumption reached its yearly peak in many countries. Whilst this celebration still brings up a homely picture of tranquility, the truth is that Christmas is characterized more by frenzied shopping, stress and overspending than by peace and quality time. As in so many other areas of our lives, we have been sold on the idea that satisfaction, even happiness, comes through purchase.
Two generations back, my Norwegian grandmother was overjoyed as a child when receiving one modest gift and tasting an imported orange for Christmas. Today, in a time dominated by long-distance trade and excess consumption, nobody gets even mildly excited by tasting a foreign fruit or receiving a small gift. Instead, adults dive into a cornucopia of food, typically followed by dieting, whilst children expect numerous expensive gifts, with electronic toys, games, gadgets and designer clothes topping the list.
This comparison in time is not about romanticizing the past or putting down the present, but a small example of how consumption has come to replace the things that give meaning; for example, creating with our own hands, sharing and interacting with others. In the process, we have been robbed of the ability to take pleasure from small wonders.
Most of us know that we are living a time of excessive consumption, eloquently defined as “consumer culture” – a rather fancy title for something that has more in common with an affliction of abuse and dependency, such as bulimia or alcoholism, than it has to do with culture.
Rampant consumerism doesn’t happen by itself, it is encouraged by an economic system based on perpetual economic growth. When national economies show signs of stress, citizens are invariable called upon to increase consumption. Curiously, when the talk turns to the down-side of consumerism – resource depletion, pollution etc. – it is human nature/greed and the consumer that gets blamed. We are asked to engage in “responsible shopping” – voting with your purse.
Whereas I have no doubt that consumerism does create greed – greed for the latest model of computers, mobile phone, clothes or cars – it has nothing to do with human nature, but all to do with artificially-induced behavior.
Our world-spanning corporate-controlled economy, is hatching consumers like never before. From early childhood our eyes, ears and minds are flooded with images and messages that seeks to undermine our identity, culture and self-esteem, creating false needs and teaching us to seek satisfaction and approval through consumption of industrial and corporate products.
No people have been more exposed to this onslaught than the US citizen. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average young person in the US views more than 3,000 ads per day on television, the internet, billboards and in magazines. Whilst the figure may be lower for other countries, there is no doubt that we are all increasingly exposed and vulnerable to advertising, particularly through the internet which now has over 600 million users globally.
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