Responding to Christian Smith: Materialism and Consumption

This is Part 3 in a 5 Part Series responding to Christian Smith’s Book Lost in Transition

When it comes to Emerging Adults it seems as though the goal of life can be summed up in a few words: money, lots of it.   Although most didn’t want several houses, and a dozen cars (yes, some did), a minority seem to conceive of a good life beyond making money to support a comfortable (middle class) lifestyle or something a bit more extravagant.  When asked what they wanted to achieve in life the majority (60 percent) mentioned financial security as an important piece.

I somewhat fall into this majority of emerging adults, imagining days in the future when I can afford a car that doesn’t have a 19— on it’s registration and possibly a little extra space for a guest bedroom or a sunroom in my home.  However, I do diverge from another crucial belief of the surveyed emerging adults who hold that if you earn money it is yours to spend as you please, with no thought to limited resources on the earth, how much you already own, or how little someone else has.  In essence, they hold there should be no limits on wealth or consumption and little pressure socially or legally to donate money.

The larger questions behind these two concepts of money are, What is the good life? and How much do we need to contribute to the common welfare?

How can we begin to look beyond money, or things that money can buy?  The first step may be to turn off the television. Literally true, as Juliet Schor wrote about in her book the Overspent American; the more television you watch, the more things you want to buy.  The more people you see on TV who have plenty of money who are spending it in irresponsible ways, or have never-ending wardrobes, or simply just watching so many advertisements makes you more discontented with your own belongings.  Which means you spend more money.

Some of the other broader ways to address the issues are

:To focus on character development. Money is often a way of focusing on the outward appearances in life, but it can’t bring the same satisfaction as a job well done, a goal achieved, or an experience that you’ve worked hard for.  It is also a poor substitute for friends.

:To understand the paradox of simplicity.  First, it turns out that beyond meeting basic needs and some comforts, more money doesn’t make people any happier.  (This research is touched on in a lot of places, but I read articles most recently in Time magazine, and the aforementioned book by Juliet Schor.)  Simplicity additionally provides an environment that allows you to think clearly and see what really matters in life, much of which is intangible. Rather than be clouded by the latest thrill or gadget you are able to live with a balance of old and new, the familiar as well as the novel.   The less you have, the more you are able to enjoy others.  (Should you be interested in a Christian perspective on simplicity, I would recommend Richard Foster’s book Freedom of Simplicity)

:To focus on charity in both senses of the word.  To be charitable toward others by giving them benefit of the doubt and kindly glossing over their faults is one way of looking at this.  However, when it comes to giving money charitably, I think the best way to do it is to plan it into your budget at whatever amount is possible on a monthly basis, the same as any other bill, whether it be ten, one hundred, or more dollars each month. After all, people that give away money are happier and healthier.

Again, this comes down to the question, What is the good life? And how are we to define that? Is there any way that what one person answers should relate to another person’s answers, or can everyone define the good life in their own way, even if it contradicts?  That brings us back to the morality question.  Did you come up with any answers yet?


Plaid Friday

Fashion Faux Pas or new Green Idea?

On Friday morning I was reading the Derry News at my in-laws table, still woozy from friends, family, laughter and pie the night before.  That’s when I saw the third page article about Plaid Friday.

Plaid Friday?  Plaid’s not going to do anything to hide my bulging Thanksgiving belly,  What happened to slimming Black?

Well, it turns out Plaid Friday is one alternative to Black Friday (the other I’ve found focuses on buying nothing on Black Friday).  According to the Plaid Friday website

Plaid Friday celebrates the diversity and creativity of independent businesses. Plaid Friday is the fun and enjoyable alternative to the big box store “Black Friday”, and is designed to promote both local and independently owned businesses during the holidays.

The website lists about 200 participating businesses, approximately half in California (Oakland being the creative center of this movement), and the other 100 across the United States.  On their blog, the first post is about Somerville’s Chocolatier Taza and their participation.

When it comes to Christmas shopping (or shopping in general), there are a couple desires jostling harder than the guy cutting the lines in front of Walmart.  One is to get good deals on as much stuff as possible.  Another is to find the perfect gift for people we love.  Often another is to make an ethical purchasing choice.  While purchasing from local businesses is not on the same moral scale of boycotting products made with child labor, such considerations about purchasing has racheted up on consumer consciences in past years due to newspaper articles, studies on changing consumer behavior, and simply more focus on sustainable living pervading American society.

One way to satisfy all three of these could be with Plaid Friday sales; maximizing as many of these values and goals as possible.   What I like especially about the movement is that it presents a “third alternative” to either buying from “Big Box” stores, or not purchasing anything at all.  Yet it subtly addresses the fact that the way our society is structured at the moment, people will be consuming goods others have created, whether they be bought or borrowed.  As Mark Twain said, “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

So whether you choose to wear plaid or black when shopping, see how much you can find in your local stores first.  Then try the big boxes.  Finally, perhaps think twice before venturing into a retail establishment at all.  In the slightly twisted words of Michael Pollan “buy goods, mostly necessities, not too much”.  Research show that experiences bring more pleasure than goods, and these experiences can be found in your own locales via theaters, restaurants, or salons in the area.

Consider checking out the 3/50 Project webpage for more details about another “buy local” movement which has been around since 2009.

The Hallowing of Holidays

Three suggestions for putting holidays into their proper place in our lives.

I may have mentioned that I live in Salem, city of the month-long Halloween celebration.  But every celebration must culminate at some point, and Monday was that day. At 6:30 as I was walking around in my “mom” costume, baby strapped firmly to my front, the bands were beginning to play, and there were already thousands of people on the streets.

It’s easy to get up on a soapbox about several problems with Halloween.   For starters two big ones. Waste generation; Halloween is second only to Christmas in this regard with it’s single serving candies and costumes.  Feminism; plenty of scantily clad women, many college or high school age, next to their fully covered and often un-costumed male escorts.

However, when you are milling about with those thousand other people, it’s hard to keep a grin off your face at the sight of a man in an “Octopi Wall Street’ costume, and the generally playful attitude.   Furthermore, as evidenced by the reaction to the street preacher with the megaphone reading about fornicators, it’s hard for anyone to take you seriously delivering sermons during festivities (no matter how serious).

Octopi Wall Street via

Yet, now that the holiday is over, I would like to propose three things that should enhance rather than degrade their enjoyment.

First, in between holidays, let’s Remember and Rest.  Look at the pictures you took, play with your acquired items, or eat them.  Peruse other people’s facebook albums.  Have everyone over again to remind them what fools they made of themselves.  Send a thank you card to the hostess of the party you attended.  Clean up your house, balance your budget, and sleep in for a few days.  Under no circumstances rush out to buy Christmas gifts.  I know, the merchandise is already in stores, and has been since early October.   I also know that this is the way that most stores make the bulk of their money.  But, this is not okay.  It detracts from the rest that we need, as well as makes holidays everpresent, cheapening them with consumerism.

This is my second suggestion.  Make Holidays Short.  Get the gear out of stores until three or four weeks before the event.  Don’t sell Halloween candy before the back to school stuff is put away.  I haven’t seen a store without some holiday sale… well probably in my whole life.  This subtly tells us that the normal state of our lives should be to party.  Wrong.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t enjoy life.  However, party state dictates that we live beyond our means constantly.  Party state suggests that we stay up and forego sleep.  Party state suggests that ritual and routine should be avoided.  Party state suggests we should eat far too much and eschew fasting.  Party state hates balance.  This is sickly living, paying for today with tomorrow’s earnings.

Finally let’s Celebrate Creativity over Consumption.  This is the type of living that champions costumes crafted from clothes you already have, and one or two pieces that you bought.  It’s the type of hilarious outfit dreamed up by a friend of mine who dressed as her sister, borrowing the clothes from her secretly.  At the party her sister came in, complaining that she couldn’t find her favorite sweatshirt, only to see it on the back of my friend.  At Valentine’s day there are homemade cards, and at Christmas, gifts that involve time, not money.  Not everything needs to be homemade, but neither should there be nothing that is.

All of these things should point toward the more important part of holidays, people.  Rather that stuff, competition, and consumerism, relationships should be one of the focal points of all holidays.