Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Article excerpt

Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Roger Rosenblatt, ed. Washington, DC and Coverlo, California: Island Press, 1999.

In the latter half of the last century, social scientists acquired prophetic authority. Americans stood accused by so many statistical studies: we were lonely in our crowds, conditioned by organizations, manipulated by hidden persuaders, and captivated by status seeking. We were judged guilty of not being able to help ourselves. Meanwhile, some social scientists advised businessmen on how to help themselves to our helplessness.

Consuming Desires continues the prophetic tradition, as a collection of essays with incriminating numbers on how little we save, how buying defines us, how television shapes or correlates with our consumption habits and perceptions of the world. And now, informed by global ecological concerns, America is accused of defining success through consumption for the rest of the world, making the U.S. a magnet for those seeking this happiness and a model for countries willing to sacrifice their environments in pursuit of domestic prosperity. Like most people who want to think they care, I have grown accustomed to the bad news and the guilt it awakens, even while I weary of hearing it one more time. But the numbers are there, and I accept the grim picture without feeling the need to check out the original studies so carefully endnoted. Instead, I try to remain alert for the point when the author preaches on past Statistical Scripture, to tell me why we consume (sin) so much and what path of salvation is open to us.

Consuming Desires contains a number of essays that consider sectors of consumption, such as movies, television, clothing, and the news. The central theme, however, has to do with the personal sources and impacts, the social and environmental impacts, of consumption when it becomes the primary means of pursuing "happiness." Although in many ways the least rigorous of the essays, Edward Luttwak's "Consuming for Love" best represents these themes as well as different authors' tendencies to move from statistics to generalization, finally extending to the future. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, first raises concerns based on studies of comparative indebtedness, U.S. vs. Asian. As compared to different Asian nationalities, we have much higher debt as a percentage of total incomes, debt is more heavily concentrated in the next-to-poorest 20 percent of households, and "much of ' a "large portion" of total debt reflects the purchase of non-necessities. "To borrow at 18 percent...is a commonplace of American life" (53). Statistics then get elbowed aside, making way for an advance of generalizations. Luttwak assumes that we, as Americans, must be massively uneasy about national and personal debt; we sublimate this insecurity into Calvinist-style campaigns of prohibition and restraint-against drugs, welfare, pornography, abortion, smoking- against everything in short, but the one addiction that creates our insecurity in the first place, "the borrow-and-buy habit. …