Why consumption?

One of the key focuses of this movement is to foster responsible consumption habits in an effort to assert the type of social change we hope to see in this world. This seems like a bit of a reach to many and has been one of the major concerns expressed about this movement. So let’s unpack this connection a little and see if the connection does not become clearer.

It is an old adage that money = power. We can agree on this. Anyone who has been through any generic history class has surely come across the connection between these two aspects of our lives. In a world where there is so much money- we talk about debt levels in the trillions, corporate profits in the billions and athlete and CEO salaries in the millions, it would make sense for us to have an idea as to where this money is so we could see the type of power it has over our lives.

What do we know?

Let’s take a look at a little data from the US and from other countries to see if we can’t get an idea as to where the money is.

This first graph is showing consumer spending (consumption) as a percent of income in the US. This is an average, so some are lower and some are higher, but it is meant to be a representation of the norm.


Source: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.CON.PETC.ZS?locations=US&name_desc=false

This graph might be a bit misleading, it appears to show a massive increase, but really since 1970 there has been an increase in consumer spending from around 60 percent to about 68 percent. Okay, what does this mean? We’re not sure, right? After all, consumer spending includes spending money on things we need such as food, water, clothes, etc. Maybe this is just how much life costs and that’s it. Well, let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can unpack this a little more.

Where’s the rest?

Tracking tax rates can be somewhat difficult, especially in the US, because they are not applied evenly across society. In most countries, the richer you are, the more you pay and the poorer you are, the less you pay. This might seem a good argument for the idea of wealth distribution, which is supposedly one of the main features of the modern state. But we all know that this doesn’t seem to work out this way. The rich pay less taxes through loopholes and then the poor and middle classes end up shouldering much of the load. Let’s step away from this argument for a moment, though, and take a look at how tax rates and consumption rates link together. For example, let’s look at the most recent data available, 2013. In 2013, as the graph above indicated, consumer spending was around 68 percent of our income. The tax rates in 2013 according to the Tax Foundation were:


Source: http://taxfoundation.org/article/us-federal-individual-income-tax-rates-history-1913-2013-nominal-and-inflation-adjusted-brackets

So let’s break this down. Imagine you are a single person working a decent job making $60,000 a year. According to the data we have looked at, you would consume 68 percent of your income and then pay 25 percent of your income to taxes. This leaves you with:

100%-68%-25%=7% of your income.

To translate, that 7 percent of your original $60,000 is $4,200. This corresponds somewhat to the savings rate, which has hovered around 5 percent in the past 10 or 15 years but is way down from 10 percent before the 1980s.

So what does this mean?

It means that in 2013, 93% of your income, what you worked so hard to acquire, was already accounted for. Between your basic needs, leisure, school, life in general and your taxes, you are left with very little money.

Since we mentioned earlier the old adage, money=power, we could easily say that after all of this we are left with very little power.

Our system is set up so that we consume. Everything we do, from our social interactions, our meals, our education systems and our identities, is based on the things we buy and how we buy them. We have all experienced this. We decorate and set up our homes in such a way so that when people enter they will have an idea of who we are. This is done by the things we buy. We identify with certain products, purchase them and then allow others to perceive us based on the identities that come with these products. The same thing could be said for clothes. We all know that we have others’ thoughts and perceptions in mind when we buy a new shirt, pants or a hat. It is not just a shirt we are buying, but an identity.

When the economy was bad in 2008 and onward, people got scared and the savings rate shot up to 10%, meaning people were consuming less, but the government did everything it could to make sure consumption returned to normal levels. It used tax dollars on bank bailouts, it started drilling for more oil in places we know damages the environment and it continued a trend of tax policies favoring the rich and corporations so that they could do all that was necessary to boost consumption.

Someone reading this could easily say that that 68% spent on consumption is done through personal choice. They could say that that money is spent on things that bring joy and pleasure to your life. Think, dinners with friends, Christmas gifts, clothes, etc. These things are supposed to allow us to express ourselves and to show to the world who we are. The first question to ask are: Is this successful? Do you feel as though your identity is properly reflected through these things that you buy? And another important question is: Is it fair to ask people to spend 68 percent of their lives (after all we know our jobs play a huge role in defining who we are) attempting to define themselves with things that we know do not do so sufficiently?

What about countries that consume less?

One could make the argument that much of this that is being said is about the United States, a country known for its over-the-top consumption. This is true, but if we look at the data from other countries we see similar patterns. For example, consumption in Denmark is around 55 percent (World Bank), but tax rates in Denmark reach almost 50 percent. Again, all of the money, all of the power, is accounted for. Poorer countries in South Asia, Latin America and Africa have seen consumption go down. This is much harder to account for. The obvious answer is exploitation. As our lives in the Western, developed world are designed for us to constantly consume more at a lower price, exploitation is at an all-time high. Why are there still 700 million people living in this world with less than $1.90 per day? (also a World Bank figure that can be found here.) So consumption is low in these societies and is dropping because at this moment in history they are not the consumers, they are the producers. The idea behind modern day economic development is to eventually turn these cultures into consumers who will then be asked to place the same constraints on freedom and the human spirit that those of us in the Western world already have. Is this the vision of the world that we have? Is that what we want the world to turn into?

So what can we do?

Unfortunately, we cannot stop paying taxes. Millions depend on this money and if you do not, you will end up in jail. (another shocking concept that is best left for another day). So the only thing we can do is take control of the other aspect of our lives that has so much control over us: our consumption. This starts with one thing: take control of where our food comes from. We depend so much on what already exists because at the end of the day we need to eat, but we are not strangers to the idea that we have no idea where our food comes from. The first step is to begin reducing our consumption needs down to only what we need and then taking control over where that comes from. To do this we can:

  • Buy local products produced by PEOPLE, not corporations. We all know there are farmers markets, local food stores, agricultural cooperatives, etc. USE THEM. Don’t know how? A quick Google search of these types of initiatives in your area will surely help us find out how to make this change in our lives.
  • Share food. Why must each person get their own entrée at a restaurant when the portions are already huge? Why not get two or three between a group of four and share? Use your meal times to converse and enjoy the company. You will eat slower and then get fuller faster and require less. This is not a made up idea, it is a key aspect of many diets that we use to try and lose or control our weight.
  • Grow your food whenever possible. If you have land or a place where you can have a garden, use it! Not everyone can do this, but those who can should and if they produce more than they can consume: share!
  • Pay attention to the seasons. When was the last time you saw a banana growing in Massachusetts or London? The access to these goods, which are above all else luxury goods, has been part of this idea of non-stop growth and consumption that is limiting us in so many ways. If you buy local, you will only be able to buy what can be produced in the season. This transition will take time, some climates do not permit big yields in the winter, and will require some personal sacrifices, but with planning, we can eventually make this happen, but it can start now.
  • Avoid things like organic, bio, all-natural. This may seem counterproductive, but there has been much work done on how effective these labels are. If the product was produced outside of where you are living, the increase in price from these labels is not reflected on those who produce it, but rather on the certification and subsequent labeling of these products.

The list could go on. What are some suggestions that you have? What else can we do?

This seems like a tall task

As we discuss this, we might be thinking about the added expense of buying these types of products and the things we might have to sacrifice in order to do so. Maybe buying local will mean less money for the bars on the weekend, or less money for Christmas presents, or less money for cell phones, televisions, movies, etc. But when we stop for a moment, we know that these things are not necessary. We always complain about the consumerist nature of Christmas, but we also know that the best part of the holiday is being with friends and family. We can say to our families that instead of presents, we want their time. We can say to our friends that instead of going out every weekend for beers, we can meet at our house and talk, laugh, play games, etc. Part of what stops us is fear. We are afraid of what might happen if we start to remove some of the things that we have considered so important. Well, we cannot know until we try. Let’s start by making these sacrifices and seeing what our lives look like. When we see the improvement, we will start to believe it, and those around us will start to as well.

We also need to engage the people around us, especially the people we love. We are not alone, although sometimes it seems that way. The questions we ask ourselves and the thoughts we have are shared by other people. This is why we can connect with what is said in books, movies, art, etc. We identify with these shared concepts of what it means to be human. In other words, we are communicating. As we start to make these changes in our lives, we must explain them to the people in our lives so they understand us and will support us. We need to work together.

We also need to stop staying quiet. When you tell someone that you are only buying local, reducing your consumption or trying to pay more attention to what you eat and consume, it is not unlikely that someone will react to you negatively, as if you were better than them. Think about how our society views vegans and vegetarians. Think about what might happen when you go to a burger bar and order a salad. This commercial epitomizes this attitude:

These types of social interactions would be erased if we understood each other better—if others knew our motivations. So, as people start to question us as we make these changes, explain to them why you are doing so and it is not such a grand leap to say that they will come around to understand and accept your choices.

It may seem like a tall task that we are setting out to accomplish, but the difficult things are the best things. We are working for a better world, and if we are willing to accept that that is not worth it because it is too hard, that presents a rather disappointing view of the future that we cannot accept.

Action plan

The first step in this movement is to raise awareness. We must adapt these changes and then work to share our experiences with others. This is one of the main goals of this website. To share our experiences so that we can realize we are not alone. To do this we must:

  • Examine where we can adjust our consumption habits
  • Adjust them
  • Stick to them
  • Explain to others why we are doing it
  • Help each other deal with the difficulties that might arise and with the carrying out of these changes.

Please spread the word, contribute to the blog, and talk to your friends and family. The movement begins now and it begins with us.

Stay free.


2 thoughts on “Why consumption?

  1. Pingback: 3 Inhuman Moments: The Power of Context | The Human Revolution

  2. Pingback: 3 Inhuman Moments: The Power of Context - The Human Revolution

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