America and its Culture of Consumption: A Response to Questions Raised in Garbage Land Donna Gentile November 28, 2010 Course Section: 76-100-P ICE – Common Reader Essay These days it seems like “sustainability” is the buzzword we hear a lot about. “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is one widely accepted definition of sustainability (Rosenbaum, 1993). Not using up the planet’s resources and leaving plenty for future generations sounds like a good plan and a worthwhile idea.
In her book, Garbage Land, author Elizabeth Royte describes how America is a culture of consumption. In her book, she points out that “the average American throws out 4. 3 pounds of garbage…per day—l. 6 more pounds than thirty years ago”(Royte, 2005). Her book attempts to warn us that if we choose to continue with our consumer culture, we will destroy our environment. It appears that everything about American culture is about consumption. We are fed a steady diet of advertisement and illusion. For every hour of television an American watches, he or she is subject to sixteen minutes of commercials (Derene, 2009).
Each of these commercials aim at convincing us that newer, more expensive things are better for us and would improve our lives as well as make us happier. Americans want immediate gratification. Thanks to television commercials and a variety of advertising mechanisms, from an early age Americans have been brainwashed to believe that if we need something, we simply get into our cars and drive to the local shopping mall and get it. Many Americans believe they have the right to shop—whether they need it or not!
Once we arrive at the store, Americans are greeted with endless rows of trivial items that we usually do not need but they manage to catch our attention anyway. With slogans like “always low prices” on every display, American consumers are suckered into purchasing necessities we did not know we needed until we moved through the store looking for what we really came for. The impulse to buy is so deeply set in the American mind that is does not occur to most people that they really do not need an extra DVD player or a new plasma television.
They do not think about how many matching sets of towels they already have, only that this new set is cheap and “in style”. Retailers have discovered that if a product is out on the shelves, consumers will continue to buy it– whether we need it or not. As a consumption culture, we are like children in the way we so thoughtlessly throw around the word, “need”, and with the way we change that definition to suit any moment of impulse. As I read Garbage Land and reflected on what I was going to write this essay about, I am ashamed to admit that I am like a majority of American consumers.
I own multiple video game systems. I do not usually get tricked into buying impulse items mostly because I am a college student with limited resources, but I certainly have more than my fair share of “stuff”. I drive a new Mustang and have a closet filled with the latest clothes fashions. They are not necessarily all things I need but they make me happy and comfortable. With Christmas approaching, and all of the deals advertised on television, radio, and print newspaper ads, it is all I can do to keep myself away from the stores.
I watched my eight-year-old cousin make a Christmas list based on the newspaper ads she collected from the papers she found on her doorstep Thanksgiving morning. She has one American Girl doll but absolutely “needs” another one! It is estimated that the average child has been exposed to over a million advertisements by their tenth birthday (Derene, 2009). If this is true, then it makes sense that our nation is increasingly made up of shameless consumers and our childhood is like a boot camp for the mall!
Every time Americans buy something, they are consuming resources. Every time we turn on a light or we get something to eat or drink, we are consuming resources. Our homes, clothes, food, water, cars, toys and shampoo bottles are a result in the depletion of natural resources. The author of Garbage Land tried to make the reader aware that each of us is personally contributing to the consumption of natural resources in almost every one of our activities. With approximately 6. billion people on Earth now and a projected 9 billion by mid-century, we must find ways of reducing consumption of resources if we are to avoid dramatic environmental degradation and the possibility of global ecosystem collapse. This is a particularly important challenge for Americans who consume more per person than any other people on the planet. “If everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, we would need four more Earths just to harvest for resources. ” (University of Maryland, 2010).
Another disturbing aspect of consumption in America is the illusion that there is no reason to curtail our consumption. This illusion of plenty has led to increased consumption even as resources grow scarcer and industries become more efficient. The fact is our resources are limited, but Americans have the mistaken belief that we will have enough oil to do what we want if we all trade in our cars and switch to hybrid cars. In addition, some of us believe that switching to fluorescent light bulbs will fix our energy concerns.
Genetic modification of food will not help us to grow enough to meet the growing demand required by our increasing population. Conservation and certain technological changes are necessary to help us attain a sustainable society, but they will not allow Americans to continue with our practice of unlimited consumption. If Americans continue to use a resource at a rate faster than it renews itself, we will eventually deplete that resource. For example, if a certain species of fish are caught at a rate faster than they reproduce, then eventually we will catch the last remaining fish of that species.
We have a culture that desires unlimited consumption, but we live on a planet with limited resources. In the second half of Garbage Land, Royte tries to follow recyclables. According to Royte, “Recycling isn’t saving the earth. There are few environmental benefits to recycling”(Royte, 2005). It seems that the entire recycling industry is a feel-good exercise that lets Americans indulge our need to purchase things we do not need and then feel better about throwing them out. Recycling only seems to help foster and encourage the culture of consumption in American society.
It appears that America is a society that is more concerned with gratifying their needs more than the consequences their demands have on destroying the environment. The American society has to change its priorities. Recycling, conservation, and organic foods are all steps in the right direction but according to Royte, “we can recycle and compost as much as we want, but the total waste stream continues to grow and we’ll never escape our own mess…if we don’t wake up and make the connection between the economy and the environment the planet will eventually do it for us, and it won’t be pretty” (Royte, 2005).
In other words, Americans need to live with less, make choices that tend to last longer, and lower impact on our environment. The current culture of consumerism will otherwise destroy our Earth.
References Derene, Glenn. DVR Revolution: Buzzword. Popular Mechanics, 1 October, 2009. Web. 20 November, 2010. . Rosenbaum, M P. E. Sustainable Design Strategies. Solar Today, March/April, 1993. Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land. New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Print. University of Maryland. Campus Sustainability—University of Maryland. 2010. Web. 20 November, 2010. .