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GP9Mar05: The Post-Consumptive Society

“In our rich consumers’ civilization we spin cocoons around ourselves and get possessed by our possessions.”  -Max Lerner, New York Post, September 10, 1952 

Video Addictions.  In the mail last week, from a friend of a 1,000 kindnesses, came Robert Palmer’s Video Addictions, a music video hosted by the performer himself that played  back for us hits that dated  to the early days of his career.  We’re doubly happy to have it in hand, because our readers have been pressing us for occasional music tips.  Without reservation, we can recommend Palmer, a man of many parts. 

Born in 1949 to a father who was either a British naval officer or a civil servant in the Admiralty, he spent most of his youth in Malta, until his family finally moved back to England.  At first a graphic designer, he gradually picked up with bands and was a committed performer for the rest of his life.  A master of many continents and of several media, he lived in London, New York, the Bahamas, and, at the end, in Switzerland.  An almost-musicologist who peeked through several genres, he might be listening to anything and did.  Since his sense of style and graphics was so strong, one has to see as well as hear him to get the full impact: the music, often written by him, is great, but the look of things is equally important, with the handsome Palmer often decked out in a tuxedo backed up by ladies in equally spiffy garb, usually performing in smartly designed environments.   

His fame was probably at his zenith in the eighties when Terence Donovan helped him stage a number called  “Addicted to Love,” which went to the top of the charts in several places and was standard fare on the TV music channels.  His songs were full of force, tempo, obsessive lyric, and addictive motion, very fitting at the end of the twentieth century, when a very self-indulgent life in the fast lane was idolized throughout the West.  

Ironically enough, though he trotted out compulsive pleasures in performance, he himself was curiously self disciplined.  As he said, when he went on tour it was “salads and water in that I can’t sing on a full stomach.  And then when you come off stage everything’s shut because it’s midnight.  And I am certainly not going to eat junk food.  So it’s an enforced discipline.”  He was further quoted as saying, “I loved the music, but the excesses of rock ’n’ roll never really appealed to me at all.  …  I couldn't see the point of getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren't in control of your wits."  (See CNN.com.)  He died early, at age 54, of a heart attack in Paris, on September 26, 2003, perhaps taken by the intensity of the age in which he lived and created, even if he exhibited a restraint that distanced himself from some of its follies. 

The Age of Excess.  It’s commonly remarked that we’re now in an era of post mass production in a society that’s no longer dominated by manufacturing and in which each of us has become a service worker.  Yet it’s not what we did in the last quarter of the twentieth century that defines us: it’s what we consumed.  We were on a binge of mass consumption that’s not over yet, even if, as we stated in “Laws that Make Outlaws, we’ve maxed out on our credit cards.  That powerful tool of the twentieth called the Internet, invented to aid scientific interchange, quickly became a handmaiden to  the consumption of  all manner of goods, volumes of disturbing human obsessions, and reams of undigested information.  Spam, phone solicitations, and other forms of advertising  harassed our citizens as never before, calling on citizens to add more credit cards, cell phones, computers, pills, and other wares to those that they already didn’t need. 

Information Glut.  We Americans have worried considerably about the growth of our waistlines and perhaps the growth of drug use (legal and illegal) under this onslaught.  As insidious perhaps is the degree to which information and digital inputs have overwhelmed us.  Our minds, as much as our stomachs, are surf-fitted.  In Seattle, where people strive for a balanced lifestyle as much or more than anywhere in the country, we discover serious concern about how digital technology has pressed calm out of life and enabled multi-tasking that has unbearably raised stress levels.  In this regard, we refer you to “Life Interrupted,” a fine article about cognitive overload that appeared in the Seattle Times, November 28, 2004 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/pacificnw/2004/1128/cover.html). 

Martha’s Retreat.  But encouraging little signs suggest we are moving past the addictive behaviors associated with this final binge of mass consumption and taking up Lean Living.  Symbolically, last Friday, Martha Stewart, the Princess of Consumption, emerged from her enforced  prison sabbatical in Alderson, West Virginia.  Twenty pounds lighter, she has not looked so good in years.  At the same time her stay in the stir forced her to cut back on her schedule (i.e., she is an activity junkie; we can remember 20 years ago when she would come home to Connecticut after 5 appointments only to start cleaning out closets at midnight).  “I didn’t really miss material things at all,” she said to reporters gathered at her mansion.  “It was kind of nice to have a rest from the material things.  And from this,” referring to the cluster of  media folk gathered around her.  Is she no longer a material girl?  One way or another, people are stumbling into a somewhat simpler life. 

In this vein, if rumor has it right, Wal-Mart, the temple of mass consumption where you buy too many cookies just because they’re cheap, appears to be losing some of its appeal.  Currently we consider it to be the world’s most important corporation, and we see its fortunes as a barometer of what’s happening to the culture of the United States (see our Watching Wal-Mart section).  We hear some product categories are stalled on the shelves.  There’s some pushback at the cash register.  A fairly savvy investment manager on the West Coast tells us he has just dumped all his Wal-Mart stock.  There’s some feeling out there that all’s not well in Bentonville and in the endless big boxes the Waltons have strewn about America.  People don’t want and can’t afford as much.  

Consumption Tax.  European politicians are keen to tell us we’re not saving enough, spending too much on this and that.  The recent death of David Bradford, a very thoughtful advocate of a consumption tax (as a replacement for the income tax), highlights an effort by policymakers to wean us off consumption. (See http://yahoo.businessweek.com/
magazine/content/03_10/b3823100_mz057.htm.)  This idea is gaining traction.  The good side of such a tax is, indeed, that it will encourage savings.  The bad side is that it’s sure to fatten the rich and take more out of the pockets of the middle classes in this country, who are already seriously stretched and who are still the backbone of the nation.  For a good discussion of the ins and outs of the consumption tax, see Jim Lehrer’s PBS Newshour look at this subject, March 3, 2005, with William Gale and Len Burman (www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/economy/jan-june05/consumption_3-3.html). 

Living Lightly.  One English couple, Walter and Dorothy Schwarz, circled the globe looking at little enclaves that have taken up a simpler life where the denizens have chosen to free up their lives and use up less of the earth’s goods.  Their book about their travels is called Living Lightly—Travels in Post-Consumer Society. You can learn more about them and the book at http://livinglightly.gn.apc.org/authors.htm.  A sympathetic reviewer also gives one a feel for the sustainable living movement: www.futurenet.org/article.asp?ID=967.  They started their trip in Seattle where the reviewer lives: many people in the Northwest clearly give a great deal of thought to the question of prudent consumption. 

The Cloud Appreciation Society.  Something new is in the works.  Those who live in the post-consumptive society clearly march to a different drummer, doing things at a different pace and thinking about different things.  This would include the members of The Cloud Appreciation Society in the UK, who “believe that clouds are for dreamers, and their contemplation benefits the soul. They are the Rorschach images of the sky, and if you consider the shapes you see in them you will save on psychoanalysis bills.”  It was founded by and is run by one Gavin Pretor-Pinney (www.cloudappreciationsociety.org/.) He also helped start up The Idler (see www.globalprovince.com/letters/11-23-04.htm), vital reading matter for anybody who wants to escape the  world as it was.

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