Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Addiction Affliction (Part 3)

As we know, convenience food and pharmaceutical industries are two of the most prolific advertisers of consumer products to which Americans have become addicted. Automobile manufacturers—whose products are as ubiquitous in American culture as Big Macs, telephones, TVs and computers—round out the top three.

Let's face it! We’re addicted to our cars. We need our cars so we can get to our jobs so we can earn the money to pay for the cars, for the insurance for the cars, for the licensing fees, maintenance costs, fuel, and highway tolls and taxes, all for the cars.

We need our cars so we can run down to the corner grocery to buy another six-pack, or to drive halfway across town to save a buck on a carton of cigarettes. We need our cars so we can get to the fast-food joint because the jobs we need to pay for the cars have stolen our time and sapped our strength and we don't have enough time or energy left over to cook a meal from scratch. We need our cars to make those routine trips to the discount drug store (you know, the one that drove your neighborhood pharmacy out of business) to pick up whatever pharmaceuticals we depend on to get us through another week. Finally, we need our cars for the ritual weekend getaway because we haven't yet learned how to live in, and enjoy, those outrageously expensive homes we work so hard to pay for.

Does all of this seem as crazy to you as it does to me?

Cars—and the cheap oil needed to run them—made possible the expansion of industries that might never have survived without them. Affordable, accessible transportation made it possible for the employees of many companies to live in neighborhoods far removed from the places where they worked, and for employers to draw from a workforce scattered over hundreds of square miles.

As car ownership proliferated into all areas of American society, the practice of travel as cheap entertainment became a cultural norm. It was no longer enough to have transportation to and from the workplace close at hand; once people realized that cars were synonymous with freedom and mobility and expanded access to recreational opportunities, multi-car families, traffic congestion and eventual gridlock became absolute certainties.

Not only does dad have a car, but mom does, too—as do each of their 2.4 children when they reach driving age. Forget “… a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” Now, it's a 10-piece bucket of KFC chicken, a car in the garage, two cars in the driveway, and two more parked on the street.

Our cars are status symbols; they reveal our personality, define our character, reflect our social standing in the community, afford mobility with a degree of anonymity, and ensure our independence and autonomy. Lacking an overriding incentive to break our car addiction, the addiction is certain to continue.

Being addicted to cars, Americans are also addicted to oil—or, rather, the cheap energy derived from oil. Because of those addictions, an addiction to war was inevitable; war is currently the preferred means of ensuring unfettered American access to foreign oil.

Cheap energy fueled an explosive growth of technology, to which we also became addicted. Our addiction to technology begot us an addiction to gadgetry of all kinds; cell phones, iPods and iPads, Blackberries, MP-3 players, Kindles and laptop computers accumulate on or about our persons. And if this weren't enough, throw in pagers and various remote-control devices—including TV controls, garage door openers and remote-controlled automobile door lock openers—to make the clutter complete.

We rely on cheap energy to heat our oversized homes (which we need to store all our stuff), power our oversized cars and SUVs, and to fuel our motor homes, cabin cruisers, motorcycles, jet skis, ATVs, snowmobiles, lawn and garden equipment, and all the other energy consuming, recreational and/or laborsaving devices to which we've become addicted.

We covet laborsaving devices such as electric shavers, electric can openers, electric carving knives, electric mixers, electric toothbrushes and electric nose-pickers because they make our lives easier, then gladly work our asses off, through overtime or a second job (overtime without overtime pay), to pay for them.

Stuff accumulates. We buy the latest doodads, gizmos and gadgets because they're cool, use them until the novelty wears off or the next iteration comes along, then consign them to garage sales or relegate them to storage in ever more crowded basements, closets, attics or garages.

It seems no convenience is too impractical for us. Lexus advertises a model with a windshield so sensitive that it reacts to a single raindrop by turning on the windshield wipers. But how many dry wipes across a dirty windshield does it take before the scars of abrasion render it opaque? Do we really need conveniences that do our thinking for us?

Power windows? Power seats? Power door locks? Hell, why not power everything, as long as we don't have to use any of our own muscle power to achieve the desired results? Besides, we need all these labor-saving conveniences so we can conserve our energy for the jobs we need in order to pay for them.

At some point, we're going to have to admit that our addictions are killing us. At some point, we're going to have to take whatever steps we need take to break those addictions. Soon, we must awaken from our blissful stupor and realize that survival of our species—of all species—is more important than individual comfort and ease, more important, even, than the acquisition of superfluous possessions.

Our addictions are symptomatic of the fatal flaws inherent in capitalist consumer culture, not the causes of them. Corporate advertisers push our buttons, and we respond accordingly. As humans, we’re wired to do unconsciously whatever it takes to feed our addictions—or create new ones. Still, we must realize that there are undesirable consequences to our incessant striving for material possessions and what we perceive to be comfortable lifestyles.

Unable to admit that ours is a broken society—and that the extent of our brokenness is driving us insane—we persist in the belief that trading long-term values for short-term conveniences makes sense. It’s increasingly clear that our failure to break the brutal cycles of our addictions bears a heavy price. What we stand to lose if we don’t change our ways is easily summed up in one word: Everything!

*This article is a rewrite of the original, which was published on April 3, 2006, in Issue #28 of Petey’s Pipeline E-zine.

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  1. Great post, Phil. It's my favorite of the series so far.

  2. The fact that this was published four years ago almost makes it seem prescient now - and anything but obsolete.

    What really gets my goat is precisely what the subtext of your series is saying, what many of us have been saying for years, and all too often, sadly, we're preaching to the converted.

    Consumerism in all its many ugly guises runs rampant and alongside the equally ubiquitous and ever-increasing propensity NOT to question - everyday choices, small choices that lead to the bigger choices that lead to - you get the idea, I'm sure.

    Alas, it's the only way and the only hope we have for changing the world around us - or even of having a hope of a world to hand down to our children, who will be forced to make those choices we were too - brainwashed, blitzed or bamboozled by advertising to make for ourselves. We can say - that we DID---have choices, that we DID - have options.

    And that if this madness continues for too much longer, the next generations will have no choices at all.

  3. Thanks, Bic. Now I'm debating whether to write Part 4 (there was no Part 4 in the original series). There's more that can be said on the subject, but it's secondary to what I've already posted.

    It is madness, isn't it, Tarleisio? But there it is! The better part of a century making bad consumer choices and bad political choices is about to culminate in a perfect storm of dire consequences that lasts far into the future. We were given some of our best choices 40 years ago, and we mostly made the wrong ones. The closer one gets to the wall, the harder it is to avoid hitting it.