The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Consuming Desires:
Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Edited by Roger Rosenblatt
Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1999. $24.95

Reviewed by Adelheid Fischer

Book Review May/June 2000

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The economist Adam Smith wrote that "every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences and amusements of human life." Not so, countered Henry David Thoreau. "A man is rich," Thoreau wrote, "in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone," since the real cost of a material good is the amount of "life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." Few things, Thoreau believed, were worth the price.

A recent examination of our ambivalence about material prosperity comes in the provocative and richly imagined new essay collection Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture and the Pursuit of Happiness, edited by Time magazine essayist Roger Rosenblatt. Fascinated with the "painful and thumping heart of the rapacious American appetite," Rosenblatt brings together an unusual array of voices to examine the personal, social, environmental, and economic costs of priming this yearning-charged pump.

Because material overconsumption does so much harm to what Stephanie Mills calls our "furred, feathered, finned, fanged, and fungal relations," it's not surprising that the book emphasizes the environment, with three essays by environmental heavy hitters Mills, Bill McKibben and David Orr. Well known for their thoughtful forays into topics such as sustainable design, ecological restoration, and mass tv culture, these three do not disappoint by delivering simplistic jeremiads against the restless getting and spending that has laid waste to many parts of the world. Orr uses the sense- and soul-satisfying qualities of a letter opener carved by an old friend to open a discussion about remediating the consumer economy's ugliness, inefficiency, and anonymity. McKibben, who lives in a small town in the Adirondacks, discusses a proposal to rid the area of seasonal black fly outbreaks using a new biological pesticide. McKibben introduces the intriguing notion that the objects of consumption can just as easily be experiences as material objects. The anti-fly campaign, he writes,

is simply one more manifestation of our deep consumer urge. We want to consume bite-free air; we want to consume our cedar decks and our pools and our gardens free of any complication or annoyance. We want to consume them when we want (not just on windy days) and how we want (bare-chested, with no damn bug veil).
As probing as the book's environmental essays are, they aren't nearly as original as those that explore the social and personal issues at the heart of the consumer economy. My favorite, hands down, is "False Connections" by Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist renowned for his award-winning reporting about children in Chicago's housing projects. In the course of his research, an amazed Kotlowitz encounters kids who have never left the confines of their destitute West Side neighborhoods, even though downtown Chicago, with its shops, museums, and restaurants, lies a mere two miles away. The kids' sole link "to a more secure, prosperous world, a world in which they have not been able to participate—except as consumers," Kotlowitz observes, is suburban white-bread fashion: Hush Puppies, Coach wallets and name-brand clothing by Guess? and Tommy Hilfiger. These fashion icons are transmogrified by the project kids—preppie earth-tone Hush Puppies take on Day-Glo hues—and then copied by white suburban youth who, he points out, "equate hipness with the inner-city poor." Commercialism may be the most powerful link between these disparate worlds, he says, but the conversation mediated by the consumer economy doesn't bring black and white kids together in any meaningful way but "only accentuates and prolongs the myths we have built up about each other."

Still, those who would deride our wish for comfort need to read the book's brief history of the dangers and drudgery of housework in America, by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley. For instance, in the days before the domestic washing machine, Smiley writes, "clothes had to be soaked, blued, soaped, bleached, boiled, rinsed, wrung out, hung out, starched, and ironed, and several of these operations had to be done more than once." Not surprisingly, she says,

feminism and consumerism are tightly linked. The freedom to be educated in something other than home economics and the freedom to earn money, to have a vocation, to have an avocation, to engage in all the useful and useless activities of our historical moment, depend on the lightening of the domestic load through contrivance, technology and the use of nonhuman, nonanimal power. The key observation of our time, it seems, is that others all around the world wish to have this freedom as well, and the key question is, How can they get it?
But that is where the book fails to deliver. For the world's population to attain America's material prosperity, as promised by the model of unlimited growth and production that we're currently exporting around the world, Orr writes, would require the resources of two additional planets earth. Unfortunately, Consuming Desires is sketchy on the details of how we might craft an alternative—a new economy that's more socially just and environmentally responsible.

Adelheid Fischer is co-author of Valley of Grass: Tallgrass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Region (North Star: 1998), winner of the 1999 Minnesota Book Award for Nature Writing. She is working on an environmental history of the north shore of Lake Superior.

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