The Stuff Of Life

7 12 2010

I traffic in ideas.

All kinds of ideas. Traditional ones. Text book ones. Theoretical ones.

And ideas that shake my students to their very core. That undermine everything they have previously held to be true. That force them to rethink everything.

Yeah, that’s how I roll. If you came here expecting me to affirm everything you already believe, you came to the wrong place. My job is to tear you down, shake you up, and make you consider other ideas. Ideas you may well think are just plain wrong from the outset. Or you have been told they are wrong.

In the process, it is also my job to provide you the building blocks to build yourself back up. Maybe you will arrange the blocks the same way they once were, and you will emerge unchanged. But maybe (and I hope) you will build something new, and emerge a new and improved You, able to see things through a different lens.

As a Marketing prof, I fully realize that I spend most of my time teaching people how to sell things to other people. It is the nature of the beast. Ours is an economy built on consumption. It really is true that 70% of our economy is driven by us.

Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, for the alternative (more centrally-planned government expenditures) does nothing for me. It’s just that, somewhere in the years following WWII, we fell in love with the notion that, in order to keep the economic engine running, we had to keep buying. The Keynesian Kool-Aid made us feel good. The self-satisfaction we buy with an advance on next year’s salary gives us bragging rights, social acceptance and a certain consumer savoir faire that says in no uncertain terms that we have arrived.

So when I stumbled into Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, I knew I had an idea to share. One that would rattle cages. One from which knee-jerk letters to the editor are inspired.

The irony is that we have spending our way to happiness for so long that even some folks who consider themselves to be ardent fiscal conservatives think it is our birthright, even our responsibility, to keep spending. Owning. Consuming. And disposing.

It is at this point that I pause to ask the folks who are ready to slap me to slow down long enough to hear me out. I happen to be a fiscal conservative, but even I, as a Marketer first and foremost, have my doubts about the unabated, unrestrained consumerism we have woven into our national anthem. “Oh say can you see, by the store’s early light?”

Leonard makes some very valid points: That we must utilize systems thinking to see the big picture (i.e., interconnectivity), and that the picture is filled with the detritus of a consumption-based society run amok. She assess blame at every level, from the government and its staff economists, to manufacturers, and us. Everyone is complicit.

But let me make an important point: Leonard also resorts to some good old-fashioned guilt tripping. Whenever I see someone trot out those tired stats about us having only 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 30% of the world’s resources, I get queasy. Please, let’s not blame us for being so unbelievably successful and prosperous. We USAmericans have worked hard to get where we are, and it only stands to reason that the richest nation will also be the most profligate one as well. I don’t see many people begging to leave in order that they might live a life of resolute poverty in a Third World country. I mean, other than missionaries.

Still, we have become Pavlov’s dogs when it comes to consuming. Shopping has become therapy for many. Ownership builds self-esteem. And buying keeps people employed, who then go forth with paycheck in hand to complete the cycle by buying ever more stuff.

And let us not overlook the evil twins, Planned and Perceived Obsolescence. Between companies building failure into products (along with incompatibilities), and our own minds grappling with the fact that the grill on this year’s Ford F-350 is 2 inches bigger than last year’s, we are left with another pair of twins, the Pile Sisters: Crap and Debt.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I love stuff as much as the next guy or gal. I am a guilty party to my own diatribe. But I also see the folly in continuing to consume without questioning. If you prefer a little stronger voice on the what I see as a social tailspin, perhaps you should watch Idiocracy. And maybe you should notice in this satellite image just how big Canyon’s Mount Trashmore is from the sky, lasting testimony to all the stuff we have decided, for one reason or another, we can no longer use.

While I may traffic in ideas, please do not assume that I do not wrestle with them myself. It is when all of us allow ourselves to be challenged, rattled, and shaken to our foundations, that we can rebuild. Redefine. Refocus. Refine.

And that’s just plain right.

Dr “On The Mat” Gerlich

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