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The Casualties of Consumerism

We pay a much higher price for commodities than we may think

By Sabrina G. Lee, None

Jdimytai Damour was just doing his job. Like the rest of his co-workers at the Wal-Mart at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y, he signed up for an early morning shift on Black Friday—the “official” first shopping day of the holiday season. But when shoppers forced their way through the doors at 5:00 a.m., Damour was thrown back onto the linoleum tiles and trampled by customers eager to snatch the best bargains they could find. He suffered fatal injuries crushed beneath a chaotic stampede of more than 2,000 fanatical buyers.

The irony of zealous holiday gift-giving has never been so grossly manifested. Damour’s demise smacks of tabloid absurdity—hence its prominence in the media and in conversation—but it is also a striking real-life indication of how far consumer culture has gone astray. As Joe Priester, a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, suggested, we may attribute the homicidal mania of the Wal-Mart shoppers in question to “a sort of fear and panic of not having enough.” How far are we willing to let this acquisitive lust take us? Damour’s death is emblematic of the invisible price tag of the consumerism in which we so readily and thoughtlessly participate.

Numerous studies prove that over-consumption by the wealthiest nations poses enormous threats to the environment. In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Richard Robbins discusses the enormous extent to which the production, processing and consumption of commodities use up limited reserves of natural resources and produce toxic byproducts, pollutants, and waste. Yet, as Robbins goes on to point out, fanatic consumerism receives the least attention of all the major causes for pollution and destruction for both political and economic reasons. Unchecked, commodity production continues to wreak havoc on the environment.

Fanatic consumerism is also directly linked to world hunger, poverty, and suffering. According to Professor John Madeley of the London School of Economics, the global use of land for the cultivation of tobacco “denies 10 to 20 million people of food.” Furthermore, the 1998 Human Development Report revealed that rampant consumer culture inevitably leads to “circumstances that are exploitative of workers” and exerts negative psychological pressures on shoppers, leading them to make decisions that are financially harmful or even disastrous. For our daily extravagances—indeed, even for our holiday gifts—we can thus sacrifice human life and wellbeing around the world.

Just because we can afford what we want doesn’t mean it should be ours for the taking. Over-consumption in the United States and other wealthy countries comes not only at the financial cost to consumers, but also at the expense of our environment and many human lives that are lost or degraded needlessly every year. As the dust settles, it seems clear that reckless greed played a leading role in the creation of the current financial disaster. We should all consider our own motives and their far-reaching, indirect effects in light of that calamity.

In short, we cannot, as Wal-Mart’s slogan urges us, “Save money. Live better.” What is this motto other than a consumerist reworking of “have your cake and eat it, too”? As long as we seek out goods produced on a shoestring budget halfway around the world—with all the waste and human exploitation that entails—there can be no thought of “living well.”

Sabrina G. Lee ’12, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Greenough Hall.

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