THE INCOMPLETE HUMAN
We teach our kids to be consumers
rather than thinkers
by Dan Hamburg
19 June 1999
What is most striking about American culture, aside from its
unprecedented ubiquity, is its celebration of consumption. The economy
is our religious faith, consumption our orthodoxy.
Advertising is our culture's propaganda, its clarion to consumption.
Our children are spoon-fed a daily mega-dose of ultra-sophisticated
marketing, even on the campuses of public schools. Bloated with
corporate hype about everything from crotch odor to gas additives, we
practice our patriotism at the mall. Feeding the beast has become our
national raison d'etre.
No group is more exploited by our market culture than teenagers.
Remember how important it was to fit in high school? Remember how
painful it was when you didn't think you did? Joe Camel is such a
powerul messenger to teens not just because of the drug he deals but
because of the savoir-faire he exudes. Then there are the clothes, the
cars, the booze and the sexy bodies that look just so.
Despite our flashy modernity and bull markets, ours is the imagination
of scarcity, of economic paranoia. No amount of wealth can ever fully
assuage our fear of not having enough. When Thomas Malthus argued at
the end of the 18th century that human population inevitably outstrips
its ability to produce, he laid the groundwork for the harshly
competitive society Darwin would soon stamp with a "scientific"
imprimatur. "The Descent of Man" replaced the Bible as our origin
Because we perceive that there isn't enough to go around, winners and
losers have to be determined. Our children learn that society is a set
of stairs; they must compete and prove their merit first in the
classroom, then in the marketplace. Their relative success is evidence
of their relative stature as humans, of their degree of selectness.
Those who fall short fall back -- even to the street, to joblessness,
homelessness, hunger. As Thomas Hobbes said, for the riffraff, life is
"nasty, brutish, and short." Welfare moms, illegal aliens, SAT flunkers
-- bring on Nature's broom and sweep them down the drain of history!
Progress is the province of the winners, of the strong.
As parents, we send our children a mixed message. On one hand, we teach
compassion, generosity and humility. These are the attributes that
create strong families and communities. On the other, we teach that
"out in the real world" they will contend aggressively for the top job,
the prestigious address, the glitzy car. For consolation, it is
considered normal, even noble, to "burn out" from 60-hour weeks and
Consumer culture, bourgeois culture, is threatened not because it is
wrong or bad, but because it is incomplete. While it has done a
terrific job of mastering the processes of material production, it has
failed almost as grandly to answer fundamental questions about
ecological sustainability and the ethical distribution of the Earth's
In fact, we are much more. We are the only creatures who define
ourselves, who define what it is to be alive. We are the only beings
who create culture, even as culture is creating us. We must teach this
lesson to our children -- that they live in a specific culture, that
they can know it, and therefore, that they can change it.
We need a shift in thought no less dramatic than that of Columbus when
he insisted he could reach the East by sailing west, no less dramatic
than that of Copernicus when he said, "It may seem absurd, but the Earth
We stand at a crossroads. A turn toward a better world is both
necessary and attainable -- necessary because the environmental and
social costs of this culture are too high; attainable because we have
the capacity to do so.
Imagine a world in which our young people could grow up without constant
admonishment to get those grades, get into that school, and follow the
narrowing pathway to material salvation. Imagine a world in which
success had more to do with personal peace than with purchasing power.
Imagine a world in which every human being was valued simply for being
the remarkable creature each of us truly is.
Dan Hamburg, a former member of Congress, is executive director of
Voices of the Environment, a Bolinas-based nonprofit.
Reprined from the San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 1999.
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