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Conspicuous Consumption
Comes Out Of The Closet

By Mickey Z.

28 November, 2006

My wife and I moved into a new apartment earlier this year. Just a few blocks from our old place, it's been a major quality of life improvement in almost every possible way. One unexpected adjustment, however, was closet space. This moderately sized one-bedroom apartment has only two narrow closets. (You couldn't fit a scandalous skeleton in them if you tried.) Keeping in mind that the building is more than 78 years old, how might we explain this egregious "oversight"?

a) The architects were idiots

b) The architects callously cut corners

c) Americans had far less "stuff" in 1928

d) All of the above

Accepting as a given that all humans are idiots that callously cut corners, the can't-miss answer is, of course, D. However, in this particular case, I believe C is far more accurate. In fact, I'll bet the original tenants here considered themselves mighty lucky to even have two closets. They may have believed that whatever didn't fit inside was superfluous. Imagine that: A two-closet existence.

Long before shopping became hardwired into human biology, Voltaire said, "When it's a question of money, everybody is of the same religion." That said, it might appear sacrilegious to suggest the two-closet lifestyle during Christmas shopping season. However, we all share the blame for the global costs of our commodity culture. Multi-national corporations may be most obvious villains but shopping malls only survive if they can attract customers.

And attract, they do. According to something called "ShopperTrak RCT," sales at 45,000 mall-based stores for the day after Thanksgiving Friday" nine billion dollars worth of video games, jeans, cell phones, flat screen TVs, sneakers, and other "stuff" that would definitely not fit into two
narrow closets.

The richest one-fifth of the world's humans consume 58% of total energy, use 74% of all telephone lines, consume 84% of all paper, and own 87% of all vehicles. The poorest one-fifth of the world's humans consume less than 4% of total energy, use 1.1% of all telephone lines, consume less than 1% of all paper, and own less than 1% of all vehicles.

These stats may imply innocence for four-fifths of us but if you live in America, you are almost definitely a member of the "richest one-fifth" and thus require more than two closets. You are also part of the 1.7 billion people Worldwatch Institute calls the ³global consumer class² "users of televisions, telephones, and the Internet, along with the culture and ideals these products transmit." In 2004, for example, this group spent $14 billion on ocean cruises and $37 billion on makeup and perfumes. During that same year, $5 billion was spent on universal literacy and $10 billion on efforts to provide clean drinking water for all. The impact of conspicuous consumption on the environment is equally calamitous.

"Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities," United Nations Development Program (UNDP) declared in 1998. "If the trends continue without change ... today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen." The UNDP concludes: "Runaway growth in consumption in the past 50 years is putting strains on the environment never before seen."

So...what's in your closet?

Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://ww.mickeyz.net.

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