Hyper consumption: Consumer mindset leaves U.S. and individuals vulnerable

Published: Tuesday, April 9 2013 10:50 a.m. MDT

Consumerism can leave people feeling empty — like these shopping carts next to a supermarket in Ramat Aviv Gimel, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Shlomi Fish, Shlomi Fish via Flickr

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, several leaders across the United States (and the world for that matter) told people the best response for people would be to go shopping.

That's what President George W. Bush told Americans on Sept. 27, 2001. "Get on board," he said. "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."

As Bush told it, the patriotic duty of every American was to spend money. It was a recognition of how much our economy depends upon consumption — the buying of things and services. Consumer spending is about 70 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In China, consumption is only 34 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In the United Kingdom, consumption is 64 percent of GDP and it is 45 percent of the Netherlands' GDP.

"That statistic would probably surprise most people," said sociologist George Ritzer. "We tend to think of society as still being dominated by production; as being dominated by industry."

Consumer culture, however, is everywhere and influences everything from economic policy to whether individuals will save money for the future or buy for the present.

Shifting into hyper consumption

Ritzer, who is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on consumer culture, said that 50 years ago the organization that symbolized the dominant economy was General Motors. Today it is Wal-Mart. "That speaks reams about the changes that have taken place in our society," he said.

General Motors was the symbol of American economic domination and production — creating cars and shipping them around the world. Wal-Mart, however, is the epitome of consumption — bringing products from around the world to where Americans can consume.

Now, even China is beginning to shift from production to a more consumption-based economy. "But they have a long way to go to get to our 70 percent," Ritzer said.

Although buying things and services is not itself a problem, Ritzer is concerned about what he likes to call hyper consumption. "We've become a society obsessed with consumption," he said. "Can you really derive the gratification that you think you can from consumption? ... When it becomes our central life interest it becomes a problem."

Ritzer also sees the economy's emphasis on consumption as a paradox. "Can you consume your way into wealth?" he asks. "Can we sustain our society on the back of consumption? It just seems to me, in the long term, not to be possible."

The historical model is that people produce wealth and then go and spend some of it. But when consumption becomes paramount, people borrow to consume instead of saving money.

That money goes to other countries such as China, Ritzer said, — countries that are becoming wealthier because of our consumption. "It is like a global redistribution of wealth," he said.

In a relative way, other countries are becoming wealthier, creating a more equal global distribution of wealth.

While U.S. consumption may be helping other countries do well (at the U.S.'s expense), at an individual level there may be some dangers.

Consumer mindset