American and Chinese Consumption

I find myself growing increasingly hostile towards American and Chinese consumption patterns. (And, as an aside, the hypocrisy of BOTH countries’ policy arguments in choosing their domestic and foreign environmental and climate policies.)

The American consumption model reeks of over-consumption, consumerism, and commoditization, where social status is defined by material wealth and goods are meant to be accumulated and thrown out. China, envious of U.S. economic prosperity and standards of living, is following the same path towards larger cars, bigger homes, processed foods, and disposable goods. The two countries have a reciprocal arrangement—an economic dependency where China pollutes heavily to manufacture and export inexpensive goods for Americans. Americans balk at Chinese development (necessary to increase standards of living), pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions; and China sees no need to have an emissions cap even though their current path to development will lead to catastrophic climate change events even if all other countries emissions went to zero immediately.

American consumption is driven by individualism and consumerism, “the crass elevation of material acquisition to the status of a dominant social paradigm”; commoditization, “the substitution of marketable goods and services for personal relationships, self-provisioning, culture, artistic expression, and other sources of human well-being”; and overconsumption, “using more than is necessary.” (Princen et al 2002) American consumption dollars have increased dramatically since WWII and uncontrollably since 1990 (over a 75% increase from 1990 to today).

I’m justifiably concerned about the consumer behavior of Americans, and Chinese consumer trends. We buy disposable goods, throw-away party favors and cheap plastic toys (plasticware, balloons, party hats, plastic kids toys) which are discarded or break easily and end up in landfills. We blindly purchase packaging and paper that is thrown away—plastic bags, that Easter grass in Easter baskets, wrapping paper, greeting cards. We buy character merchandise, Disney trinkets, and eat at McDonalds – behaviors which counsel kids to buy more, love man-made nature and products, and eat fake and unhealthy “food.” Super-sized McMansions pop up in suburban and exurban America, causing land degradation and requiring more vehicle miles to be driven as people move farther from work. We eat processed foods, cows fed corn rather than grass, and pesticides, all increasing the carbon footprint. We buy “new” everything.

Some ideas/thoughts:

(1) If you think it might break, it’s made of plastic, you don’t intend for it to be useful for a long time, or it could be bought in a dollar store (even if it isn’t), don’t buy it.

(2) Would a phone call or conversation work to build your relationship rather than a gift or a card?

(3) Does your family really need that second car, and must it be an SUV?

(4) Try buying at thrift stores and consignment shops. These are especially great for kids stuff.

(5) Cook your own food purchased via a community-supported agriculture program, or at least in the produce section, the dairy aisle and the minimally-processed meat department.

(6) Bring canvas bags to the store.

(7) Live near your work, or carpool there.

(8) Use mass transit.

(9) “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (Pollan 2008)

(10)To reduce your carbon footprint: stop engine idling, reduce standby power use, buy CFLs, turn down the thermostat by two degrees and buy a programmable thermostat, decrease household water temperature, keep proper tire pressure, and change car air filters. (Vandenbergh et al 2008)

(11)Ask, do I really need that? What do I need it for? Ask this since consumerism has emerged as a “cultural orientation maintaining that the possession and use of an increasing number and variety of goods and services is the principal cultural aspiration and the surest perceived route to personal happiness, social status, and national success.” (Erickson 1997, citing Elkins 1991)

Many Chinese think America is all about McDonald’s hamburgers, materialism, corporate power as defining economic prosperity, and accumulating stuff. Despite my own statements to the contrary, they are unfortunately and largely correct. This is the America that is consumed domestically, exported to the world and that China is embracing. The world cannot afford two Americas.

So ends today’s rant.


Paul Ekins, The Sustainable Consumer Society: A Contradiction in Terms?, Int’l Envtl. Aff., Fall 1991.

Rita K. Erickson, "Paper or Plastic?" Energy, Environment, and Consumerism in Sweden and America (1997).

Thomas Princen, Michael F. Maniates, and Ken Conca, Confronting Consumption (2002).

Michael P. Vandenbergh , Jack Barkenbus & Jonathan M. Gilligan, Individual Carbon Emissions:The Low Hanging Fruit, 55 UCLA L. Rev. 1701 (2008).

Michael Pollan, In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto 1 (2008).

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1 Response to American and Chinese Consumption

  1. Pingback: Does Consumption Make You Happy? « CZARNEZKI.COM

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