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Wendell Berry on Consumerism in America

3 min

In one of my favorite movies, 12 Monkeys, Brad Pitt’s character Jeffrey Goines is a bit crazy, and we are first introduced to him in a mental institution. But there is more than a hint of truth in the following rant he makes to Bruce Willis’ character, James Cole:

“There’s the television. It’s all right there—all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally ill.”

 

 

In the modern age of “progress”, men and women of America have gradually lost the ability to do things for themselves. The overwhelming majority no longer produce their own food, seek out their water, take care of their own shelter, make their own clothes, or repair their tools, presumably so they can have more time for leisure, which is identified with “fun”.

So what’s there left for us to do? The answer is buy, use, consume.

But as the prolific author Wendell Berry points out in his classic book The Unsettling of America, a consumer is not really free. “A mere consumer,” he writes, “is by definition a dependent.”

 

It is no accident, notes Berry, that we’ve had an increased emphasis on “rights”, and a decreased emphasis on “responsibilities”, in an age of mass consumerism. The various marches and protests that we see on behalf of “rights” are at root recognitions of powerlessness on the part of their participants. The ultimate purpose of the marches seems to be to encourage other people—those on whom we are dependent—to do something to fix a problem.

So how do we take back power and become more than “mere consumers”? According to Berry, it’s not really possible (or desirable) to go cold turkey on consumption. And it’s not going to be through aligning ourselves to some large-scale, organized movement. That’s just another form of undesirable, passive consumption.

Instead, he says, the way to fight back is to become a responsible consumer. He provides the following description of a what he means by this term:

1) “A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good.”

2) “He would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.”

3) “The responsible consumer must also be in some way a producer. Out of his own resources and skills, he must be equal to some of his own needs. The household that prepares its own meals in its own kitchen with some intelligent regard for nutritional value, and thus depends on the grocer only for selected raw materials, exercises an influence on the food industry that reaches from the store all the way back to the seedsman. The household that produces some or all of its own food will have a proportionately greater influence. The household that can provide some of its own pleasures will not be helplessly dependent on the entertainment industry, will influence it by not being helplessly dependent on it, and will not support it thoughtlessly out of boredom.”

According to Berry, by performing these simple actions, the responsible consumer “is not confined to the negativity of his complaint… He influences the market by his freedom.” And gradually, through exercising his freedom on an individual basis, “the responsible consumer slips out of the consumer category altogether.”

Daniel Lattier

Daniel Lattier

Senior Fellow

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