Edward W Batchelder

red arrow border

| Music | Books | Travel & Food | Politics & Essays | Work for Hire

Making Peace with Our Inner Consumers

cartoon image of mountain bike

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, I had a friend I had met through a self-help group. Allan was quite smart—he had a degree in philosophy from a respected college, worked with computers, and had a quick wit. He was also, to my surprise, a raging materialist.

I discovered this when we were both shopping for bicycles. I headed for the back pages of the newspaper, where I found a second-hand ten-speed for about $20. Allan, however, headed for the bike shop and laid out more than $600 for a new, state-of-the-art mountain bike, completely fitted out with garish colors, knobbly tires, and more gears than anyone could possibly justify in a relatively flat coastal city like Boston. When I expressed some skepticism about his purchase, he defended it with that tone of calm, relentless self-acceptance that is the hallmark of self-help groups.

“You know,” he said, “I think it’s really great that you can be satisfied with a bike like that, but I’ve come to accept that I define myself through my material possessions. It’s important for me to buy an expensive bicycle because it’s what I want, and I need to feel like I deserve as a person to have my needs met.”

I was so startled by this convoluted formulation that I didn’t even bother to argue. It was only later that I realized that I had just had my first encounter with what might be called “empowerment consumerism”—a particularly American hybrid that has grown up at the crossroads of New Age psychology and old-fashioned materialism. It’s a movement that turns the potentially thorny precepts of self-help into a sort of enthusiastic “Help yourself!”

At the time, however, I only remember thinking that Allan showed some remarkable insight into the roots of his materialism, and I assumed that with time he would outgrow it. Particularly when, in an act of poetic justice, he was relieved of his mountain bike less than a month later by a thief, who was undoubtedly dealing with some tricky emotional issues himself.

Wrong. Some years later, Allan told me that what he really wanted now was a Road Ranger. There we were, talking about some philosophical issue, and suddenly he was coveting one of those four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles that have single-handedly decimated America’s average miles-per-gallon. He would have bought one, too, if he’d had the money, and he would have bought it for the same reasons: not because he needed it, but because he wanted it. Or more precisely, because—having been emotionally deprived as a child—he needed to have his wants satisfied.

Empowerment consumerism puzzles me, but it is a seductive argument. Unlike the conspicuous consumption of the 1950s, what’s important is not the thing itself—be it mountain bike, Road Ranger, or expensive plush toy for that inner child. What’s important is your emotional relationship to the act of buying the thing. It’s about process, not product, and the fact that, in the process, you end up with a whole lot of products is somehow beside the point. To suggest that buying a vehicle should have more to do with one’s transportation requirements than one’s emotional needs ends up sounding, well, oddly materialistic.

Recently, though, I have been looking at that Macintosh PowerBook 3400c, with its densely pixilated color screen, gigabyte of hard drive memory, internal CD-ROM and floppy drive, and fifteen times the operating speed of my current vintage ’92 laptop. I know I don’t need that much computer, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting it. And yet I still haven’t bought it. I like to think that I am exhibiting a globally conscious sense of living within my means, but my empowerment-consumerist friends tell me that I’m just suffering from feelings of low self-worth, and that I’m using environmentalism as a club to beat myself up with. They argue that buying the PowerBook would splendidly validate my choice to be a writer. It’s as if all the arguments that factor in the outer world are actually the voices of some inner childhood trauma.

In the long run, though, I’m not buying it—not the computer, and not empowerment consumerism either. Not only would I not feel empowered with a 3400c, I think I’d actually feel inhibited. Do I really want to ride the subway home to Brooklyn at 2 a.m. with one-fifth of my average annual income in my backpack? The way I look at it, I’m not depriving myself of a computer; I’m indulging myself in the luxury of low-worry products. I haven’t forgotten what happened to Allan’s mountain bike.

As for Allan himself, the last time I saw him, he had settled for a used Volkswagen Rabbit. Sensible enough, I guess, except that he had installed a new, state-of-the-art AM-FM-tape-deck-CD player. It did sound great, but whenever he parked, he had to pop it out of the dashboard and take it with him so it wouldn’t be stolen. It even came with a carrying case for just this purpose, made of rip-stop nylon with a shoulder strap, featuring more of those garish colors. And so wherever Allan went—there was that AM-FM-tape-deck-CD player on a strap over his shoulder. I guess he felt like he deserved to have it, and I guess, watching him lug it around, I would have to agree with him.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from Newsday)

| Music | Books | Travel & Food | Politics & Essays | Work for Hire