POSTED: 12 JULY 2007 - 7:30am HST

TGI #8: End Of American Consumerism

image above: The Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping preaches in Times Square, NYC

[Editor's Note: Normally these columns are scheduled to appear every other Sunday.The final published version may vary from this text as TGI retains the right to correct and edit the material. The copyright to the published version is held by TGI owner Kauai Publishing. Some material in TGI columns may have appeared on already]

Island Breath: Kauai Consumerism
by Juan Wilson to be published in TGI on 15 July 2007 
Revision 2.4-071507
special to the Garden Island News 2007 by Kauai Publishing

Bad Day at Kukui Grove
Americans are happy when buying stuff. We have come to love brand-names as if they were family members. We imbue the release of the next hip gadget as a spiritual revelation. Some techno-gurus have even dubbed Apple's new iPhone "The God Machine".

But often it is what gives us the greatest pleasure that is the source of our greatest frustration and suffering. Ask any junkie or ice-head. This truism not only applies for drug addicts, but to those addicted to consumption as well.

I'm speaking about that person who is bored and mildly depressed. You are looking forward to jumping in the new Honda Element and driving through winding tropical scenery to Kukui Grove. The plan is to charge a $400 Champion Juicer at Macy's so you can "live off the land". Then your life will have meaning, and all will be right with the world. Afterwards, you can top off your shopping conquest with a mocha-latte-grande at Starbucks.

Unfortunately, in the real world, due to a raging wildfire on the way to Kukui Grove, the Honda got stuck in a three hour highway meltdown south of the Wailua Golf Course. You almost ran out of gas idling in traffic and the car's AC couldn't overcome the smoke, and now the Element doesn't smell so new. When you finally get to Macy's and swipe your Capital One card they tell you the juicer purchase has been declined. You realize you're tapped out because you used the credit card for last month's car payment. You head off to Starbucks for a latte to wash down a couple of aspirins and a Valium while you figure out how to tank up the car and get home before rush hour. Is this really fun?

American Consumerism
"Consumerism" is a word invented in America after the Second World War that coincides with the birth of Baby Boomers and the explosion of suburbia. Today, Americans have become characterized, more than anything else, as consumers.

Consumerism is defined as;

1) the concept that the ever-expanding consumption of goods is advantageous to the economy.

2) the term used to equate personal happiness with purchasing material possessions.

3) the movement for the protection of the consumer against useless, inferior, or dangerous products as well as unfair advertising and pricing.

There are some who are trying to save Americans from their shopping addiction before it is too late. One is Bill Talen, who as the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, warns of the coming Shopocalypse. He is funny and dead serious at the same time. The Reverend Billy travels in a biodiesel fueled bus with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir to preach from the parking lots of WalMart and Starbucks. While the Choir sings the Reverend does interventions and exorcisms.

He asks us "What would Jesus buy?" and exhorts consumers to stop shopping. Reverend Billy recommends that if you have to buy anything you should avoid the corporate franchises and chains stores and buy from locally owned businesses.

[Note: Reverend Billy is coming to Hawaii at the end of this month and may make a side trip to Kauai on August 1st. Visit for more about him and visit our website for updates about his trip to the Islands.]

The Perfect Economic Storm
Consumerism may be the basis of our economy and the source of our "happiness", but as the central organizing principle of our culture has just about run its course. I believe consumerism, as we know it, is going away (kicking a screaming) and we will simply have to learn to sustain and entertain ourselves without it.

There is a perfect storm coming that will move us away from being consumers. The elements of the storm include...

1) The demand for oil is exceeding supply - Sticking it out in Iraq won't fix the Peak Oil Crisis.
The Result: Much more expensive oil.

2) The failure of the US housing market - Hope you weren't counting on selling at the top of the market to "cash in".
The Result: Shutting off the consumer credit engine.

3) The loss of economic leadership to China - We didn't want to make all that plastic junk anyway. Besides, it wrecks the environment.
The Result: The US stock market crashes and the dollar can't buy anything.

The Empire Has No Clothes
It is my opinion that the there is a great struggle going on that threatens the way we live. But Bush-Cheney never really examined the underlying source. They just labeled it "The War on Terror" and started an endless shooting war with the Moslem world.

Underlying much of the resentment and hatred we see aimed at us is a rejection of Western culture and economics. It is not so much a war of religious fanaticism against our freedom and wealth as it is a clash of between socioeconomic models. It is really a battle between the First World and the Third World.

On the one hand is The First World (Western Civilization, Judeo-Christian-Agnostic Culture, a Global Economy, Corporate Rule): Its secular forces uses technology, cheap energy and cheap labor to transform us all into consumers without regard to history, local customs or spiritual development.
To what end? - Economic Growth at any cost.

On the other hand is there is the Third World (Underdeveloped Nations, Islamic Culture, Fierce Nationalism and Armed Tribalism): Its parochial forces attempt to use rigid codes to maintain cultural and religious values that preserve the traditional, stable and modest ways of living by strict adherence to arbitrary rules.
To what end? - Preservation through Obedience.

Both sound like hell to me. I'm hoping that "victory" leaves us somewhere in between. I'm looking for a modest sustainable lifestyle with intellectual and spiritual freedom - In the aina and with ohana.

On the surface the clash between the First and Third World is lopsided in favor of the West, but that is only on the surface. As we have found out in Iraq, high-tech maneuver warfare can be ground down by persistent door-to-door low-tech resistance. As energy becomes more expensive (and it could be $75 a barrel for oil by the time you read this) the worldwide economic playing field will begin to level. We will all be living in the Third World - but with internet access.

Variation of the Golden Rule
Many in America consider themselves Christians. A central tenet is The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you." An important corollary of that rule is "Act in a way that if everybody acted your way, the world would be a better place." This would include an accounting of the share of the world's resources you consume. And that does not allow for trading pollution rights with natives from New Guinea.

If the Post-Peak-Oil economy does anything good, it will reduce our reliance on consumerism as our measure of our success. A wasteful use of resources will force us to face increasingly greater consequences. We all will be forced to transform ourselves from consumers to artisans; from corporate employees to local entrepreneurs, from celebrity-wanna-bees to good neighbors. Consumerism will become a self healing wound - if it doesn't kill us first.

In the long run Americans will see that letting go of what Dick Cheney called "our nonnegotiable lifestyle" is the best thing that could happen to us. A new kind of economy and culture is self-organizing here on Kauai. As it unfolds we will all become more native to this place - if not kanaka maoli maybe kama`aina. It will mean you won't have to make so much money or be stuck in your car all the time. It will mean you won't have to be hypnotized by your glowing TV and cellphone screen to get through the night. Kauai might even begin to feel like Kauai again.

The Garden Island News Column Menu Listing of all "Island Breath" articles submitted to TGI
27 June 2007 - 7:30pm HST

TGI Article #7: Planning by Townships Another strategy to improve the quality of life on Kauai