Urging the ‘North American pig’ to cut consumption

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

J A Progler

Sha'ban 16, 1418 1997-12-16


by J A Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 20, Sha'ban, 1418)

In its 1997 report, the United States Agriculture Department revealed that, ‘Americans routinely toss away uneaten vegetables, day-old bread and other pantry items, wasting one-fourth of the nation’s total food supply. A new study said that if just 5 percent of the wasted food that is nutritious and safe was recovered from restaurants, grocery stores and pantry shelves, it could feed an estimated 4 million poor and homeless US citizens. The vast majority of the waste came from consumers who threw away uneaten vegetables, forgot foods in the back of a refrigerator until they spoiled or discarded bread, milk and other dairy products more than a day or two old.’ A mindless and wasteful consumer culture has proliferated in America since mid-century, fueled by greedy corporations and deceitful advertisers. In fact, within a few decades, Americans went from being ‘citizens’ to ‘consumers,’ forgetting that in the language of their grandparents to ‘consume’ meant to destroy, pillage, and lay to waste. Similarly, ‘consumption,’ now a gleeful national pastime for many Americans, used to refer to a debilitating and fatal disease.

Though rivaled by their trilateral partners in Europe and Japan, Americans are by far the hogs of the world, collectively consuming one third of the earth’s resources and producing half of all the world’s non-organic waste. Such numbers are staggering indeed, given that the American population is not much more than 5% of the total world’s population. There is no possible way that the American style consume and throw away culture, upon which most discussions of future ‘economic growth’ seem predicated, can be replicated anywhere else--earthlings would need 3 entire planets to fuel their hunger and absorb their offal (maybe this is behind all the recent space exploration!). Indeed, the trilateral world-eaters will not be able to sustain their own patterns of consumption and waste for much longer. In short, unless some Star Trek fantasies of Hollywood come true soon, the American way of life is in for a big crash. The demise of this greedy and wasteful way of life will come even more quickly if non-Western peoples realize that American progress is only possible at the direct expense of Third World resources and cultures.

Despite proclamations that the American economy is growing, anti-consumption rumblings are emerging from the belly of the beast. North Americans are joining people in other Western nations to try and reform their own cultural habits from the bottom up. Though ignored by most corporate media outlets, various anti-consumption campaigns are springing up and catching on. For the past several years, the Media Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia, has sponsored ‘Planetary Buy Nothing Day,’ which it describes as a ‘24-hour moratorium on consumer spending.’ The idea is simple: on the last Friday of every November, buy nothing. The day is well chosen, probably with wasteful and brainwashed Americans in mind. In America, the last Friday of November is the day after their national holiday, Thanksgiving. According to the American corporate media, this is ‘traditionally’ the start of the Christmas shopping season and one of the ‘busiest shopping days of the year.’ While no one seems certain who started such a tradition, Americans have been spending less in recent years. They still seem to flock to malls, because the evening news tells them to, but they’re not buying as much. This is alarming to economists and marketers, who keep drilling the mantra into people’s heads that the economy is up in recent months. In creating a campaign to curb spending, the Media Foundation has tapped a nerve of American society.

In addition to sponsoring Buy Nothing Day, the Media Foundation also produces a number of ‘uncommercials.’ One features a map of North America with a pig protruding out of it, and urges viewers to curb consumption with the voice-over saying, ‘The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person and 30 times more than a person in India. We are the most voracious consumers in the world...a world that could die because of the way we North American live.’ The Media Foundation often uses the pig metaphor to describe Americans. For example, its website (www.adbusters.com) proclaims: ‘Only two generations ago, we were a relatively frugal people, living within our means. Today we are the ‘North American Pig’ -- bloated with excess, heavily in debt and out-pigging everyone else in sight. Overconsumption is just the most obvious symptom of a larger sickness; our culture is so empty that it needs to stuff itself to feel full.’

When approached to air one of these uncommercials, the major American corporate television outlets (ABC, CBS, and NBC) refused even though activists were set to pay the standard advertising rates. Robert L. Lowary of the Commercial Clearing Department at CBS, defended his network’s rejection: ‘CBS policy precludes accepting commercial advertising that takes an advocacy position on one side of a controversial issue of public importance and urges the viewer to take action in this regard. This commercial asks the viewer to not make any purchases on November 28 1997 as a demonstration in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States. In addition, the Media Foundation’s website and magazine describe the foundation as an organization devoted to advocacy on a number of controversial issues. Accordingly, this commercial is unacceptable for broadcast on the CBS Television Network.’ Mr. Lowary seems to forget that advertising by definition ‘urges the viewer to take action’ and engage in consumption.

CNN, which originally rejected the ad, decided at the last minute to sell airtime to the Media Foundation, and aired the Buy Nothing Day uncommercial 3 times on its Headline News Program ‘Dollars and Sense’ on 27 November (Thanksgiving for the Americans). During the weeks leading up to the event, some of the major corporate news outlets picked up the story. On November 19th, the Wall Street Journal reported that corporate television is not under any legal obligation to air commercials they dislike, but a professor at Harvard Law School retorted, ‘At least the networks make clear who butters their bread.’ NBC was more direct in its refusal to air the spots. Richard Gitter, Vice President for Advertising Standards, told the Media Foundation, ‘We don’t want to take any advertising that’s inimical to our legitimate business interests, and to our clients who purchase time on the network.’ The major American corporate networks seem to suffer from a blinding combination of hubris and detachment from the lives of ordinary people.

Even as the New York based national media outlets refused to air uncommercials, activists in the shadow of corporate high-rises staged a number of anti-consumption events. The group Simple Living promoted Buy Nothing Day, and received brief mention on local television. An animal rights group coordinated its activities with Buy Nothing Day, staging protests outside large department stores urging New York consumers not to purchase fur clothing. Some schools and college campuses in the area participated by using the day as a consciousness raising activity for social studies courses. New York’s public school system continues to enforces its ban on Channel One, the satellite ‘news’ service that has colonized public education around the US, enticing economically strapped districts with free technology in exchange for requiring that students watch a 15 minute commercially produced program every morning.

Activists and groups in the trilateral pig-out states have formed alliances with the Media Foundation to sponsor local Buy Nothing events. In 1996, ten countries participated, and this year the turnout was even greater. Different activities could be found in different locales, ranging from personal decisions to simply refrain from buying for a day, to various public expressions, such as credit card cutups, street theater, postering and pamphleteering. Activists in Canada, the US, Australia, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, and the UK aired uncommercials. According to preliminary reports from the Media Foundation, Buy Nothing Day 1997 was a huge success, with more participants than ever. While it may seem like only a day, large scale movements for social change often begin with small events that gradually spread. Certainly it is a sign of the times that more and more ordinary people are breaking through the media-induced haze of their consumptive lifestyle.

Many segments of mainstream America seem to be waking up. ‘Focus on the Family,’ the largest Christian conservative organization in the US, makes important connections between advertising, consumption, and family dissolution. Their spokespeople, active in churches across the country, urge the faithful to curtail spending. Muslims might tentatively form alliances with such groups, working toward a common anti-consumption goal, which would certainly be more constructive than the usual interfaith polemical fair. Still, the social, political, and economic analyses of large, mainstream Christian organizations are often woefully facile, and they tend not to look carefully at the root causes of their problems, which lie in the sacred cows of manifest destiny triumphalism, free market capitalism, and possessive individualism.

While not an avalanche of success, these pockets of resistance to consumer culture will multiply as the wave of anti-consumption slowly but surely spreads across the landscape. Indeed, Americans should have no trouble adopting to simple living, since it is deeply embedded in their traditions, ranging from the Bible (Jesus, upon whom be peace, urged his followers to leave aside worldly possession and follow him), to the pastoral writings of Thoreau, or the community practices of the Amish and conservative Quakers. Most of the world’s religions preach a simple lifestyle, and seen in contradistinction to this, the current corporate fueled consumer culture is indeed satanic.

The credit card free-for-all of the 1980s, has fueled the consumer debt crisis of the 1990s, with bankruptcies by ordinary consumers spreading like wildfire. When the smoke clears, marketers and their corporate news cheerleaders will have a hard time convincing Americans to hop back on the work-and-spend roller-coaster. But the irony of all this is that as North Americans move away from a consumer debt society, the corporations will more aggressively seek to open markets in Asia and Africa. Cigarettes are a case in point—as Americans wake up to the dangers of cancer sticks, the tobacco giants have picked up the slack by selling more poison overseas. Similarly, American banks are making inroads with credit cards among the colonized and wealthy Third World elite. Muslims are included here, shamefully, and, despite claims of paying off balances before interest accrues, they are still endorsing collective utilization of an instrument of usury.

In New York City, a group of Muslim professionals have invented a secular holiday in December so Muslims don’t feel left out of mainstream American celebrations. They have also succeeded in getting the City authorities to display a crescent alongside a cross and star for the winter holiday season. In addition to public transportation and airports, some large department stores have begun to display the crescent in the hopes of enticing wealthy Muslim families into joining the Christmas shopping frenzy. Again, sadly, as Christian Americans are moving away from consumer culture, Muslims seem to have unwittingly positioned themselves to fill in the gap. Muslims ought to be particularly wary of such dynamics, since for the next several years Ramadan overlaps with the Christmas season. Corporate America, always driven by greed, will no doubt be the first to overcome Islamophobia once it becomes clear that there’s a handsome profit to be made. And, as its root meaning suggests, consumption remains a contagious and debilitating disease which knows no creed.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1997

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