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Luxury Or Necessity?

Poll finds that people are reconsidering what's really "necessary."

A new poll from the Pew Resarch Center finds that the recession is altering our perceptions of what we truly need, and what we can live without: some consumer goods that were once widely considered "necessities" are increasingly being viewed as mere "luxuries."

The biggest falloffs in "necessity" status were in microwaves, clothes dryers, air conditioning, dishwashers, and TVs. A few gizmos (high-speed internet, flat screen TVs, iPods) saw some modest gains as "necessities." But overall, it looks as if a combination of changing societal norms and troubling economic realities is leading us to reconsider whether we really need all the gadgets in our lives.

Only time will tell if this is a lasting trend, or just a blip. But it's sure an interesting demonstration of a fact that's well understood in academic circles, but is perhaps a surprise to a society that's grown accustomed to plenty: our needs are, to a large extent, a social construction. We need a lot less than we think we do; and much of the time, our perception of need is defined by what our peers and neighbors have, or what they want, and not by what makes us genuinely happy. In fact, we often have absolutely no idea what makes us happy or fulfilled.

This piece originally appeared in Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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Shades of dark green cropping up again. If we can get past the fear of change and the false dichotomy of prosperity vs. environment, we'll be in good shape.

The "consumerism" debate and social constructivism are tired canards. Of course we don't really *need* anything. Humanity did quite well for 100,000 years living in caves and villages.

But given the choice, we choose health, safety, communication and entertainment. In short, all the things modern society allows. I reject the idea that there's anything wrong with any of that. We shouldn't feel guilty about our wants and desires. The best way to get rid of our desires is to fulfill them (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde). And we've got a future of 9 billion egos, each as fevered as our own. They'll all want fridges, flat screens, cars and nice places to live. Along with that education and health care. Who are we to tell them they can't have them, when we've been enjoying them all along?

The bright green mission is to make sure that these products and services are offered sustainably. Among the many other reasons, maybe when that happens, the dark greens will finally shut up with their paternalistic attitudes and hand wringing about everyone's car, creature comforts and gadgets.

Aren't we all fed up with their moralizing? Isn't it a little--Victorian? Isn't it an admission of defeat?

We must find better ways to make what we all want *or* need. Who cares which it is? That's a personal choice.

It's the sustainability, stupid.

Posted by: BlackSun on 25 Apr 09

I agree with BlackSun. If we're talking about what we strictly need, then we should go back to hunting and gathering. I doubt that would prove too popular, however. To use the Rocky Mountain Institute's credo, I prefer 'abundance by design'.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 25 Apr 09

Sustainability and consumer goods are opposites. I find it surprising that this is still a debate. Available resources are not sufficient to sustain western cultures even if we attempt to recycle 99% of our throw away goods. Every human intervention causes a new set of problems. When we try to control and exploit our environment in "green" and "sustainable" ways we always create new problems that have to be solved. Just because we are accustomed to our consumerist lifestyle it doesn't mean that our lives are any better. I agree education and health should be priorities and even if they are not sustainable we should continue to invest and research ways in which we can provide them to everyone. Consumer goods such as tv's ipods, plastic bags, household cleaners, walk-in closests, cars, single family housing these are things that we can live without. It won't be easy but if we had the courage to make the big lifestyle changes I believe that we would all be happier for it.

Posted by: Paul on 26 Apr 09

"Sustainability and consumer goods are opposites."

This, in a nutshell defines the dark green position. Because they're evaluating consumer goods as they've always been made in the carbon-energy era. Not as if they were made sustainably. It's a tautology: unsustainable consumer goods are unsustainable. But if they're made sustainably, that means virtually unlimited demand could be satisfied without environmental damage. That's what the word means! Indeed, sustainability is the only way to grow the economy on a resource-constrained planet.

No one said consumer goods make everyone, (or anyone) happier. When I hear this tripe, I somehow think of people having support group meetings at IKEA or worshiping at the church of Best Buy. Sorry, I think people just go there to buy the stuff they want/need as cheaply as possible. I think everyone understands they're not buying "inner peace" when they pull out their credit card.

Whatever the reason, people keep desiring and purchasing goods, though. Dark Greens blame advertising. How patronizing. The truth is, advertising improves brand loyalty, and may slightly increase overall demand. But you'll never convince anyone that advertising is the only reason people have refrigerators, for example. They are a necessity by any stretch. One of the first things a village gets when it gets electricity is a fridge for storing vaccines and medicines. No household could survive long without one, unless they were willing to eat nothing but canned and dried foods, or if they lived on a farm.

Again, striking a balance between goods vs. personal development is a choice best left to the individual. Society has failed when it allows goods to be manufactured that are cheap, disposable and destructive without paying for the externalities they create.

The above referenced Pew study is an obvious response to a lack of purchasing power. As soon as that changes, you can bet people will rediscover all the "necessities" they gave up during lean times. This is not rocket science.

So we'd better use this downturn to push sustainability in manufacturing even harder than before. And smart public transport will take more cars off the road than a million philosophical discussions about getting by and "being happy with less."

Posted by: BlackSun on 26 Apr 09

I agree with BlackSun that it should be up to people to decide for themselves if they want a walk-in closet and iPod. I don't happen to have either, but that's because I want money in the bank more than I want those things. I don't think it's environmentalism's place to get all dark green and self-righteous about personal choices. Environmentalism's mission should be to push for cradle-to-cradle product development and carbon-neutral building codes so that people can have the things they want, not just the things they need.

Posted by: Sue on 27 Apr 09

How is it patronizing to blame advertising for generating need? Especially when we're all in agreement that need is a social construction? Is advertising not a large part of society? Advertising operates by taking advantage of lack. The reason people keep desiring and purchasing things is because most of us believe that purchasing something will fulfill that desire. It does, for a short time, until the thing we purchased ceases to be shiny and we need a new one. This isn't to say that _every_ purchase is made that way, it's ingenuous to compare a refrigerator to an iPod, but there's a reason why "retail therapy" is a common expression: people buy things because it makes them feel better, not because they need whatever it is they're buying.

Obviously that issue becomes bunk when we've achieved the sustainable closed-loop utopia (you'd be hard pressed finding a single environmentalist who isn't fighting for closed-loop sustainability, no matter what shade of green they may be) - but that's a long way off, and until that time comes we need to put just as much effort into reducing consumption. It's hardly dark green to suggest that we're being a little childlike in giving in to every desire, and hardly bright green to suggest that we should or that it's "right". This is why we have posts about "heirloom design" on this blog, to name just one example.

(For what it's worth, that Oscar Wilde quote is from a character in "Portrait of Dorian Gray" who's raison d'etre was to turn Dorian into a self-destructive hedonist. As far as I know, Oscar Wilde never said it "as himself.")

Posted by: Chris L on 28 Apr 09

Oops, my bad, I meant "disingenuous" up there. Ingenuous isn't a word.

Posted by: Chris L on 28 Apr 09

In pushing for more choice, we can also engage consumers and give them a choice about sustainability. We can do this by making unsustainable products a *lot* more expensive than sustainable ones--reflecting their true cost to society.

This would quickly lead to a clamor for sustainability from the very same people who now seem only to care about price. Because sustainability is ultimately good business.

The only missing ingredient is policy. Which should be our primary focus, not condemning consumption per se. Hit 'em in the wallet where it hurts. Engage self-interest in a useful pursuit (saving money *and* the environment) rather than pretending we can force/cajole people into being selfless and 'enlightened.'

Posted by: BlackSun on 28 Apr 09

Fair enough, I can't really disagree with you there.

Mind, I still think that we'd all be better off (not environmentally speaking, but in terms of mental health) with a little bit of self-discipline. Though you're right in that it's not something that can be forced --at least, not by other people. In some respects this economic crisis is doing that for us: many will adopt less wasteful lifestyles out of necessity, and may find that they are no less happy for doing it. (Though, of course, others will resent it and go back to disposability the moment they can.)

Posted by: Chris L on 28 Apr 09

What's needed and what's just plain laziness? Learn a little more about what's eco friendly with the Eco Deck, a unique pack of cards with original art and 52 eco tips, facts and solutions to improve everyone's green game and I.Q. From water and solar facts to some of the world's worst eco blunders, a few hands of cards with the Eco Deck and you just might remember to turn off the water when you're brushing your teeth, the lights off when you leave a room, and turning down the air conditioning thermostat when you leave the house.

Posted by: Bill Schwartz on 7 May 09

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