Kunstler: Stop calling Americans “consumers”

I was at a small meeting on peak oil Friday — Executive Summary:  We’re peaking now!

James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, was there.  He is in the Mad Max/Lovelock/Wall-E school of dystopia, and so I have a number of disagreements with him (see “Why I don’t agree with James Kunstler about peak oil and the “end of suburbia“).

He did, however, say one thing that really strike a chord.  He said we should stop calling Americans “consumers.”  It pigeonholes all Americans and also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That seems to me a reasonable point, and I will endeavor to make a change.  Indeed, I had previously blogged that the U.S. savings rate was on the rise, it looks like U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007, President Obama was making a big ush toward making America a nation of creators as opposed to consumers, and I asked “Is the U.S. consumption binge over?

The figure above is from the NYT business blog, Economix, which has a longer-term, glass-is-half-empty perspective in a post titled, “Savings Rates Rising Toward Mediocrity“:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that personal savings rates rose again in May. Americans saved 6.9 percent of their after-tax income last month, the highest rate in 15 years.

Is that impressive? Not particularly, at least in historical terms. In fact, it’s about equal to the average savings rate of the last 50 years:


Well, I’m a glass-is-half-full type of person — or, rather, like my old friend Amory Lovins, I’m a glass-is-twice-as-big-as-it-needs-to-be person.  So rather than focusing on the past, I’ll stick with Obama’s optimism about the future from his big speech on science and R&D last month “” “Our future on this planet depends on our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution,” vows “we will exceed [R&D] level achieved at the height of the space race”:

I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent “” to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.

I would also note that in Dale Carnegie’s uber-bestseller How to Win Friends and Influnce People, in Section Four “How to be a leader:  How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment,” he has a chapter titled, “Give a Dog a Good Name.”  Bottom line:  People live up — or down — to expectations, and the naming of things matters.  [Yes, I know, calling ourselves “homo sapiens sapiens” didn’t take.]

So, while it may just be a small thing, instead of using the term “American consumers,” I’ll just try to stick with “Americans.”

13 Responses to Kunstler: Stop calling Americans “consumers”

  1. Tom says:

    How about “Citizens?” That would be a change indeed.

  2. paulm says:

    American revolutionaries.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:


    I agree that we should stop calling people “consumers”, and I agree that words matter.

    That said, the situation is more than that, of course. Many of the smartest and most creative minds in America in the areas of communications, psychology, “market” research, and so forth are dedicated to the tasks of convincing people they need things and then selling them those things.

    No joke. Many of the most creative and “intelligent” people I’ve met in life have as their main aim to market things to people, and their own jobs, compensations, and bonuses depend on how well they do it.

    I think we need to do some self-examination, just as Socrates mentioned “a few years back”.

    Be Well,


  4. Will says:

    No kidding Tom.

  5. Jim Beacon says:

    Wow… listening to the debate during final passage of Waxman-Markey may have fried more of our brain cells than we first thought. Let’s hope it’s temporary, because this sort of strategy logic sounds perilously close to semantically splitting hairs on the dog that bit ya.

    For starters, *every* living thing on the planet is a “consumer”. Plants consume water, CO2 and trace elements from the soil to grow. When they die they give them back. Microbes consume, well, whatever it is they eat, etc. The difference between humans and most other consuming creatures is that we have used our technology to divorce ourselves from that part of the natural consumption/growth/life cycle where we ourselves are eventually consumed and so finally give back to the ecosystem what we have taken out of it during the course of keeping ourselves alive and growing and reproducing.

    The same use of technology allows each individual member of our species to consume a whole lot more resources than they possibly could have done if we had stayed in our ‘natural’ non-technological state. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that if if we had stayed in that non-technological state, that we would not *still* be consumers. We would be. We would just not be such dangerous consumers from a planetary viewpoint.

    It is the runaway application of technology that has allowed us to consume in the unhealthy fashion to which we have become accustomed. It is what has made us a danger to the planet’s life support system. But since no one really wants to give up the benefits of our technology, we have to quickly learn how to re-integrate it and ourselves with that life-support system so that our civilization can continue to exist in something like its current state. If we don’t pull that off, then yes, we will almost certainly end up with the Mad Max scenario.

    In addition to all the technological things we are now trying to formalize into global policy to pull off that reintegration (with efforts like Waxman-Markey and the coming Copenhagen summit), there is are the dirty words we are told we must not utter in polite company — controlling population growth — to contend with if we are to be successful and achieve reintegration in time to avert global catastrophe.

    So far, we have been using technology to run ahead of the population growth curve, but with factors like peak oil, peak food, peak fresh water and 500 ppm CO2 concentrations looming on the near horizon, it is unlikely we will be able to continue to do that as effectively as we have in the past 30 years (when we consumed and grew ourselves from 3 billion to 7 billion people).

    If you remove the word “consumer” from the dialog you just end up obscuring the true nature of the problem. You will be attempting to divorce the method from the madness in people’s minds, when what we really need to do is thoroughly analyze the method and then get everyone to commit to dramatically changing it.

    [JR: Gosh, I think you miss the whole point. No one said that one removes the word “consumer” from the dialogue, just not using it as the catch-all term to describe Americans. Again, the collapse of the Ponzi scheme is inevitable on our current path, as I’ve said many times, but I strongly disagree with you that “we will almost certainly end up with the Mad Max scenario” — that ignores human resilience and ingenuity and the fact that there are an overabundance of ways of getting carbon free, sustainable energy to run what ever civilization we have in 2100.]

  6. Ed says:

    Consuming imported products augments GHG emissions by US “Citizens” up to 28 times the level of Tanzania (which would be sustainable). By globalizing production you (and we) have spread our CO2 emissions over the whole planet. While Nikes are manufactured in a thirdworld country they are bought in the West to be consumed (tossed away in 3 month) there.


    Ed Kuipers

  7. Leif says:

    A couple of thoughts came to mind reading the above. I am not quite sure how relevant but what the hay.

    Even the bottom of a shit house is utopia to some life forms.
    The energy consumed by the world every year took one million years to accumulate.

    “Planned obsolescence” has been a corner stone
    of our capitalist society from the get go. I fear that society will not have much hope until corporate mentality acknowledges the fact that they have a fiduciary responsibility to build for humanity’s long term survival and not just the American consumer, growth of the GDP and their profit margin.

  8. James Newberry says:

    Dear Leif:

    Your statement “The energy consumed by the world every year took one million years to accumulate” is based on inaccurate paradigms. For example, that “energy” accumulation is really hydrocarbon Materials. Also, energy is converted and never “consumed.” It is thermodynamic law that energy is only converted, whereas materials may be “consumed.” The energy in hydrocarbons created the very material resources Western thought considers “energy,” thus resulting in climate contamination. Regards.

  9. Michael Juras says:

    To properly distinguish U.S. citizens in the global context, one must consider the per capita GHG contribution we’ve made o’er seven decades. No other nationality compares with our carbon excess. We have been, and continue to be, nothing less than “world-class polluters.”

    I don’t think “world-class polluters” leads to self-fulfilling prophecy but rather self-correction. As far as Jim’s issue with pigeonholing, DOH! This is a truth that would ring so refreshingly clean in the next “State of the Union” as our president intones “my fellow world-class polluters.” Let’s get real folks. Time to live less comfortably while we stick it to millions beyond our shores.
    Be warm,

  10. Kevin Eber says:

    Actually, “Americans” isn’t really the best choice either, as we happen to live on a continent called North America, and those on both our continent and the one to the south can all justifiably call themselves “American.” Somehow the United States has claimed this term, but it’s actually somewhat self-centered of us.

    I tend to avoid the use of both “consumers” (following the logic of this post) and “citizens,” because I don’t want to exclude the non-citizens, including my Norwegian-born green-card-carrying co-worker (so no, it’s not just a knee-jerk liberal response to Mexican illegals). My best solution: “U.S. residents.”

  11. Leif says:

    James Newberry, Thank you for the correction. I tend to get carried away in the spur of the moment.

  12. Bob Wright says:

    There is some opinion that we are actually not saving that 6.9%, but merely trying to pay off credit card debt and mortgages with the reduces recession incomes.

    See the Michael Hudson article on Counterpunch.

  13. Greg Robie says:

    Joe, a 5% of after taxes income savings rate and regulated fractional reserve banking will not do much to fill the hole in the economy the collapsed derivatives market left. I do not understand how such savings rates can be leveraged by banks to fill the hole; to effect a recovery—short of overt fascism. And that is unfolding via the extra-legal manipulations of the Fed to shore up a bankrupt financial sector. The actions of the Fed, as government policy, are, relative to savers, glass-half-full draining choices.

    Anyway, it was the short-term profitability of the derivatives market that justified credit creation based on US consumerism (and consumerism is a bit more than half of our national economy; a bit more than half our name). In addition, it is that consumerism which allows much of the employment that this data says is being saved. Given that the IRS 2008 revenues are reportedly down over 40% re: personal income taxes, the actual savings rate is likely even greater for those who are employed; who have wages that allow for such saving.

    I bet a more meaningful way of looking at this data is as a measurement of just how much consumer credit has tightened due to bank’s technical insolvency and the resulting credit freeze. The majority of the people cannot borrow so the upper quintile, which still has more income than expenses—and have right along—have become visible.

    While I appreciate the effort to spin things positively, and, yes, for a large segment of the population, such “positiveness” is required for them to even consider listening, is there a point at which pandering to this psychological need precludes people getting that we have chosen hell and high water (but for socially embraced scientifically relevant lifestyle changes)? Since I do not hear anyone arguing that W_M doesn’t need “strengthening,” this implies, for me, that trying to spin disaster in positive terms is a fools errand. Given the trends in science, and the current science (as per the synthesis report you have linked to in another post), how is “strengthening” not a euphemism for which those who feel things must be positive are otherwise rendered speechless?

    As I have been watching new patterns in the Arctic jet stream the past week or so, and observed easterlies appearing where the Gulf Stream, formerly, made such all but impossible, I experience the demand for “positiveness” to be an affect that, systemically, is little more than a destructive elitist piety.