Every person under the sun must eat to live, and in that sense we are all blameless and glorious consumers-as at a feast lovingly prepared by a grandmother. There is nothing wrong, and much very right, about consuming to live. Hence Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard speaks winningly from the Jewish tradition of "consecrated consumption."

What worries some people is that the affluent, technologically advanced West seems more and more focused not on consuming to live, but on living to consume. (I confess at the outset to being one of these ambivalent creatures, fat but troubled in paradise.) The problem with consumption, and the consumer capitalism that has pushed it to feverish historical extremes, is the fact that it has become so all-consuming.

Even Americans-citizens of the premier "nation of consumers" (Richard Tedlow)-recognize problems with the extremes to which we have taken consumption as a way of life. Recycling containers, nonexistent ten years ago, now stand sentry outside every home in my suburban neighborhood, bearing testimony to one of the most obvious problems.

We are sensitized to the ecological damage of an intentionally wasteful society fostered by "planned obsolescence." Perhaps some environmentalists indulge in hysteria and hyperbole, but however overstated their warnings may be, there is no denying the murky brown clouds of smog hanging over Los Angeles, or Lake Michigan beaches closed to swimmers because of raw sewage seeping into the lake.

A problematic feature of consumer capitalism is the inescapable barrage of advertising-its coaching and coaxing of multitudinous desires. The New York Times has estimated that the average American is exposed to 3,500 ads per day. So inundated, we are hardly aware of how pervasive ...

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In the Magazine

October 7, 1996

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