Consumer society

November 28, 1997|By Paul Kennel

YESTERDAY was the official start of the Overconsumption Olympics. We fly off the starting blocks in November by eating more than we need and race to the finish in December by buying more than we can afford for people who already have more than they can use. We're awarded gold medals in January in the form of credit card bills and trips to commercial weight-loss centers.

Enough already

It's no surprise that we've lost the ability to say ''enough.'' This seems especially true during the holidays. We eat far too much. That extra helping of stuffing or piece of pumpkin pie probably contributes to the fact that more than 50 percent of all Americans are overweight. We also spend far too much. Consumer debt per household has almost doubled since 1990. Yet the rush to buy better and more expensive Christmas gifts than last year leaves us feeling as empty as our bank accounts.

Shopping seems to be our national pastime, according to ''Affluenza,'' a provocative PBS special that aired earlier this fall. The statistics are startling: During one week, each of us spends an average of six hours shopping and only 40 minutes playing with our children. By the time a young American is 20 years old, she has seen a million television commercials.

Consuming more than we need and can afford has staggering consequences. Advertising pits children against parents in the fight to keep up with the latest trends. Consumer debt strains marriages, leading many to divorce and bankruptcy. Our insatiable appetite for things eats away at our environment, destroying precious national resources. More than 80 percent of the world's resources are consumed by only 20 percent of its people. The gap widens between the ''haves'' and the ''have nots.''

One way we can finish last in the Overconsumption Olympics is to share our resources. The act of giving of ourselves -- of returning to a more simple lifestyle -- rids our lives of clutter and helps us return our focus to things of more lasting value.

'Outdulgence'

My friend Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, calls this ''outdulgence'' -- instead of constantly indulging ourselves, we can give with a cheerful heart to those with real needs.

Some humanitarian organizations like World Concern offer alternative gifts as a way to honor loved ones without buying expensive holiday trinkets. Gifts like enough fish to stock a family's fish farm in Bangladesh, a medical check-up for a child in Bolivia and a year of school tuition for a child in Myanmar make a profound difference in the life of someone who has next to nothing.

For some families, selecting alternative gifts has become a holiday tradition. By involving children in the process of selecting gifts for less fortunate people, they become aware of the real needs of other children and learn to be thankful for what they have. It's an effective way to return to the holiday spirit of giving, not just receiving.

Paul Kennel is president of World Concern, an international Christian relief and development organization based in Seattle.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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