Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is it all just a fad?

It's all over the news - the economy sucks. People are losing their homes; years of retirement savings are in limbo as stocks violently drop and rise, only to drop again; and salary increases (if they come at all) usually aren't enough to cover the cost of living increases. 

People are cutting back. Car sales are down and entire dealerships closing. Large box stores are closing their doors - Linens and Things is closing all their stores after opening in here in College Station just last year. More people are shopping at discount retailers like Walmart and purchasing from second hand shops and garage sales now more than ever. But why?

What I'm really wondering here is if people are simply reacting to a decrease in available funds or really grasping the magnitude of the stress we've put on ourselves, our economy, and our planet. Do the majority of people simply see this as a blip in the road or an impetus to change our greedy, materialistic demand for a steady stream of more stuff?

I wish with all my heart that this wake-up call was a true step towards mindfulness about how we spend, how we consume, and how we relate to the world around us. Something tells me it's not.

On several occasions, as Dave and I have run errands in the car, he's mentioned to me that it's very obvious that drivers have again increased driving speeds as the gas prices have been falling. When gas prices were hitting almost $4 a gallon for us (and well over $4 a gallon for many of you around the US), we noticed that people were driving slower to try to save through efficiency. That no longer seems to be the case. So when our pocket books are once again full, will we also go back to maxing our credit cards, buying Hummers, and throwing frugality to the wind?

What does it take to truly change our lifestyles? What does it take to make us see that a simple, green, frugal lifestyle isn't about making it through the tough times - it's a beautiful, earth-friendly, community-friendly, happy way of life. I'm not saying we all have to conform to the same simple-green-frugal ideal. But at some point we have to accept that every single one of us put ourselves in this mess and going back to the same old routine doesn't do anyone any good (in fact it does considerable harm). 

Am I wrong here? Is there more happening than I am seeing? Is the American lifestyle truly changing or is it all just a passing fad?


ttammylynn said...

People just don't know how to drive, esp as each new batch of fresh college kids infuses our roads with horrible driving techniques. Faster, yes, they could be driving faster lately but I am not sure if the gas prices are to blame, per se, or the simple desire to cut off the other guy to not be slowed as much by the lane closures and construction, is more my take on things. But, you know, I have seen cop cars pulling some of the dumbest stunts of all, cutting across lanes, turning in front of other vehicles, without red and blue lights to signify on duty(and without turn signals). I heard that cop cars have gone through many of the red light cameras fairly new to College Station, so, I don't think that it is that the price of gas is going down...I think it is that people are just not so considerate when they get in a car and drive. As a bicyclist, I know you risk life and limb every time you go out...not but about a month ago, I saw a car hit a guy on a bicycle. Fortunately, the car stopped and aided the bicyclist, and I saw an ambulance go to check him out right afterward as well.
I think there are bigger issues than the economy and the price of gas. I think that there are real human concerns...people are in a great big hurry and no one watches out for their neighbor as themself. Sure, super-size me prices and credit debt couldn't be helping...afterall, it used to be that a man could work and support his family, a woman could raise the children and keep the house and garden, and the children could be children. Now, taxes are so high and prices are so high that the economic feasability of this model is shot down in all but a few cases. Children are raised by computers and televisions, women work outside the home and are very lucky to keep a home together, and men are faced with feeling inadequate because no matter what they do, it is never enough for the growing needs and wants of their family. It is pretty overwhelming. Americans work more hours statistically with less time off than many other countries with fewer benefits and less productivity, we're all burned out. All of which might explain why mass marketing works so well on American targets, we feel entitled to a few nice things for doing so much, but this entitlement backfires into more thankless work, certainly not the promise of the American dream, is it?

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

I think many people are truly seduced by stuff and convenience. I am in no way surprised that people will "tighten their belts" and then go back to profligate waste and use of resources when the "crisis is averted", we saw this in the late 70s with the oil embargo (though admittedly I wasn't alive then), people did all sorts of things to conserve, but once the crisis was over - we went back to our old ways. Why? Well, I think in this country it has to do with two main things - first, our sense of "entitlement" that we can and should be able to have what we want, when we want, no questions asked; the second aspect is likely something to do with status and how we "stack up" to the rest of the world. For the longest time now we have valued our nation in terms of how many goods we produce and sell, and somebody has to buy this stuff. Our society was trained long ago to be consumers - hence that is why consumer spending is what our economy is based off of. And I also think it is only natural to want to live a life of more convenience, more abundance, since for much of human history life was quite inconvenient at times and there were periods of scarcity. Basically what I am taking forever to say is that most other nations of people would act and consume just as we do if they could.

What does it take for positive, sustainable lifestyle changes to stick? Well this is just my opinion (as most of what I've said here is), but I would guess it to be a protracted time of resource depletion or climate catastrophe - basically something that impedes us from continuing to live the way we do long-term. The reason I think it has to be something protracted for it to stick is because of exactly what you were talking about with driving habits and gas prices and what I was talking about with the conservation strategies of the late 70s/early 80s - it didn't last long enough and people remembered their old way of life too well.

Sorry for the super long comment!

Michelle said...


Sorry the post did not go through - it seemed like it did. It was waaay too long anyway - suffice it to say I was ranting about the current state of things and how everyone is acting like two year olds who want it now.

Great post!

Heather @ SGF said...

ttammylynn - I think you are right. There does seem to be something else at work here as well - the deterioration of community-mindedness.

jennifer - I do totally agree with idea that there is a human drive to have things/eat more food during times of plenty to cover for the times of want, but at the same time, we're at a point where the plenty doesn't go away and we've evolved to have great intelligence too. I think that intelligence should override some of the biological imperative. Does that make any sense? I guess the point is the same as yours. We don't remember the times of want so we abuse the times of plenty. The key here is thinking or being aware of our actions. Hmmm. That's a good lead into a post for tomorrow...

michelle - I'm bummed your comment didn't make it through. I'll link to your post though so everyone can see...

Michelle's post today on Leaving Excess is in response to my post. Check it out at


Anonymous said...

Sadly I think the only thing that will induce mankind into a more sustainable lifestyle will be a complete crash. Crash of economics, an environmental crash and peak oil.....the perfect storm.

Mankind won't do it willingly, we have developed into a comsumeristic species, intent on the fastest, flashiest and easiest route to all things.

To be perfectly honest, whilst I know this scenario is going to hurt many, many people, and in poorer countries result in deaths, for which I am truly sorry, I cannot help but look forward to the benefits it will also bring.

Families will be closer, in some cases many families living together in the one home, a more simplistic lifestyle with less damage to mother earth, a return to the core values of humanity such as compassion, integrity, appreciation of mother earth, neighbours helping neighbours etc etc

However before we get there I think there will be much suffering in all aspects by many people. I can only hope that the outcome is a good one.


timeus said...

America only changes when its arm is twisted. If you really want people to learn and adhere to the simple, green, and frugal lifestyle, you'll need a Great Depression equivalent period of time. They'll have to be forced to do it.


With regards to the market and the economy, timeus would be happy to tell you his thoughts, but that would probably bore most of you. Cutting it short, we're at or near the bottom (don't anticipate the DOW going below mid 7,000's). The financial fundamentals of many stocks and even indexes are very much at "buy" prices. The credit and housing markets need to figure themselves out before the economy (and the equity markets) start heading back up, and that will happen sometime within the next year. The bond market is saying that the credit market is going to be stagnant for awhile, which also leads timeus to believe that it may take a few months of "bouncing along the bottom" until we see consistent positive gains and positive economic news.

Theresa said...

I fear you are right Heather. I also get the sense that people are just hunkering down and curtailing their spending for the time being, until things 'pick up' again.

The news is full of assorted analysts who say that the market "always" goes back up again and we just have to ride this out. It's true that the market has always gone back up, but what I'd like to see is a graph that overlays the trend of the financial market on top of a graph of purchasing power, or percentage of disposable income, or heck, happiness and contentment. I don't think these last two things have been rising so what does it really matter what the financial markets do? I don't think they will be going up again to previous levels. But I also think that most people don't believe this, judging from the looks I get when I mention it to anyone.

What's happened in the past doesn't predict what will happen in the future, especially not when there's fundamental shift occurring in the world. People will ignore this as long as they can though - it's too uncomfortable to think about. So they go back to driving fast again, now that gas is such a 'good deal'.

Anyway, I've rambled on far too long...

Heather @ SGF said...

molly - there does seem to be a catch 22 about the whole thing, doesn't there. While it was good that gas prices were high forcing people to cut back, the people that were hurt most were those who aren't the big spenders anyway. I guess that's why voluntary simplicity is such a big deal. We reduce our impact without hurting the ones who most need our help.

timeus - that seems to be a common theme in the responses, the need to be forced into a lifestyle that is healthier for the planet. I'm going to have to find my happy place. It's all just a little depressing :(

theresa - I agree that ups and downs in the market are normal, but my question for the analysts would be: Would a less consumptive culture have translated into less violent ups and downs? I just don't think that it needed to be this bad (and that's assuming it doesn't get worse) :(

Eek. Ok. Happy thoughts...happy thoughts...

Billie said...

I can't speak for my honey but the gas prices going down haven't changed my driving. It just makes me think to myself... ooo... maybe we will have a few dollars left at the end of the month.

I don't think the recession is changing our spending. We never had any money to spend in the good times so not spending any money in the bad times is pretty much par for the course. My husband has actually gotten a good job this year so we have been doing better during this down time than we did during the boom. Everybody is moaning while we are counting our lucky stars that our budget isn't so tight. Of course... should one of us lose a job... we will be singing a different tune.

Heather @ SGF said...

billie - I think I drive differently more because of my car than the price of gas - not that I drive all that often. Having the Prius is like having a game. I'm constantly trying to get the overall mpg up so I coast a little here, try to use hills to my advantage, etc. I probably drive everyone else on the road nuts, but I get darn good mileage :)

That's wonderful that your husband has found a good job to give you guys a little more security. All the more important to be frugal now while things are good to help tide you over just in case.

CindyW said...

Sorry to pile on the lack of confidence in human constraint. I don't think being green is a fad. There will always be people who prefer a simple and green life. But there will always be people who can't help themselves from going after what's glittery. The ratio of the two kinds people change depending on particular social/environmental/economic conditions. Unfortunately the former will always be a lot more scarce than the later.

I think there will come a time when the condition is just right (perfect storm as Molly said), we will all have to be forced into a traumatic awakening.

Meanwhile I still want to live a simple and green life, simply because I enjoy it and prefer it so much to the alternative.

Heather @ SGF said...

Cindy - You're probably right. I only hope that at the end of this crisis, there will be more frugal-ites than there were before. A few "converts," if you will, to lessen the burden we are placing on the Earth.