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COVID-19 and consumerism: what have we learnt? By Mark H. Lytle, author of "The All-Consuming Nation: Chasing the American Dream Since World War II" published by Oxford University Press

COVID-19 and consumerism: what have we learnt?

Writers often worry that someone will scoop them before they finish, or an unexpected event will undo years of research and writing. Two weeks after naturalist Rachel Carson published her first book, Under the Sea Wind, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Despite excellent reviews, the book sold fewer than a thousand copies. The COVID-19 pandemic became my Pearl Harbor. As The All-Consuming Nation went to press, COVID complicated almost every aspect of the book’s publication. Supply-chain disruptions delayed its arrival from the printers in India. Book talks, interviews, and other marketing tools were no longer possible. 

Yet, the COVID crisis did have one benefit. It highlighted the book’s central themes about the vital role consumerism plays in sustaining our national economy and the environmental costs it imposes. Since World War II, government policy promoted mass consumption to maintain high employment. The consumer sector grew to account for about 70% of GDP. Mass consumerism also became an instrument of foreign policy. 

Governments have lost legitimacy when they fail to fulfill the material wants of their people. The collapse of the Soviet Union illustrates the point. Ronald Reagan’s massive defense build-up created anxiety in the Kremlin, but it was the failure to produce both guns and butter that doomed the Soviet empire. In the 1980s, the USSR was saddled with a second-world economy that provided a decent living for only an elite minority. 

“Of all the “isms” seeking to capture hearts and minds around the globe… consumerism was the winner.”

Many industries that created materials for consumption spewed pollutants and toxic wastes. Farm runoffs created dead zones in coastal waters. New suburban communities destroyed once tranquil rural landscapes, while failing septic systems swamped lawns with sewage. The automobiles that connected suburbanites with urban jobs added to layers of smog. Junkyards of discarded vehicles blighted roadsides. And when manufacturers closed factories and sent jobs overseas, whole communities felt the pain. 

In the late 1960s, the combination of spending for the Vietnam War and LBJ’s Great Society triggered an inflation that ate away at disposable income. Cynics described the economy of the early 1970s as “Nixonomics” in which what should go up such as income and employment went down, while prices and unemployment went up. The tech boom that began in the late 1970s created a cornucopia of new devices, including the personal computer, portable music players, cell phones, and wide-screen televisions. It made possible the development of the Internet, Worldwide Web, and Etailing as a new avenue for consumption. Shortly after the “Dot.com bubble” burst in 2002, destroying considerable wealth and consumer confidence, investors found a new way raise money. They bundled home mortgages and other debt instruments into securities they peddled to anyone seeking high rates of return. Contraction of the housing market in 2008 sent the economy into a tailspin from which it took years to recover. 

“Yet, the dark clouds of the COVID era did have a thin silver lining. COVID temporarily eased the climate crisis that mass consumption spawned.”

The outbreak of COVID in 2020 proved even more disruptive. Over previous decades, American businesses established global supply chains to keep costs low and profits high. As a result, the United States no longer produced goods such as surgical masks that Americans and other nations needed to fight the epidemic. Shortages of vital parts manufactured overseas such as silicon chips shutdown assembly lines at home. Shoppers found stores shelves increasingly bare. Even pet food was hard to find, new cars were scarce, and used-car prices soared. Once the COVID death toll abated and unemployment started to fall, inflation posed a new headache for consumers and for politicians. The rising price of goods and services added one more issue to gridlock in Washington. Conservatives opposed the massive expenditures incurred to fight the pandemic and keep the economy functioning. 

During the pandemic, consumers increasingly based their political choices on their cultural values. In the 2020 election, those districts with Cracker Barrel restaurants voted for Donald Trump; those with Whole Foods markets went for Joe Biden. Factions, angry at pandemic restrictions and loyal to Covid-denier Trump, expressed their outrage at companies that respected “politically correct” values. 

With travel for work, shopping, or pleasure at a virtual standstill, jet vapor trails disappeared from the skies. Tailpipe emissions also lessened as commuters worked from home, shopped on-line, and used Zoom to gather without burning fossil fuel. In that way, COVID offered “the all-consuming nation” lessons about how to create an economy with a lighter footprint on the earth.

Feature image: Big market in Ubud, Indonesia by Bernard Hermant. Public domain via Unsplash.

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