In, the article Two Cheers for Materialism, from the book Acting out Culture, The author James Twitchel defines materialism early on as the production and consumption of stuff, and defends it with several well thought out and forceful arguments. This article delivers several references of materialism, being coupled with capitalism.
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The article also expounds how materialism has contributed to the general well-being of people. Although I agree with the aforementioned points, my view of materialism is in other respects, in opposition to the views James Twitchel delineated in this article.
In contrast to Twitchel’s argument that we should not try to curb capitalism’s mad consumptive ways,” instances where individuals or firms are shielded from the consequences of their actions the potential for abuse exists1.
Indeed, people in general are more likely to act irresponsibly when the negative consequences are not likely to affect them directly. Materialism can result in negative external costs that can be minimized and this optimizes the materialistic system.
At many points in the article, James Twitchel stressed the fact that materialism has made life easier for many people. James also points out that in American society, it can be seen at its best. I consider this point to be conflicting because when a society consumes more it also produces more waste2.
In some instances, small electronics for example, the price to dispose of electronic devices can exceed the initial cost of the item. Typically this results in the devices not being properly disposed of.
The resulting externalities can lead to health issues within a population of people, wildlife, and ecosystems that are exposed to the resulting hazardous waste. Essentially, when a firm produces more harm than benefit it ceases to be an overall benefit and becomes a liability.
The obliviousness of Twitchel’s arguments to externalities such as environmental damage, the merger of the military industrial complex with materialistic culture, the destruction of families due to excessively low wages (a la Wal-Mart), and negative health and mortality effects from calorie and fat-laden foods, and mortality from tobacco products, has contributed to our current situation environmentally and socially. These costs have been borne elsewhere than the manufacturer.
Twitchel states that “most of the world, most of the time spends most of its energy, consuming more and more stuff.” The idea being that this brings more consumers and thus more producers into the market. Subsequently increasing production and acting as an overall boon to the economy. Thereby increasing in overall well-being within a population and reducing the level of suffering. However, in addition to the positive this increasing consumption raises serious concerns3
Producers have a species of immortality, because firms, God and the economy willing, will survive long after all of us are dead and dust. This imposes on us, and corporations, as moral agents, the responsibility to make our way in the world considering the needs and survival of those with whom we deal regularly, the earth we inhabit, and future generations.
Although many human environmental misdeeds bite us in our human back, the main damage of pollution or destruction is experienced by our global co-residents4.We should seriously consider such impact, both to single organisms and to whole species, and whether we have the right to limit the bases of our decisions exclusively to items that affect us directly.
This makes sense in a larger context as well. One of several failings of economics in earlier decades was its inability to address constructively this “free rider” problem. In other words, if we all pollute, but no one cleans it up, because we are not compelled to, legally, and we don’t notice the effects in our lifetime, we can effectively, and indefinitely, shirk our responsibility for the damage we incur.
The final main part of this argument occurs when the firms selling a product know more about the product than the consumer. And so, in order to resolve the issue many are saying that advertising must be allowed to continue only with one condition and it is for the producers to make truthful claims about their products.
There are even those who said that this must be regulated – that no one should be allowed to create an ad that will make consumers use products or services that will harm them5
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We, starting here and now, should accept the challenge to prevent, or find creative ways to absorb, these external costs. If we can engineer our manufacturing processes to reduce energy use and emissions and effluents, we avoid the costs of clean-up later. One way to do this is to aid the creative destruction of products that are not ecologically friendly.
We can price the costs of the environmental damage associated with the item right in. This will lower demand for products that fall into this category this will provoke suppliers to manufacture products that are less harmful to the environment.
We can increase the publics rights to the profit made on resources’ extracted from public land. If businesses can engineer their products cleverly and creatively such that their customer wants, desires, and feels that they then they can build quality and/or sustainability right in.
Twitchel, J. “Two Cheers to Materialism.” In Acting out Culture, by James Miller, 28-36. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
1 Twitchel, J. “Two Cheers to Materialism.” In Acting out Culture, by James Miller, 28-36. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. P.30
2 Same as (1) P. 29
3 Same as (1) p. 32
4 Same as (1) p. 36
5 Same as (1) p. 34