Babies and puppies. Everybody seems to love them—perhaps it’s instinctual, perhaps it’s socialization. Probably the latter, for in Washington, DC, where I live, far more people stop to make goo-goo noises at puppies than at babies. And in some cultures, dogs are meat sources, not sources of affection.
But what’s most interesting about both puppies and babies is that consumers around the world spend billions of dollars on products for their pets and children that serve no real purpose. Sure, these purchases serve as symbols of their affection, devotion, or their concern. But, do they make pets and kids healthier, happier, smarter, or more secure? A poodle doesn’t really need rubber boots and overalls, and a baby doesn’t really need a Baby Einstein CD to help improve her cognitive skills. And pets certainly don’t need Halloween costumes, yet in the U.S., $330 million was spent on Halloween costumes in 2013 just for pets! (Along with another $1.2 billion for kids’ costumes.)
Ultimately, with 7.2 billion people gracing the Earth—and another 2 billion on their way by 2050—the luxury of spoiling children and Chihuahuas is not just an example of consumers being manipulated into wasting their money, but a grave ethical transgression. Is it fair or proper to convert global fish stocks into millions of tons of cat food when these fish resources are being depleted to an extent that coastal peoples will no longer have enough to eat? Is it ethical to use chemotherapy to treat cancers in dogs, when a majority of people on the planet don’t have access to these treatments, and when the environmental and public health effects of these treatments are so detrimental?
Of course, few parents or pet owners consider the larger ramifications of the choices they make. When Fido gets sick, you go to the vet, and do what the vet says will maximize your beloved doggy’s chances of survival. He is, after all, family. Eighty-three percent of Americans now consider their pets family members—a result of “humanizing pets,” a marketing strategy cultivated intentionally by the pet industry. And this strategy has proved very lucrative as Americans now spend $55.7 billion each year on their pets.
And let’s not even get into kids: parents would do just about anything in their power to save their child from illness. And many more would make significant financial sacrifices to give the very best opportunities to their children: whether educational toys, elite schooling, or health interventions—as long as it was in the form of a consumable. Most parents are willing to spend copious amounts of money but far less time with their children; many don’t hesitate when it comes to outsourcing their children in their very first years of life to a nanny or daycare (oftentimes far less qualified than the parents themselves), and don’t hesitate to switch the breast for the bottle or give their children unhealthy, processed foods, because the latter are more convenient or simply better marketed.
It’s strange how completely we’ve become consumers. We’ve allowed our common sense to become enslaved to marketing messages. $500 billion is spent each year to convince consumers around the world that they’ll be better off drinking Coke, eating Big Macs, driving cars, owning pets, using disposable diapers and formula, and flying to far off luxury destinations. Of course, buying into all those products will mean working longer hours—even if that means putting your child in daycare and not having enough time to take care of oneself, cook healthy meals, exercise and so on. But the good news is that as you get fat and sick from eating junk food and living a sedentary and stressful lifestyle, there are pharmaceuticals you can buy to control your blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, even serotonin levels when you become depressed and your pet dog can no longer make you feel better.
How Do We Break This Cycle?
When children are made into consumers from before they even come out of the womb, how do we break the cycle? New research finds that children’s palates are shaped in utero, so if mama is eating junk food, her baby will be predisposed to this type of food. And feeding babies formula, powdered cereals, and store-bought baby food leads them to prefer sugary and salty consumer foods, rather than complex home-cooked, more nutritious foods. Add to that the amount of screen time babies and children are now exposed to (including marketing) and kids are essentially born chained in Plato’s cave of shadows—it just happens that the shadows are coming not from a fire, but from the flickering of iPad, TV, and smartphone screens.
Are pets much better off? In the U.S., 53 percent of dogs are now overweight or obese. Their ‘parents,’ who are most likely overweight themselves, are feeding them too much and not exercising them enough. Their owners probably don’t even notice that their pets are fat. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves fat (even if 69 percent are actually overweight or obese according to national health statistics), so it makes sense they wouldn’t realize their pets were fat either.
In theory, if you restrict advertising, perhaps people would stop buying so much stuff for their kids and pets. But then again maybe not. At this point in consumer cultures buying stuff has become a primary means to communicate one’s love for another being (human or not). 65 percent of pet owners even buy Christmas presents for their pets (though I’m guessing their dogs aren’t Christian).
It’s sad really: in 100 years when the Earth heats up another 4-5 degrees Celsius—because we failed to curb our rapacious ways—it’ll be consumers we’ll blame for being unwilling to give up their decadent love of luxuries. And yet when it comes down to it, it’s hard to say most consumers are happier from the Earth-raping habits they’ve adopted. They’re just like factory-farmed cattle, being force-fed corn in a variety of forms, so that they can be slaughtered for profit. They eat more, they get fatter, and then the medical industry rakes in cash treating the myriad diseases that come at the end of this cycle. That part is slightly different than what happens to cows, but at the end of the day both are liquidated to make money. Meanwhile the planet becomes less and less suitable for the continuation of human civilization.
Somehow we have to free consumers from the pen they’ve been corralled in, from the cave they’ve been imprisoned in—for the good of their children, their pets, and especially for the good of the 4 billion non-consumers at their and the changing Earth’s mercy. How? Plato thought that once the prisoner escapes the cave, he must go back and drag others out—even if prisoners resist and attack him. While I don’t disagree with that, the escapee must also start raising a new generation of post-cave dwellers, who can help both with organizing a more coordinated prison break, and—recognizing that the prison is very well-guarded but very expensive to maintain—prepare for the day when the prison goes bankrupt and releases en masse its captive population. When the changing Earth triggers the collapse of the consumer culture, what will remain? Packs of feral pets menacing human populations (like in many developing countries)? Ignorant children and adults who don’t know where to get food once it’s no longer available in grocery stores? It will take scores of guides to show these ex-cons how to survive in their new reality.
Raising Future Guides
I personally am working to raise one of these future guides—even if it isn’t easy. At 2.5 years old; my son, Ayhan, hasn’t eaten any junk food yet and has grown up eating only real food; he has been exposed to almost no screens (he video-Skypes with his grandparents and once in a while watches old Soviet cartoons in Russian); and spends almost as much time outside running around the city than sitting down inside. One of his first words was even compost, and he can identify and harvest (ok, pull some leaves off) several plants already, which isn’t too bad for a city-dwelling toddler.
Even more important, Ayhan has been raised largely by his mom and me. Not all of this has been easy—it’s a lot easier to plop a 2-year old in front of an electronic babysitter than read book after book after book to him. It’s even easier to drop off a child every morning at a daycare center and pick him up six hours later. My wife and I have certainly had to make sacrifices in revenue earned, in short-term mission goals, and so on. But we are also consciously choosing to have only one child, so being present makes more sense than regretting missing our only son’s childhood. And having only one also means his economic costs are manageable and even more importantly, his environmental costs, while not exactly sustainable (living in the U.S. makes that nearly impossible), are as constrained as possible.
And hopefully, if all goes well, Ayhan will play an important role in helping his peers adapt to a new post-consumer reality as the global consumer culture buckles in the face of rising sea levels, droughts, and all the other apocalyptic nightmares that climate change will bring with it. His childhood certainly won’t be easy—and he might not forgive me for never buying him a dog, a cat, or a TV—but then again, his adulthood won’t be easy either, so I might as well prepare him in a way that at least gives him a chance to survive, and perhaps even a chance to help rebuild human civilization.
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? This essay was first published in German in KULTURAUSTAUSCH – Journal for international perspectives.