In an era when a president encourages us to buy-buy-buy in the aftermath of an enemy attack and "consumer confidence" is measured by how willing we are to shell out our shillings for things we may or may not need, a book about our complicated attitudes toward consumption and thrift is timely, to say the least. Written in lively, engaging prose, this exploration of thrift helps to explain our American spending habits.
Lauren Weber begins with some snips of personal history, describing her thrifty father and her own occasional splurge ($90 shoes: "Reader, I bought them"). Her research into the history of thrift in America (going back to pre-Revolutionary days) reveals, surprisingly, that we have long been a nation of spendthrifts and debtors, saving on small items in order to blow it all on the big ones. Weber is at her best when she describes how American women have been co-opted by advertisers and merchandisers into becoming major consumers, and when she describes the government's wartime efforts (both First and Second World Wars) to divert dollars from household consumption to investments in war bonds. And then, as the wars inflated manufacturing capacity, businesses began to see that consumption, not savings, was the way to grow the economy. Wars over, both government and private sectors began to encourage Americans to buy. "We are a nation that consumes its way to property, security, prosperity, and freedom," an economist wrote. (I'll bet you've heard that one.)
But in that solution to bolstering our economy lies a very grave danger, as Weber shows. Not only are we likely to spend our way into debt (as the recent housing bubble so clearly demonstrates), but we're likely to enjoy a "sense of entitlement and false confidence" about the natural resources that fuel our consumption. Our consuming passions require the burning of vast amounts of fossil fuels, contributing to global warming and resource depletion. The best way to save the planet, Weber says, is simply to stop buying stuff. "The less we buy, the fewer materials and industrial products we consume. Cheap is the new green."
If you need any special encouragement to stop consuming stuff you don't need, this book may be the best thing you'll read all year.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Lauren Weber was formerly a staff reporter at Reuters and Newsday. She has also written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, American Banker, and other publications. She grew up with a father who set the thermostat at 50 degrees during frigid New England winters and once tried to ration the family's toilet paper. She graduated from Wesleyan University and was a Knight-Bagehot journalism fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. She lives (cheaply) in New York City. Visit her website.
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