Is There A Future Beyond Consumerism?

We do not want the rich to possess more beautiful things but the poor to create more beautiful things; for every man is poor who cannot create. - Oscar Wilde

Our society faces numerous problems: environmental pollution, wealth disparity, crime, cultural homogenization, and - most of all - rampant, completely irresponsible, unsustainable consumerism. What follows is an ambitious, multi-pronged, but simple and highly realistic strategy to combat aggressively all of these problems.

The shortcomings of industrial civilization have remained relatively unchanged since the dawn of the industrial revolution. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, thinkers such as William Morris and John Ruskin were lamenting the replacement of beautiful, lovingly crafted possessions with shoddy but inexpensive factory-made equivalents. The economic growth engendered by the machine age developed into the modern economy with which we are so familiar: a disfigured corruption of the common-sense ideals of capitalism, propped up by excesses of production, consumption and waste. As it stands now, we must continue to manufacture, buy, discard and replace an ever-increasing number of "consumer goods" each year, or risk an economic recession or depression in which many working people would become unemployed and destitute.

In response to the industrial revolution, Morris and Ruskin founded the "Arts and Crafts" movement, which advocated an active industry of artisans and craftsmen producing goods - from books to curtains to crockery - marketed in competition with factory products. The theory was that an economy based on a smaller number of higher-quality products could provide the same economic benefits as the factory-based paradigm, but with greater job satisfaction, higher standards of living, and more intrinsic human worth. The concept of the Arts and Crafts movement was sound, but the cost of handmade articles was simply too high to compete effectively with cheap, mass-produced merchandise.

Morris and Ruskin's movement ostensibly failed, but only because it was too far ahead of its time. That hundred-plus year old philosophy now illuminates a potential escape route from our contemporary morass of poverty, rage, and environmental pillage. The movement proper failed because its products were too good - that is, too expensive. From the most primitive human community to the modern day, master craftsmen are - rightfully - compensated for their time, talent and expertise. But, since the industrial revolution, for consumers who cannot pay for products that reflect quality artistry, only manufactured alternatives exist.

However, a golden opportunity to rectify this situation now exists - oddly enough - in the ranks of the disenfranchised.

We have, at present, millions of marginalized citizens in our Western society: the elderly, the handicapped, the presently and formerly institutionalized - the unemployed and unemployable who live, and die, in the squalid shadows cast by factories and skyscrapers. All that is needed to save our society is a massive re-education effort. Teach crafts and trades to the unemployed, and establish an infrastructure through which they could make and sell their wares to the best of their abilities.

Undoubtedly, the occasional genius will emerge, but most of these journeymen artisans will produce goods roughly equivalent in quality and - according to the laws of supply and demand - price, to the baubles stamped out by smog-belching factories. An economy that integrates large-scale, admittedly mediocre handcrafts provides a much-needed alternative to the flimsy and generally unethically-manufactured trash sold by large-scale retailers.

Competition from handcrafts would provide new and interesting investment opportunities for venture capitalists eager to establish workplaces and marketing engines for the influx of trained artisans. This competition would break the stranglehold held by the giant conglomerates, slowing the continuous flow of money to the richest of the rich.

Workers fired by the struggling retailers would enter the re-education system, and then add their numbers to the army of craftsmen arrayed against their soulless former employers. Disparity of wealth - arguably the single greatest problem faced by our civilization - would begin to diminish as the poor become trained, self-sufficient, and increasingly skilled, while the rich profit less obscenely from sweatshop labor and the captive market of consumers. There is one more component critical to the success of this de-industrial revolution: a motivating force powerful enough to re-educate the consumers as well as the producers. A tool persuasive enough to convince shoppers that handmade is cool, homespun is trendy, and plastic is passe.

That tool, of course, is the mass media. It would not take much. A little product placement (Eminem raps about eating off handmade pottery, Madonna shows off jewelry made by ex-convicts, Gwen Stefani wears a local micro-designer's couture in a music video), and the public's attitudes are promptly and effectively molded. Small-scale is in, humble is hip, and the revolution is underway!

All this is closer than one might think. Excellent - albeit universally underfunded - vocational rehabilitation programs already exist in many cities, and the most effective models could be expanded and emulated in other communities. The savings to society from recently-released prisoners alone (the majority of which are essentially unemployable and have few options beyond a return to crime) would more than cover the cost of establishing and maintaining the educational programs, and the benefits to society in human terms would be incalculable.

At best, a positive restructuring of society on an unprecedented scale would occur. At worst, the lives of thousands of currently skill-less and jobless workers would be bettered forever. It is a vision worth pursuing.