A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Do I Really Need That? Consumerism and Identity

by Pamela Boyce Simms   

Barbara Kruger’s artwork (above) touches on 
American identity formed through consumerism.  

Got to have the latest iPhone? Got to eat at that trendy new restaurant? Got to download the most outrageous app? Just as the identity of the United States is entangled with its own fiscal growth, Americans’ individual sense of self is caught up in how we consume and fuel that growth.

The Transition environmental movement hones in on what has become the core of American identity and compassionately pulls the rug out from under our “consumer-selves.” Transitioning examines how prepared we are to step away from our screens, clubs, cafes and clothing racks, in order to let our lives be saturated by the deep pleasure of authentic relationships with self, others, and the natural world “Authentic” includes the bumpy, thorny side of relationships, which is often more rewarding than the smooth sailing—if we stay the course.


The Transition Movement:

• intends that towns / hamlets / villages / blocks / buildings / and neighborhoods become microcosms of hope and resilience.

• spins a connective web among microcosms of hope and resilience.

• is about alternative-building activism.

• generates a collective cultural narrative, sense of place, social solidarity, and shared experience of humanitarian values, identities.
• fosters adaptive local capacities.   
• is animated by imagination, vision, and storytelling.
• leads by practical example.
• factors in eco-psychology.
• disconnects food and energy supplies from fossil fuel.

The Great Transition is a vision of a just and sustainable future. Coined by Kenneth E. Bouldings, author of The Meaning of the 20th Century—The Great Transition, it’s about embracing egalitarian social and ecological values, human connection, and an improved quality of life driven by systems-thinking. We’re headed in that direction when we connect the core identity of a tipping point, a critical mass of people, with the deliberate choice to model living consciously, living well, and living lightly on the Earth.

There are two approaches to creating that quality of life: 1) encouraging a shift in consciousness and, 2) putting into practice new ways of being, living, working and consuming. Transitioning creates a healthy synergy between these approaches, exploring how we consume in order to stop the degradation of the Earth. Such a radical behavioral redirection requires tremendous courage from a society in which consumption to meet actual needs was long ago eclipsed by the desire to acquire identity.

So many are so lonely. And although at some level we’re aware that “things” won’t soothe our loneliness, we’re continually bombarded with the advertising meta-message that happiness lies in the purchase of goods and services. So we heed the subliminal corporate call to action, and shop to fill the void. The economy grows and the corportocracy thrives. The combination of loneliness, desire, and media-cultivated dissatisfaction is great for business.

Americans have grown used to corporate objectification, which reduces their value and worth to that of a “consumer.” Identity increasingly revolves around our ability to buy things that we think will project the self-image we would like the world to perceive. And we judge others by the same criteria.

Brand promotion as a lifestyle choice exploits our need to construct a sense of self. The usefulness of the products we buy is dwarfed by our attraction to their identity symbolism, which skillfully manipulates our desires and fears. If the desire isn’t present, advertisers plant the seed and cultivate it. Over-consumption driven by the misdirected urge for self-completion has bulldozed any innate moderation and thrift. Limitless desire weighed against the limited capacity to actually use things, yields colossal waste, which translates directly to overflowing landfills and sky-high CO2 emissions.    

If personal identity is shaped in large part by our consumption activity, which psychologically sustains us, changing what and how we consume is tantamount to giving up a massive chunk of our identity, i.e., to experiencing loss. For many, the fear of losing our “consumer-selves” is greater than confronting the consequences of climate change that runaway consumption has wrought.

The long-haul work of Transitioning our consumption patterns at the hardwired level of identity is, therefore, no small endeavor. It’s not the stuff of a flash in the pan “cause.”

Transition invites us to swim upstream together in greater and greater numbers; to deliberately choose to slow down the busyness, turn down the volume on the marketing din that continually assaults our senses; to put the pursuit of “stuff-status” on hold; and open ourselves to an enhanced quality of life that leaves materialism in the dust. We are challenged to find and become the living, breathing symbols of resilient achievement in our communities, so as to redirect attention from screens and magazine pages. The double payoff of deepened relationship and withdrawal of power from corporations whose survival depends on our purchasing their products is well worth the trouble.

Identity grounded in deep, sustained human relationship and connection with the natural world is uncharted territory for many people. Yet Transition affirms that we can make it through The Great Transition if together we let go of the mirage of security and manufactured identity, hug uncertainty close, and joyfully dance with an unknown future.

Pamela Boyce Simms, KD2GUF, is a Transition Trainer of the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) of Transition US