Citizen Consumers

Years and years ago, when the Phil Donahue Show still came out of Cleveland, Ohio, there was an episode featuring a group of American citizens who had decided to rebel against the "consumer society."

They had decided, they said, to think carefully about their purchases. Did they need it? Would they use it? So - if they bought skis, they would also take skiing lessons. Skis and ski gear would not be allowed to pile up unused in the basement or garage. They would, indeed, ski.

They would not run out to buy any new thing that came on the market. They would be selective. The TV in the family room we use every day. We don't need one in every room. How they dealt with the flood of electronics that has swept the nation in the past 10-15 years, I have no idea. But I thought they rocked.

It's highly possible, however, that if their local community had anything to do with it, they may have been ridden out of town on a rail. At least that's what the studio audience would have liked to do.

As a body, that audience informed them that they would be the death of the American economy. That our economy depended on consumers and that the job of the consumer was to consume.

I was appalled. When had the decision to be wise about what we purchased become a threat to the economy? I began to notice, away up there in my isolated farm house on the Door Peninsula, that the word consumer was used more and more often in place of the word citizen. When, I wondered, had citizen changed to consumer?

Now, it turns out, that it is possible that consumption does indeed make the wheels go round. The most plausible argument I've heard for getting our economy back on the rails is one in which citizens once again begin making enough money to consume. Which will, in turn, employ more people making things for consumption. Who will, in turn, ... Well, I doubt that I need to go on.

What I didn't know this morning, when I typed in the title for this piece, was that the concept of the Citizen Consumer was already out there. It's being talked about by people who have given this concept far more thought than I have.

Here is Michael Sandel, my favorite Harvard professor, asking that very question.

And Heather Clancy, introducing the concept of the citizen-consumer on Smart Planet.

And the Boston Review has an entire forum on Ethical Consumption. With an article entitled Citizen Consumer by Dara O'Rourke.

Check them out and think about ways in which you can also be a Citizen Consumer, putting Citizen first and consuming wisely. As those folks long ago on Phil Donahue were trying to do. I wonder what ever happened to them?