When U.S. soldiers returned home after World War II, they found a country quite different from the one they had left. Wartime production had helped pull America's economy out of the depression, and during the late '40s, young adults saw a remarkable rise in their spending power. Jobs were plentiful, wages were higher, and people were eager to spend. Between 1945 and 1949, Americans bought 20 million refrigerators, 21.4 million cars, and 5.5 million stoves, a trend that continued well into the 1950s. The massive growth of suburban populations meant an even bigger demand for automobiles. Families of all income brackets were buying televisions.
Historian Elaine Tyler May thinks that the federal government and the American people saw the new consumerism as a way to de-emphasize class differences while stressing traditional gender roles. Things that defined "the good life" were within their economic reach, so working-class people could achieve the upward mobility they craved.
And we haven't stopped filling our inner void with sparkling things ever since. As Kerryn Higgs, the author of Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet said, the capitalist system depends on never-ending growth and it would simply fail if people were content with what they have. Over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for its "wonderful stuff."
And the subreddit r/AntiConsumption illustrates this notion beautifully. Its 294K members criticize, question, and discuss everything consumerism-related, and provide clear-cut examples of how the system degenerated. What I like about this online community is that it isn't ringing alarm bells, declaring the end of times. Instead, it invites us to take a step back and look at the reality we have created for ourselves.
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To learn more about r/AntiConsumption, we contacted its moderator, u/NihiloZerowe. "There is a broad range of subject matter that gets discussed in the subreddit," they told Bored Panda. "You often see posts from people who are sick of litter, who are discontent with the dominant economic order, and who dislike excess packaging. There are a fair number of vegans in the sub and many subscribers are concerned about global warming and ecological degradation. Occasionally, someone will promote some sort of boycott or protest. I'd say the sub definitely leans left, but I don't ban people who want to argue about some sort of idealistic capitalist ecotopia. One thing that makes the sub stand out from other similar subs is that we don't have much tolerance for green consumerism. Trying to market your 'eco-groovy' new product in r/AntiConsumption will probably not help your sales very much."
u/NihiloZerowe also tries to avoid moderating the subreddit with a heavy hand. They believe that "even seemingly inane posts can spur discussion, bring in new subscribers, and lead people to other posts discussing more substantial topics." To be honest, I can't remember a Reddit community this big and active with just one person looking after it. But it looks like u/NihiloZerowe is doing one hell of a job.
"Some people don't like memes but if those memes drive traffic... Then I see that as a positive. To the extent that the content gets a bit monotonous (e.g., MY USB STICK CAME IN A BOX THAT COULD HOLD A BUICK!). I encourage people to post the content that they'd prefer to see discussed. If you don't like something in the sub then downvote it, mark it as read, and move on. Or maybe explain why you don't like something. I really like to see debate and discussion in the sub and try not to stand in the way of that. As long as the posted content isn't overtly bigoted or an advertisement in disguise, I'll usually let it stay up so that subscribers can vote and respond to it as they see fit."
In a way, economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Dr. Jason Hickel, agrees with the subreddit. According to him, the great challenge of the 21st century is learning to consume less. "In recent years, scientists have published estimates of the world's total consumption of material stuff, including everything from fish to livestock, minerals to metals, forests to fossil fuels. It comes to more than 80 billion tons of stuff per year. A sustainable level of consumption is about 50 billion tons per year, scientists believe. We are overshooting the mark by 60%," Hickel explained.
"This means we are eating away at the web of life on which we all depend for our survival. This might sound impossibly abstract, but we can see the consequences around us. Fish stocks are collapsing. Pollinators are dying off. Agricultural topsoils are turning to dust. Huge swathes of coastal ocean have become dead zones."
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From everything they've seen on the sub, u/NihiloZero expects that society will consume less in the not-so-distant future. But with that being said, the moderator doesn't think it'll be caused by some sort of positive cultural shift.
"Rather, I believe that resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and political instability around the world will break down the modern system of consumerism as we know it. I believe the hiccups in the supply chain that we're seeing right now as a result of the pandemic are small potatoes compared to what's coming. It would be nice if we could make a smooth transition to smaller self-sufficient and sustainable communities, and I won't try to stop you if that's what you're trying for, but I really don't expect such a transition to be smooth, if it ever happens at all," they explained their thoughts.
u/NihiloZero said the community of the subreddit "can be a bit holier-than-thou sometimes."
"You see a fair bit of gatekeeping and fingers pointed at those who are deemed to be conspicuous consumers. The anti-capitalists don't like the capitalists. The vegans don't like animal eaters. The pedestrians don't like the filthy motorists. We probably get a relatively high number of luddites commenting in the sub. Related to all the "anti-" positions... we also get a fair number of trolls who like to push the buttons of the true believers. But, really, I think the sub is mostly comprised of people who are sick of the violence, destruction, and waste in the modern world. Sometimes we can laugh about it, sometimes we can't. Sometimes we're serious and sometimes we're not," the moderator explained.
Since /r/AntiConsumption is about to hit 300,000 subscribers, u/NihiloZero wanted to use the opportunity and encourage everyone who enjoys its content to become a member.
"Please don't let me dissuade you from working on sustainable projects or promoting them in the sub," they added. "We've got a lot of subscribers who are into that sort of thing and would likely give you feedback. Some of it might be positive, and some of it might be negative, but you're likely to get feedback either way!"