Robert Meeropol





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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Nightmare on TV

February 25, 2016

Tags: capitalism, consumerism

A television commercial for Rocket Mortgage last night horrified me. The narrator declared these quick mortgage loans would enable more people to purchase homes. This would create more contruction work and jobs producing the materials for building houses. The new owners would have to buy furniture, appliances, art for the walls and clothes to fill their closets. The people put to work making this merchandise could then buy their own homes, which they’d have to fill with furniture… and so on. Attractive visual images filled the screen with countless consumer items. Less than a minute after it started, the narrator concluded that this scenario demonstrated “America’s power.” It was terrifyingly brilliant; a catchy summary of the ideological underpinning of our nation’s need to engage in orgasmic excesses of production and consumption.

Industrial capitalism is a fabulous engine of production; that’s its greatest strength. The Great Depression, however, taught the captains of industry to fear over-production. If they produce too much, prices drop, profits disappear, and companies shut down. Workers lose jobs and the unemployed can’t afford to buy products so the system spirals downward. World War II got us out of the Great Depression. For the first time since 1929, industry could run at capacity, and since much of what was manufactured was expended or blown to smithereens in battle they could produce to their heart’s content without creating a glut.

When the war ended, many feared another depression. But those evil twins, the military-industrial complex and domestic consumerism, saved the day. We could manufacture huge amounts of military equipment as we pursued the cold war and developed an unprecedented globe-spanning empire, while selling even more to other “free world” countries. But that wasn’t enough. Madison Avenue convinced us to buy an endlessly expanding array of items that we simply had to have, even though we’d done perfectly well without them before we realized they were necessities.

This is an oversimplification, but the military industrial complex coupled with an explosion of domestic consumption is what fueled 60 years of prosperity. That ended for most with the 2008 collapse, but the economy remains wedded to increasing military production and domestic consumption. The problem is that this continual growth is destroying the productive capacity of the planet.

This can’t be sustained. Even if all the green capitalist dreams of expansion through renewable energy, increased efficiency, and technological breakthroughs were realized, infinite growth will still increase greenhouse gases, species loss, and habitat destruction. Do the math; even if we become ten times more efficient (very unlikely), and use one tenth of the fuel to build something, we gain nothing if the system demands that we make ten times more stuff.

Unfortunately, that commercial wasn’t just a nightmare. It captured the essence of our system. And, nightmare or not, we desperately need an alarm to wake up more of us because our survival depends on junking capitalism.

Hybrid Hatred

October 31, 2014

Tags: hybrids, consumerism

According to the Automobile Page of my local paper, many U.S. car owners resent people who drive hybrids. The article quoted one woman who associated owning a Prius with “self-righteousness and frivolity,” and that she has the same feeling of disgust for a Prius that she does for a Hummer.

Putting aside for the moment that the pollution caused in the manufacture of hybrid batteries negates a large part of any environmental gain, what does such widespread resentment teach us about building a mass movement to stop global warming/climate change? If the slogan from last month’s amazing demonstration in Manhattan – “It takes everyone to change everything” – is correct, then such attitudes can’t be dismissed.

Public manifestations of individual behavior modifications spark the “culture wars” of our nation. Owning a hybrid is a metaphorical attack on the Madison Avenue “need” embedded in the psyche of the automobile market. The hybrid owner spent more money to buy a slower, smaller car, in order to reduce its carbon footprint. It isn’t just SUV drivers who take this as a personal affront; any driver of a big car may feel judged by the hybrid-owner’s decision. Moreover, the hybrid choice undermines the sense of freedom and power drivers get from what is advertised as the public expression of their self-worth.

My point is not that we must find a way to get these people to accept and ultimately drive hybrids. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the hybridization of American driving habits will not significantly slow, let alone halt, climate change.

A close look at the way car companies advertise their high-mileage models, when added to the big carbon footprint of their batteries, explains why this is the case. Toyota urges you to go more places. The current Volkswagen hybrid commercial boasts that you can go farther, almost 600 miles, on just one tank of gas. The message is hammered home that better mileage enables you to drive more, for less.

Unfortunately, the advertising works; do the numbers. If you get 50mpg instead of 25mpg, but drive twice as far, you use just as much gas. I’m not claiming the average hybrid owner does drive twice as far, but the allure of the “greater freedom” to go farther and the reduced cost of doing so, are real selling points. Enough people will take advantage of this to significantly reduce any environmental benefit these vehicles provide. Since our system is based on selling more, and so many have been convinced that our happiness depends on acquiring more, efficiency gains will have relatively little effect.

As I’ve written in previous essays, I believe that individuals opting for increased efficiency in consumer products won’t solve our environmental crisis. Only replacing our current economic system with a no-growth, nonprofit-oriented model can accomplish that. But the article in my local paper reminded me that systemic and attitudinal change must go hand-in-hand to demonstrate capitalism’s destructiveness and consumerism’s emptiness. This is a tall order, but either one without the other won’t work.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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