Waiting for … the World or The Trouble with Consumerism

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A One Act Tragicomedy based on the style and characters of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

– – –

A city street in Vancouver. No trees.

Dawn.

The near future.

Vladimir flat on the ground. Sleeping.

Estragon standing, teeth clenched, pressing buttons on his flip cell phone. Flips it open, flips it closed, flips it open. His frustration grows.

Estragon: Go to hell! (Throws phone to the ground, the phone bounces and resounds.)

Vladimir (awoken): That’s where we’re going.

Estragon (picks up phone, pockets it): You’re awake! I thought you’d never wake up.

Vladimir (pointing towards Estragon’s pocket): No signal?

Estragon: No, you didn’t give any signals you were alive. I swear you weren’t breathing or anything.

Vladimir: I meant your phone.

Estragon: Oh. No. We’re in the middle of the city and there are no signals. What’s the world come to, eh?
Long pause. Vladimir gets up, arranges himself.

Vladimir: Remember how we got here? Remember Bernays?

Estragon: I had an uncle called Bernays.

Vladimir: Listen. (Digs through his pocket, takes a piece of paper out of his coat pocket, lectures): Edward Bernays, an American born to immigrant parents, was Freud’s nephew. And using his uncle’s theories about people’s unconscious desires, he was the first to manipulate people into buying things they didn’t need. One of his first and greatest achievements was to destroy the taboo against women smoking. Employed by George Hill, the president of the tobacco corporation, he promoted cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ and linked them to the women’s suffrage movement. That’s how Bernays popularized the idea that women who smoked were independent from the 1920s on–[1]

Estragon: And this uncle of mine, he told me a story about a scientist called Pavlov and his dog. He said that Pavlov would ring a bell whenever he would feed his dog. But after a while, wanting to see what would happen, he rang the bell but didn’t feed the dog. The dog started salivating, expecting the food nevertheless.

Together: Do you see how irrational it was?

Vladimir: Liberation had nothing to do with smoking, and yet Bernays had women convinced that it did!

Estragon: The bell had nothing to do with the food, and yet Pavlov had his dog convinced that it did!

Together: Are we on the same page?

Estragon: You were saying?

Vladimir (flips page over): And that’s the beginning of how we got here. That’s the beginning of consumerism – the creation of needs in order for businesses – in that case the tobacco company – to thrive.

Pause.

Estragon: Let’s go.

Vladimir: We can’t.

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We’re waiting for the world.

Estragon: But waiting for the world for what – to what?

Vladimir: I’ll get to it. (Takes another crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. ) Any questions?

Estragon (takes his phone out, flips it open, flips it closed): Alright, so how did we get from consumerism to (indicating the desolate streets) This? I mean, I still don’t see the connection.

Vladimir (points towards phone): Still no signal?

Estragon: I meant between the concepts.

Vladimir (from the paper): Well, from the onset of consumerist techniques to the establishment of major clothes corporations, car corporations, and junk-food chains, the path was short. Through incessant use of commercials which convinced people not only to buy Gucci clothes, or Ford cars but also to spend their lives working so that they could buy more and more Gucci clothes, Ford cars, and thousands of other material goods – a materialist culture was quickly established. And since some worked even two jobs in order to sustain their materialist lifestyle, they had no time to cook and thus took recourse in buying junk food from Pizza Hut or KFC. Additionally, neither did they have time to spend with their children – whose nannies were TVs, which taught them to be like their parents and devote their lives to acquiring material possessions–[2]

Estragon: One second. You mean this (holds up the phone)?

Vladimir: Yes.

Estragon: But–

Vladimir: Yes?

Estragon: I like this phone.

Vladimir: It doesn’t even work anymore. And there’s no one to talk to–

Estragon: –you.

Vladimir: But I’m right here.
Pause.

Estragon: Alright, so let’s say that I agree with you so far: consumerism led to a materialist lifestyle. What’s so terrible about that after all? I mean if people were alright with being consumers, they might as well have worked their whole lives to get an extra car, or fill their houses with IKEA furniture. What does it have to do with how we got here?

Vladimir (takes off hat, finds another crumpled page in it, puts hat back on, reads): Consider, first of all, that cars polluted much more than public transit. And in 2004 there were more cars on the road than licensed drivers in the US. People were convinced that they needed to buy a car, that cars represented a status-symbol – this was not natural. What was once a luxury turned into a necessity. China is the best example: for years its major cities were characterized by a sea of people on bicycles, and in the 80s there were barely any private cars. By 2000, however, there were 5 million private cars on its streets [3].

Pause.

Second of all, junk-food chains had gigantic negative environmental impacts. Consider that intensive breeding of livestock and poultry led to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For every pound of red meat, poultry, eggs, and milk produced, farm fields lost about five pounds of irreplaceable top soil. Lastly, the animals we ate got more grain and more water than people – 70% of US grain, and 190 gallons of water per animal per day, respectively [4]. (Looks at Estragon to see if he has anything to say).

Estragon: Go on.

Vladimir: Third of all, consumerism meant a throw-away, made-to-break culture. That is, companies made certain products – plastic gadgets, electronics – with a limited life-time. The faster the products broke, the more were bought. Additionally, since consumerist culture was also based on fashion, the emphasis was constantly on the ‘new’ so that even if certain products didn’t break, new ones were bought only so that the consumer was up-to-date – computers and cell phones being the best examples. What this ultimately meant was that a large amount of waste was generated. Waste which, apart from polluting, ended up being dumped in peripheral, poor countries. Around 2000, for example, 20 million tons of waste was shipped to the periphery annually [5].

Estragon (takes out phone, flips it open, flips it closed, throws it to the ground violently): To hell–

Vladimir: –we go.

Estragon: Who can we blame but the businessmen?

Vladimir: Ourselves.

Estragon: It was them.

Vladimir: Us.

Estragon: Them.

Vladimir: Let me continue.

Estragon: Alright (picks up phone and pockets it).

Vladimir: All that I’ve said so far only shows how we got here: the fact that consumerism was unstoppable, that it was the heroin-addiction of the modern world, meant that pollution – which was its baby brother – was unstoppable as well. And between pollution, the release of carbon dioxide, and climate change and ecological disasters, there was only a baby step.

But let us, for a moment, make abstraction of the apocalyptic effects of consumerism. Its effects went much beyond pollution – it also caused mass poverty in peripheral countries, and deterioration of health (both mental and physical) in rich countries.

Estragon: So what people were really consuming was other people`s lives and their own health?

Vladimir: Yes.

Estragon: So – we can liken them to vampires?
Pause. Vladimir looks around nervously, as though someone is watching. Takes hat off, looks into it, looks at Estragon.

Vladimir (whispers): Yes.

Estragon: And–

Vladimir (puts hat back on): Yes, yes. The point is that 86 percent of the world’s resources were being consumed by 20 percent of the world: the developed world [6]. To illustrate this better, in 2008 one-third of Chinese carbon emissions were due to the production of exports, which were consumed by the developed world [7]. Moreover, consumerism meant that food became a commodity – it wasn’t something farmers grew for others to eat, it was something companies produced for other people to buy. To go back to the feeding of livestock, although the grain and water used to breed them was enough to feed every person in the world, this didn’t happen because there was a huge market for cattle in wealthy countries. Additionally, some of the best agricultural land in the world was used to grow other commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, none of which were necessary or very nutritious [8]. In short, it became money over people. Consider that in 2004 the worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics totalled 18 billion USD, while the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition was 19 billion USD; expenditures on pet food in the US and Europe totalled 17 billion USD a year, while the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy was 16.3 billion USD [9]. (Pause for effect. )

Estragon: I remember a few years ago I walked into a restaurant and asked for water. And to my surprise they said that they no longer served it, that they’d run out. They only served beer.

Vladimir: You told me that just yesterday.

Estragon: I did? Well you’ve read that report to me every day since I met you.

Vladimir: I have? Well let me finish it – I’m sure there’s something new in it this time around. (Takes off one of his shoes, looks inside, shovels out another piece of paper, reads): As I was saying, consumerism also affected our health. Think, first of all, about junk-food and soaring rates of obesity. Although junk-food and soft-drink companies were well aware of the unhealthy aspect of their products – Coca-Cola containing excessive amounts of sugar, which ultimately lead to calcium deficiencies, KFC being full of trans fats, which ultimately increased the risk of coronary heart disease – they still advertised excessively, especially to children. Diabetes even became a preponderant health problem because of this type of consumption [10]. This is no different than Bernays’ initial catering to women to smoke cigarettes, which were known to be very unhealthy even in the 20s. Again the previously-mentioned formula applies in describing the consumerist system: money over people.

Estragon: I’m going. (He does not move).

Vladimir: And it didn’t only have to do with junk-food. Even processed foods of any kind – which, again were introduced at once with consumerism – contained unhealthy additives. Food colourings and additives such as monosodium lutamate, aspartame, phosphoric acid and hydrogenated fats were all damaging to health. For example, tartrazine (the yellow food colouring E102) was linked to allergic reactions, headaches, asthma, growth retardation, and hyperactivity in children [11].

Additionally, due to the preponderant farming that used pesticides, even vegetables and fruits had residues of dangerous chemicals in them, which were proven to cause cancer, decreasing male fertility, foetal abnormalities, chronic fatigue syndrome and Parkinson’s disease [12].

(Estragon, no longer listening, flips phone open, closed, open, closed).

Regarding mental health, as we became a more and more consumerist society and became richer and richer, people didn’t actually grow happier. According to Dr. David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College, the number of people reporting themselves as very happy decreased slightly between the 1960s and the 2000s. In the 2000s, people were twice as rich but no happier: divorced rates doubled, teen suicides tripled, reported violence quadrupled, and depression rates soared. He linked this to the deterioration of social relationships and internal skills such as self-awareness that are crucial for well-being – a deterioration caused by extrinsic goals such as money and material possessions. In summary, from a 2008 survey of eight hundred college alumni, those who preferred a high income and job success to having close friends or a fulfilling marriage were twice as likely to describe themselves as ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ unhappy [13].

Estragon: That sounds like me.

Pause.

I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir: That’s what you think.

Estragon: Let’s go.

Vladimir: We can’t.

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We’re waiting for the world.

Estragon: And why, in the name of consumerism, are we doing that?

Vladimir: I’ll get to it.

Estragon (makes a grab at the paper Vladimir is holding): Let me have that. (Reads it over): Alright, but you see here, we were aware of the effects of consumerism and we did something about it. In 2007 junk-food was banned from BC schools. Organic food – that is, unprocessed and healthy food – was available throughout BC, in stores such as Choices Markets. A very influential anti-consumerist organization sprung-up in Vancouver in 1989 called Adbusters Media Organization. (Reading from paper): Its goal was to dethrone the authority of advertisements and corporate culture. It started social marketing campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week, whose purpose was to promote a lasting lifestyle commitment to consuming less and producing less waste. Considering all of that, why didn’t it work?

Vladimir: In short – we needed much bigger changes. Merely banning junk food in schools was not enough; advertisements for it were still all over the place. Had the BC government taken harsher measures, such as banning junk food in all of BC, quite a lot would have changed. Even more, children could have been educated at school about ads, their power over people, and a more responsible way to live one’s life. Consider that Canada was one of the world’s biggest consumers, which meant that rash measures needed to be taken to make a difference. Even Adbusters was too tame. It worked through the consumerist system to propagate its message by selling magazines. The idea should have been the opposite: we needed to change the system, not its effects. In regard to climate change, we chose to mitigate pollution by giving incentives to corporations such as carbon credits. But this did not essentially stop them from polluting and bringing us to (indicating the desolate streets) This. Even in 2009, when students studying Political Science were asked whether they were at University to get a better future career and make more money, or to become better people who could help others, the vast majority (90%) were in the former category [14].

Estragon: So it’s like that joke.

Vladimir: Which?

Estragon: A madman is completely convinced that he’s a seed, not a man. He’s taken to a mental hospital and given therapeutic treatment by a team of psychoanalysts. A few months later, healed, he walks out of the mental hospital aware that he is a man. However, when he gets to his countryside home, a chicken trots into his kitchen, and the man yells out in fear and rushes back to the hospital. When he gets there and tells the doctors what happened, the doctors don’t understand: ‘But now you know you’re a man, not a seed, so why are you afraid of the chicken?’ The man replies: ‘I know that. But does the chicken know that?’

So it was with consumerism. Although we were each individually aware of its negative and catastrophic effects we couldn’t effectively do anything to change the system because we assumed that it couldn’t be changed. We assumed that even if ‘I change my habits, my consumerist lifestyle, the person next to me won’t’. In the end you’re right: it’s not the businessmen that are to blame, it’s us.

Vladimir: Exactly.

Estragon’s phone rings.

Your phone is ringing.

Estragon (indifferently): Yes.

Vladimir: Your phone is ringing.

Estragon: Yes.

Vladimir: Answer it.

Estragon (answers it): Hello? Hello?

Pause.

No one.

Pause. Vladimir checks his pockets, his hat, his shoes, for another piece of paper. He can’t find it.

Estragon: Let’s go.

Vladimir: We can’t.

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We’re waiting for the world.

Estragon: But waiting for the world for what – to what?

Vladimir: To wisen up.

Pause.

Estragon: What world?

Estragon and Vladimir look at each other. They look away. Estragon flips the phone open, flips the phone closed. Vladimir lies back down to sleep.

Curtain.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Curtis, Adam, director. “Happiness Machines.” The Century of the Self. BBC Four, London. 29 April, 2002.

2. Jacobs, Gregg D.. “Consumerism, Happiness and Health.” Truestar Health. 31 Mar 2009..

3. Mayell, Hillary. “As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says.” National Geographic News. 12 Jan 2004. 31 Mar 2009.

4. Shiva, Vandana. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000. 70-71.

5. Robbins, Richard. Global Problem and the Culture of Capitalism. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999. 235.

6. “Human Development Report 1998: Consumption for Human Development.” United Nations Development Programme. New York:1998.

7. Weber, Christopher L., Glen P. Peters, Dabo Guan, and Klaus Hubacek. “The Contribution of Chinese Exports to Climate Change.” Energy Policy. 36 (2008): 3572-3577.

8. Robbins 211.

9. Mayell.

10. Ibid.

11. Unknown. “Organic Foods in Relation to Nutrition and Health Key Facts.” Medical News Today. 11 Jul 2004. 31 Mar 2009.

12. Ibid.

13. Jacobs.

14. This was a personally witnessed event in Professor Erickson’s Poli 240 class. March 18, 2009.

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5 Responses to “Waiting for … the World or The Trouble with Consumerism”

  1. David

    Love it! This is a really good job, both at reproducing the Waiting for Godot’s style and at making a firm point on our consumerist world. Kudos!

  2. Tiffany

    Wow! I loved this piece…I wish I could be made into a video! (I especially likied the madman/chicken analogy!)

  3. Laz

    Fabulous piece. Definitely one of the best analyses of consumerism I’ve ever read. Plus, I love the Godot style.

  4. MacKenzie

    Vlad this is wonderfully articulated and a solid analysis.

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