Drowning In Junk

Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, edited by Roger Rosenblatt (Island Press). Cloth, $24.95.

TRAVEL WHEREVER YOU will around the world, and it seems that everywhere you go people are addicted to the same things. The triumph of consumerism -- the doctrine exemplified by the obnoxious bumper sticker, "He who dies with the most toys wins" -- is inescapable. Roger Rosenblatt (reputed for his work on PBS and in Time magazine) assembles a stellar cast of contributors to argue against consumerism in this collection of essays. Some of those contributors offer paeans to disappearing virtues such as thrift and modesty; others tender modest and immodest proposals to reduce our desire for material goods, which Rosenblatt gently calls "a strange basis for a civilization, but an effective one."

In his introduction, Rosenblatt recognizes that he and his colleagues are swimming against the tide. After all, he notes, something like 90 percent of the American workforce is now engaged in making and selling consumer goods and services, from cheeseburgers to computers; and nearly everyone is behaving as if we had all suddenly come into Jay Gatsby's wealth, a point that Harvard-based social critic Juliet Schor underscores when she remarks, "The new consumerism is--less socially benign than the old regime of keeping up with the Joneses," less benign because both more conspicuous and more closely bound with our notion of who we are, our things have come to serve as markers of social class and self-esteem alike.

The essays included in this volume are of universally high quality, but there are some real standouts: William Greider examines our unwillingness to reduce waste and the forces at work against offering high-quality, durable and affordable goods to all segments of society; Edward Luttwak ponders the new face of American indebtedness, which now, he says, has "reached the unprecedented level of 89 percent of total household income"; Stephanie Mills considers the moral dimensions of excessive consumption in a time of extinction and biological crisis.

All this offers fuel for an environmentalist's fire and is likely to give marketing people fits -- which is all to the greater good.