Talk Is Cheap

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One of the findings of the American Climate Values Survey is the emergence of the Conservation Lifestyle.  It indicates that there is a movement towards using less energy at home, driving less that is culturally traditional.  This New York Times article discusses a similar "new frugality" though they take the stance that this is a trend and reaction to the tightening economy.

The New Thrift jpegPosted Dec. 12, 2008
By Rob Walker, The New York Times

As the financial crisis snowballed this year,
retail sales fell sharply, and government figures showed the first
across-the-board decline in consumer spending since 1991. Curiously,
many assessments of this development treated it as an exciting new
trend — and maybe even an overnight realignment of where and how
Americans find meaning and satisfaction in life. The lower-spending
shopper of 2008 was promptly cited as evidence of a “new frugality” or
a “saving is cool” mentality. “It’s a whole new reassessment of
values,” one commentator suggested, while another posited that
“America’s love affair with shopping” may be over.

Yeah? That
seems like a lot to infer from data points in a government report,
particularly when it suggests that yesterday we were vacuous
shopping-bots and today we are virtuously sober citizens. Yes,
household-debt loads have contracted a bit, but it’s probably not a
coincidence that access to debt has
contracted, too. And although there is news that some of us are going
without luxury goods, there is also news that others are going without
fulfilling our doctors’ prescriptions. At this stage, the evident
hesitation to spend seems more like a function of fear than of
frugality. Consumers, spooked by reports of declining spending, are
deciding not to spend.

The truth is that we have long had mixed,
even contradictory, feelings about consumption. A few years ago —
pretty much at the height of our most recent nationwide spending binge
— a nonprofit group called the Center for a New American Dream released
a poll in which 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that Americans are
“too focused on shopping and spending,” and 88 percent said our society
is “too materialistic.” Not long after, the Pew Research Center
surveyed Americans about various consumer goods we say we “can’t live
without.” Between 1996 and 2006 the number of material necessities in
our lives grew substantially. Aside from new entries — 49 percent can’t
live without a cellphone, and 29 percent said the same of high-speed
Internet access — our need for more familiar items spiked, too. The
number of people who considered the microwave oven a necessity, for
instance, nearly doubled. Some respondents added iPods and flat-screen
TVs to the list. Uneasy as we may be about “materialistic” purchases,
they remain a tangible proxy for progress.

Second thoughts about that paradigm are nothing new. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Jimmy Carter
declared in 1979 in his “crisis of confidence” speech. “We’ve
discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our
longing for meaning.” It’s hard to imagine anyone, then or now, arguing
otherwise. But who, at the end of the 1970s, would have predicted the
emergence of a new normal that included gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and
McMansions?

Somehow the normal of hyperconsumption persisted
despite the collapse of the Internet bubble, the vulnerability exposed
on 9/11, two wars and stagnant wages. Through it all, consumer spending
hardly wavered, the personal savings rate plummeted and personal debt
mounted. We were told our willingness to spend more — on fair-trade
coffee, eco-friendly totes, organic dog food — demonstrated a fresh
consumer sophistication that would change the marketplace. Now,
suddenly, our values are reflected in cheap shirts from Costco.

A
new normal that revolves around buying lots of stuff while bragging
about our bargain-hunting skills doesn’t seem to reflect changed
values. There are other possibilities that seem more considered and
less reactionary: an organization called the Institute for American
Values recently issued a report offering serious suggestions for
cultivating a new thrift, like endorsing a public-education campaign;
making the Thrift Savings Plan, which lets federal workers regularly
sock a portion of their income into diversified investment funds,
available to all working Americans; and even a revival of National
Thrift Week.

But so far, nobody has quite reconciled the vision
of a sober and repentant new shopper with the substantial government
efforts to reignite consumer spending. This year’s Black Friday
big-box mobs hint that perhaps bargain binges and postmaterialist
values aren’t the same thing. If there’s a deeper shift in our
thinking, it’s still to come. And maybe it will. After all, the mere
fact that we have managed to characterize consumer shock as frugality
chic offers a perverse form of hope: That whatever happens, we’ll never
lose our tendency toward optimism — even, it turns out, about our
pessimism.

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