The Crisis of Consumerism

FLORENCE – Major economic crises are inevitably also structural milestones. There is no simple return to a pre-crisis normalcy. Something changes permanently. As we learned in 2009, patterns of expectations and demand take a new shape.

Our current crisis is not simply a blowback effect of financial globalization. Financial globalization misfired because it took a bet on a type of economy that was becoming unsustainable. During the past quarter-century, but especially over the five years leading up to 2008, the world seemed to revolve around the American consumer. 

American-style consumption offered a new model of economic development. It inspired widespread emulation. Over the course of a few decades, major city centers across the world began to resemble each other much more closely, with the same brands, designs, and lifestyles. Consumption or, more precisely, consumerism , appeared to be globalized.

American universities delivered new curricula based on studies of consumption and consumerism. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush advised Americans that they should not allow the trauma of the attacks to interfere with their ordinary shopping, and implied that buying had become a patriotic duty and virtue. The United States had become the world’s consumer of last resort.