At exactly what point do we have enough stuff to achieve the American dream? When we have the three-bedroom house, two-car garage and white picket fence?
When we have the in-ground pool and hot tub? How about the winter home in Florida? Or the industrial-sized kitchen, home theater and gold-plated espresso machine?
A few years ago Emily St. Clair — a 2001 University of Cincinnati graphic design graduate and sculptor — began asking herself these questions. St. Clair, 25, used to shop all the time, mostly buying shoes and clothes over the Internet.
"It was kind of filling a certain void in my life," she says.
She looked forward to getting packages in the mail, even though she had more clothes than she could wear.
Realizing she was just wasting money, St. Clair kicked her mail-order habit three years ago. She hasn't been to a mall in that time, either, opting for thrift stores when she needs something.
Now she wants to learn to sew so she can create clothes that look the way she wants them.
St. Clair doesn't expect everyone to mimic her or completely change their lifestyles. She just wants people to think about what they buy, how much they buy and why.
"I think people really need to understand that material possessions don't bring happiness," St. Clair says.
St. Clair got to thinking about her shopping after reading several issues of the non-profit magazine Adbusters. The magazine is the center of a growing cultural movement to live better and conserve the Earth's resources by consuming less. It's "concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces," according to the magazine's web site, www.adbusters.org.
That erosion ranges from the growing amount of advertising taking over public space (such as bathroom stalls) to the marketing of wasteful or harmful products (such as cigarettes), to advertising that targets children or preys upon people's insecurities.
Adbusters, created by former advertising executive Kalle Lasn, encourages readers to create and submit ad parodies that tell more truth than the original ads. A couple of examples include: Joe Chemo, a camel in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV, and a Tommy Hilfiger ad with a large American flag, several sheep, and the subtitle: "Follow the flock."
The average American consumes five times as many resources as a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person and 30 times as much as the average resident of India, according to the Media Foundation, the Vancouver, Canada organization Lasn founded in 1989.
One of Adbusters' projects is Buy Nothing Day, an unofficial holiday from shopping — held the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.
For several years readers have independently organized "culture jams" on this day by handing out flyers or carrying out pranks and street theater. As a critique of our endless work/shop/sleep lifestyles, one group wearing uniform jumpsuits went to a store, formed a line of slowly moving shopping carts, filled them with merchandise, bought the stuff, returned it, then began the whole process again.
Three years ago St. Clair joined a couple of high school students, downloaded some Buy Nothing Day flyers from the Adbusters site, went to the Dayton Mall, and put them inside dressing rooms and in the pockets of clothing for sale.
This year St. Clair and 22-year-old Jamie Mandel — a Xavier student and owner of the Punk Rock record label Nice Guy Records — are organizing a series of events Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving.
"Yeah, we're getting a message out, but the point is to have a lot of fun," Mandel says. "It's about coming out and trying to get people to just stop and think for a little bit about how much we consume and what that means."
The schedule is tentative, but St. Clair and Mandel plan to begin the day at 11 a.m. by handing out flyers at Fountain Square, then at downtown stores, then at Rookwood Commons.
"We're hoping to get a lot of people together because things like this don't happen in Cincinnati," St. Clair says.
For more information, visit wwwbuynothing.cincinnatishows.com. BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.