In the grips of consumerism

  • 2001-06-28
  • Memo Merlino
How quickly young people in the Baltic countries have embraced consumerism and are putting less emphasis on the old traditions and family values preserved against all odds by their grandparents and parents. It only took a few years for these kids to follow the Western example.

International corporations appreciate the fact that young people have allowances of any size in increasingly westernized Central and Eastern Europe, and their marketing strategies are intensely focusing on young people to expand the consumer goods craze.

Many of the products on the world market are redundant, useless, and sometime harmful to kids, excluding of course the real harmful products such as cigarettes and alcohol. It is economic hearsay to claim we should abandon the production of a large number of the existing products, as tens of millions of jobs would disappear.

But how do we prevent all these corporations from invading children's lives with their seductive advertising? Consumerism is here to stay, as it is part of the freedom of choice we enjoy every day, an intricate component of the market economy that determines if a product will survive and make a profit for the manufacturer. Is consumerism all that bad?

Consumerism, or consumer spending, has become critical to the health of any economy. The alternatives to a market economy have all been tried and have all been a resounding failure. In a way we have become both addicted and dependent on consumerism, and the system controls people's future instead of the other way around.

The level of consumerism of each family depends on personal income, and so consumerism also creates a class system by which families that have a high income acquire the status of an upper class, as distinctly apart from the middle or lower classes.

So how do we protect the children of the Baltic states from rampant, excessive consumerism? It is a very difficult task that the parents themselves, who have lived through decades of institutionalized poverty, must take on. Most parents, though, are not equipped to see the implications of an unbridled incipient consumerism, which is nothing else but materialism. The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned us about materialism in America, a country that he found enslaved to consumerism, where freedom was only theoretical.

But going shopping is fun and entertaining, and like drinking it can become addictive. Materialism is a disease of the mind, and just as destructive as alcoholism. Children do not need constant distractions like shopping, even though some of it is necessary, but they do need activities that occupy, entertain and engage them.

The Baltic countries' children have a priceless gift in the heritage of living cultures that make these countries so exciting to an outsider. The role of parents and grandparents in preparing their children for adult life is to keep alive the living cultures of the Baltics, and only then will consumerism and materialism be kept at bay.

While the children of the Soviet period were deprived of many things, they were also unaware of it and so could not make comparisons. Nowadays, children can see who has more in the way of consumer goods, and this stirs the beginnings of envy in the ones who have not, and a general feeling that they are not as worthy.

During the Soviet era, writers who had the courage to expose the lies of the system were admired by intellectuals and others on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But where are they now when they are needed to expose the subtle dangers of materialism? Most of them feel useless, as they do not have a cause to write about, and are generally forgotten, as is Solzhenitsyn, who made a valiant attempt at exposing the dangers of materialism in America.

The role of parents and grandparents is critical in keeping alive the living cultures of the Baltic region in their children. But they cannot do it if school budgets are constantly under pressure, and we now see music, dance and the arts in general on the way out in favor of more computers, math and science.

The emphasis on the latter will only produce sterility in creativity, and children who would be potential writers, composers and artists in general, will not flourish in these fields.

The political leaders of the Baltic states need to carefully find a balance between economic growth and the preservation of living cultures. To prioritize this in the budget process will be difficult, but the alternative is to see the children of the three countries become insensitive to their own cultural heritage.