This fall, 35 students in Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser’s Alternatives to Consumerism class stepped out of their comfort zones to critically analyze the consumer culture that has become deeply entrenched in the American way of life.
The unique course, which combines environmental studies, American studies, media studies, psychology, economics and sociology, addresses consumerism as a societal force and as a fact of daily life in the modern United States. While learning about the pros and cons of living in a consumer society, students examine how consumerism affects them personally.
“The idea behind [the class] is that consumer culture requires us to be in the role of consumer and work to make money so we can be consumers,” Kasser said. “This increasingly pushes out the role of engaged citizen.”
On the surface, Alternatives to Consumerism may seem like a course in sustainable living. Going green, however, is only one piece of the puzzle.
“I’m continually impressed by how the solutions that are most ecologically sustainable are the same solutions that promote social well-being and also psychological well-being,” Kasser said. “They’re separate, but deeply interrelated.”
Although Kasser has offered the class before, this is the first time he has incorporated “community action” projects into the course. What used to be a Tuesday-Thursday seminar class is now a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class, with Fridays being devoted to activities designed to foster a dedication to other members of society, ranging from creating satirical advertisements to calling Congressional representatives to discuss important issues.
Sophomore Hannah Basil recalled one community action project in which students were required to knock on doors of Galesburg residents and convince them to trade an incandescent light bulb for a compact fluorescent bulb that students were required to purchase in lieu of textbooks.
“I loved the light bulb exchange. I was surprised by how many people were already using CFLs,” Basil said. “I loved meeting people and getting a glimpse into their lives.”
Perhaps the most visible community action project was routine litter pickups around campus. After collecting trash, students chalked messages on the sidewalk to let others know what they had found.
“It’s good to leave something behind and let people know,” Kasser said. “It’s easy to walk by and not see [litter].”
What is most valuable for Kasser, though, is seeing the community action projects make an impact.
“Students have said, ‘I litter less now,’” he said. “We’ve also had counter-chalkings…which I think is very interesting.”
Students in the class reported significant shifts in their worldview because of the class. Basil has chosen to become a vegetarian and is considering living in an intentional community later in her life. A business minor, she was initially uncertain about how the class might affect her interest in business but still wanted to gain an understanding of both sides of consumerism.
“It definitely refined some of my thinking,” she said. “In business classes, you’re not taught the model of capitalism. It’s something we take for granted, but there are other ways to live.”
“Consumer society is like a fish swimming in water that doesn’t know it’s in water,” Kasser said. “It seems natural to us because it’s all we know. What else is there besides a Wal-Mart in every town above a certain size? But consumerism is an anomaly historically…it’s not normal in the grand scheme of things.”
Ultimately, Kasser hopes students come out of the class as critical thinkers able to assess what they had previously taken for granted.
“The message from corporate capitalism is that there’s nothing other than what we have,” he said. “In my opinion, the greatest form of oppression is to say that there is no alternative.”
Rather than diminishing Basil’s interest in business, taking Alternatives to Consumerism has made her even more excited about being able to enact change in her chosen field.
“I like just being able to challenge marketing ideas,” she said. “I have the ability to see both sides, and that’s not something that would happen at other schools.”