Public Values

Consumers vs citizens

Blame the mess the world is in on people acting like consumers and not like citizens.

The consumer encourages exhaust fumes. The citizen may regret all this, but what can the citizen do?by Charles Gordon

Sparked by the Chinese toys controversy, North American corporations have come in for a lot of criticism. But it's not all big bad big business, as several writers have noted in these pages. Consumers, who insist on cheap goods, have to share some of the blame. Anybody who wants to clean up the mess we are making of the world will have to change consumers as well as corporations.

This won't be easy. Consumers are powerful and fearless and experienced, a formidable target. We know that well, because they are us, which is not quite grammatical, but still true.

We have learned really well how to be consumers. We can research the products. We can find the cheapest. We can accumulate. We can make a fearful noise if anybody tries to stand between us and our favorite products and our favorite prices.

Somehow, developing as consumers has got in the way of our development as citizens. Why this would be so is difficult to say. A person should be able to be both.

But look at him trying to be a good citizen and support Canadian toy makers, to keep factories open and provide jobs. Ask him if he thinks that's a good idea. He'll say yes. Then tell him that toys are cheaper at the Wal-Mart, although they're made in China. There he goes.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, watch our good citizen, a booster of his community, anxious to keep a vital downtown. Watch what happens when Wal-Mart wants to open a giant store on the outskirts of town. Does he pressure his town councillors to protect downtown merchants and locally-owned stores? Or does he think of the cheap toys he will be able to buy?

And those town councillors, what's on their minds? Are they thinking about keeping their downtown vital, their community distinctive? Or are they thinking of the tax dollars those big box stores are going to pump in?

They might resist if they thought the citizens wanted them to. But the citizens have all of a sudden become consumers and all they care about is cheap toys.

Farmers could tell you about consumers. Farmer after farmer is going out of business because the prices paid them are too low. The people who buy from the farmer keep the prices low because they know their customers won't tolerate higher prices. So we, the consumers, get low prices and lose farms.

Some of the dead farms make good places for Wal-Marts.

Environmentalists can tell you about the consumer. The consumer wants cheap gasoline for his car, or his cars. The citizen wants a cleaner environment. The environment wants more expensive gas so that people will drive less. It's easy to make gas more expensive. Just tax it more. Then citizens will buy less gasoline and think twice about keeping that second car.

That happens in Europe, where gasoline prices are far higher than they are here. It all makes sense in North America, except that citizens, faced with price increases become consumers. Angry consumers. Governments are afraid of them.

The attempt to satisfy the consumer's obsessions with cheap flights has made air travel unpleasant and unreliable. The consumer has killed independent book stores and mom-and-pop groceries. The consumer encourages the exhaust fumes of the drive-thru because the consumer won't get out of his car.

The citizen may regret all this, but what can the citizen do? His impulses may be public-spirited, but public spirit fades when he hears that someone is selling gasoline cheaper on the other side of town.

In this spirit, we bid goodbye, probably for the last time, to the Ottawa Lynx, who have provided good, entertaining baseball for 14 seasons. Now they are moving to Pennsylvania because consumers stopped buying tickets in Ottawa. Many plausible explanations can be made for this, but the fact remains that Ottawa consumers could have kept the team in town by attending the games and they didn't. The same thing could be said for the Renegades and, before them, the Rough Riders.

The citizen wants his community to have spectator sports. The consumer is too busy shopping to go to the games.

The only person who can save us from the consumer is the voter. Away from the stores, the voter can force politicians to do the right thing sometimes the painful thing for communities, for the environment.

In this year's Ontario elections, some politicians have their election headquarters at shopping malls. That may not be a good idea.

Charles Gordon is a humour columnist, who occasionally lapses into serious commentary on politics or music. Gordon is married, with two grown children. He is the author of six books. His latest is Still at the Cottage, new in 2006 and available at the SG Boutique! All his books are published by McClelland and Stewart.

Gordon has written for National Lampoon, Canadian Forum, Cottage Life and Maclean's. He has won three National Magazine Awards and been nominated three times for the Stephen Leacock Medal. When not writing his once-a-week column for the Ottawa Citizen, Gordon plays jazz trumpet and cheers for the Senators.

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  Consumers vs citizens,, September 5th, 2007

Posted: November 11, 2007

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