Did you know that the first credit cards were created by oil companies so that people would become loyal to a particular brand of gas? Then the department stores picked up the idea. The banks followed and here we are today just as dependent on credit cards as oil. This explanation came from a new book Art & Energy by Barry Lord.
For the last couple of years I’ve wondered many times — What’s the big deal with credit cards? Why do I feel guilty when I slap it down on the counter? It’s not the rectangular piece of plastic that is the problem. Look at the bigger picture and it is easy to see the beast that we are feeding by using them. Instead of going all into a diatribe about banks too big to fail and how a 21% interest charged to you and me allows them in turn to be consumers buying up crazy toxic bonds and spending more than they have thus perpetuating the feeding of the beast archetype – no. I’m not going there. It’s Little Shop of Horrors all over again. As the cashier calls out the amount I owe I can hear my credit card screaming, “Feed me Seymour!” And in turn its like the falling dominoes of every other credit card within a million mile radius also crying out, “Feed me Seymour!”. It is the reality of our consumer economy and as all cycles go we will eventually cycle out of it.
There’s a particular energy in place in the consumer economy. It is based on hopeful anticipation of expansion. It is founded on the awe and wonder that something better is always going to be around the corner. Not right here but over there somewhere. I can feel it when I pay with my credit card, a simultaneous push and pull, tug-o-war between what I have and what I’m about to get, where I am and the possibilities available to me. Consumerism by its very nature thrives on what might be in the future and usually is fueled by the past leaving us in debt in the present.
A thought came to me about a few years ago. What if instead of using credit cards and then paying them off, I saved up money and then spent what I had? Then I realized I already had that option. It is called a debit card. For the first time I saw my debit card in a different light. When I have debt on a credit card there is a very ominous feeling when I get an email reminder of my balance or when it is time to pay my bill. I noticed a certain reverence I had to the precious money in my bank account unlike the money I didn’t have in my credit account that I often spent with ease.
Like the snake oil salesman who sells a bottle of water as the elixir of life but can’t give a bottle of water away, credit cards offer high limits. Their almost limitless benefits are much more desirable than those of the old debit card whose benefits, like a bottle of water, can only get you so far. Ahh consumerism. What a conundrum!
I had not realized until I heard Barry Lord speak how oil and consumerism are inextricably linked to our economy and to each other. The reality is that our resources are finite and therefore more like a debit card than a limitless credit card. This means that consumerism by its very nature creates a false sense of hope because it creates the vibe that things will be better in the future. This is not meant to sound doom and gloom. On the contrary, it conveys a sense of freedom that everything is now and that alien plant your carrying around isn’t hungry unless you make him that way. Then choice comes into the mix and oompah! I want to get off this merry-go-round without sounding existential but I don’t know how. Instead I could go shopping or one of the hundreds of other options available in this consumer economy. But first let me check my resources.