I love Consumerism. The idea of “I SHOP, therefore I AM” is a fantastic ego boost, so what’s not to like?
Wikipedia explains Consumerism as “a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts”. Great, we all deserve a decent standard of living where we can afford the things that would make us happy. Yet, beyond a minimum threshold of poverty, money doesn’t buy happiness. Possessions may seem like a solution to your problems, but often they simply replace the ones they solve. As paychecks increase, lifestyle usually match those increases. This results in the same financial concerns, just with more stuff.
An obsession with owning things is a meagre attempt to fill a vacuum. Buying that new computer or fancy car might momentarily shrink the hole. Yet, you quickly adapt to the new upgrades and the hole grows, enslaving you to earn higher and higher paychecks with no way out.
Let us get more technical. As Ray C. Anderson writes in his article “More Happiness, Less Stuff”, within the environmental community, there is widespread acceptance of the Ehrlich equation that establishes the relationship among four factors: population (P), affluence (A), technology (T), and environmental impact (I). The relationships are expressed in the famous Ehrlich impact equation: I=PxAxT (published in The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich). Many consider this equation immutable, and believe there is no way to break its iron grip on humanity. As any of the three independent variables grows, environmental impact increases.
How do we break the grip of this equation on the future of humankind? How do we rewrite the equation for a sustainable future?
One huge challenge to the global industrial system is to move the T (call it T1) from the numerator to the denominator (now call it T2). Renewable, recyclable materials fit the category, as does renewable energy. As technologies transition from T1 that belong in the numerator to T2 in the denominator, the equation changes to:
I = (P x A x T1)/T2
and impacts (I) are reduced.
As T2 displaces T1, the future looks very different.
But, what about the capital “A” for affluence? It suggests that affluence is an end in itself, satisfying unlimited “wants,” rather than “needs”. What if we converted “A” to “a”, signifying affluence to be a means to an end, and not the end in itself? Then the equation would read: I = . And what if societal changes and priorities allowed happiness to increase without more and more affluence? Then the equation, over time, could evolve to:
(P x a x T1)T2
More happiness with less stuff, all made sustainably. Now we have the impact equation for a sustainable future. People love the idea of more happiness, less stuff. So why do we find ourselves in the mess than we’re in, environmentally and socially speaking? How will we find our way out of it?
Industrialism—the industrial system of which we are each a part—developed in a different world from the one we live in today: fewer people, more plentiful natural resources, simpler lifestyles: less stuff. It made perfect sense to exploit nature to increase human productivity—300 years ago! These days, with people overly abundant and nature scarce and diminishing, industry moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of four million pounds of material to provide one average, middle-class American family their needs for a year. With the whole world aspiring to the American standard of living, that cannot go on and on and on in a finite Earth; and it is finite, you can see it from space; that’s all there is and there isn’t any more. The rate of material throughput—the metabolism of the industrial system—is now endangering prosperity, as much as enhancing it, and the toxicity of some of that stuff is really endangering the biosphere, thus everyone’s health, ours and that of the 30 million other species that share the biosphere with us. It is manifestly the wrong thing to do.
When we talk about environmental destruction as the “wrong thing to do,” we’re talking about what I see as a shifting mind-set, a growing sense of ethics. This growing sense of ethics might be the push we need to find our way out of the mess that we’re in.
In the final analysis, the ethical thing—the right thing to do—is driven by enlightened self-interest. The study of ecology tells us we are part of nature, not above or outside it; it also tells us that what we do to the web of life we do to ourselves. Industrial ecology tells us the industrial system, as it operates today, simply cannot go on and on and on, taking, making, wasting—abusing the web of life. The industrial system takes too much, extracting and frittering away Earth’s natural capital on wants, not needs. It wastes too much. It abuses too much. It takes stuff and makes stuff that very quickly ends up in landfills or incinerators—more waste, more abuse, more pollution. I’m told that less than 3% of the throughput of the entire industrial system has any value six months afterward. We industrialists operate a waste-making machine. And all of us are part of the problem, either as producers, specifiers, users, or consumers.
So what about this sacred shrine of growth and affluence, the one that fuels the extractive, abusive and linear technologies upon which we have become so dependent? How do we make the shift? How do we decide, if we are moving toward a sustainable society, what should grow? What should not grow?
Here are some thoughts to stimulate our thinking: The lowest impact technologies, those that are beneficial, (belong in the denominator), should grow. The abusive “numerator technologies” should shrink and eventually disappear. The sale of services should grow. The sale of products should shrink. Applied brainpower should grow. Applied brute force should shrink. Market shares for the sustainable companies should grow. For the unsustainable companies, market shares should shrink—to zero.
Each of us has a role to play because, each of us has power. The power to vote, with ours dollar and our ballots. The power to shape commerce, with what we buy and what we don’t buy. We have power as individuals and collectively, as a community of people. We each make choices, large and small, every day, that translate into power. Power to change the paradigm. To get where we need to be requires a vast mind-shift that leads to a cumulative and collective mandate: Less stuff, more happiness. Then the revised impact equation can take center stage.
I strongly believe that the general solution to the consumerism abyss is building a stable inner world. Spirituality, relationships, philosophy, learning, ethics are all facets of this bigger idea. This inner world isn’t entirely detached from the material one, instead it’s a new lens for viewing what happens in it. A person with a solid inner world won’t obsess over buying things or forsake the objects she owns. Instead she can view it as a person playing a game would look at the tokens on the board. Seeing past the ownership illusion, she can put all her effort into experiencing the game. How do you build this inner world? Throughout time people have come up with many different answers to this question. I think that the answer is so difficult to arrive upon not because it is too hard or complicated. But because of it’s simplicity and intangibility, it is tricky to communicate.
Simply the answer is learning. Not just the sub-branch of activities that has to do with education, but actually improving your understanding. This comes from a combination of experience, education and thought. Experience builds this mental world most directly by showing you reality upfront and unaltered. Education constructs the inner world by expanding the capacity of your thoughts. Finally, thinking sculpts the basic forms presented in experience and education.
This sculpted internal world is difficult to describe. Many great philosophical thinkers have touched upon it but only from a passing glance rather than direct contact. I don’t believe I’ve managed to describe it directly either, but the idea remains the same. The way to break the bonds of consumerism and see past the mirage of ownership is in building a mind capable of doing this.
“It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anaesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.” – Unknown
“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club