Consumerism – enough is enough

There are true needs and false needs – but only false needs need to be manufactured and nurtured. Indeed, today’s consumerist society has more or less turned Maslow’s hierarchy on its head. According to Maslow, people should be satisfied when they reach the top of his pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs, but in modern consumerist culture and society there can be no satisfaction of needs. Consumerist society never satisfies, indeed it is meant not to do so, as any form of satisfaction is an enemy of the consumerist, capitalist society – a society that requires the persistent buying of things we don’t need for its continued existence – what is usually referred to as “growth”.

Our entire way of life seems to be built on the manufacturing of self-doubt and dissatisfaction, our economy built on exploiting such human weakness.  Needless desires drive our economy, and our economy drives our needless desires, and consumerism thereby becomes a tool for control. We might therefore talk of a new kind of people, educated by TV commercials, wanting to be tricked into buying what they don’t need, so as to feel they belong in a society that glorifies conformity, celebrity and wealth. Shopping has thus almost become a “collective ritual of affirmation” and people who believe they are not influenced by any individual commercial have missed the point: that commercials as a whole are as ideological as the Soviet Politburo in promoting a way of life based on consumption.

To be sure, marketing since the nineties has understood these needs perfectly, which is why many companies have stopped selling products and now offer “brands” – brands that take on an almost “spiritual” dimension in offering the buyer a whole new way of life to go with whatever product they are offering. Consumerism offers a broad spectrum of ready-made identities that come with the added benefit of automatic mutual social acceptance. We might have more products these days, but we seem to have less choice.

Though previously targeted mainly at adults, over the last decade or so, commercialism has infiltrated even the lives of our children. Research shows that “there is a strong link between materialism and self-esteem in children … the more materialistic children are, the lower their self-esteem”.[1] The “second is nowhere” ethos of youth fashion companies that propagates the myth that everyone can be a winner is an important part of this, as everyone believing this ethos (but one) ends up seeing him- or herself as a loser.

Instilling the consumerist ethos into children at an early age is the perfect way of sustaining consumerism, but as environmentalists have tried to tell us, ever loader through the last decade or so, the consumerist, growth-based way of life is simply not sustainable. We have used millions of years worth of fossil fuels and caused a steep rise in CO2-levels in the last 150 years or so, and for what – largely for manufacturing and buying stuff we don’t need to try and reach a level of containment that is inherently unattainable, however much we try.

The only conceivable way out of this dead end, and the only way we might reach some form of genuine contentment, let alone save the planet by achieving some form of resource sustainability, is by literally saying that enough is enough – that what we in the Western world have amassed of material goods is enough. And if we really mean what some of us say when we talk of a more fair global resource allocation, then we in the West will have to be content with significantly less luxuries, not more, in the future.

“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning” Huxley, Brave new world

“Self-limitation is the fundamental and wisest step of a man who has obtained freedom. It is also the surest path towards its attainment”Solzhenitsyn

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty”Thoreau

[1] Nairn, Agnes, Jo Ormrod and Paul Bottomley. “Watching, Wanting and Wellbeing: Exploring the links – a study of 9 to 13 year-olds”, National Consumer Council, 2007


10 Responses to Consumerism – enough is enough

  1. Abigail says:

    sure i do agree that enough is enough,when it comes to consumers spending on things that are not really needed, but. has been put over as a need.the more people buys uneccessary thingsthe more they contribute to the destroying of natural resources of teh world.marketers at any expense will get the neccessary material needed to create a product even if it meant destorying the earth.

    • Peter K. says:

      Hi Abigail. I certainly agree that we cannot rely on big business regulating itself, and that we therefore need some form of regulation of the market to make sure that resources are not used for unnecessary things – especially given the sharp rise in C02-emissions. As for consumerism as a need, I believe that it is not an inherent need, but a false need that needs to be continously “fed”.

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  3. mofolo says:

    The social structure of the society iks certainly changing, to the point that most of the youngsters of day dnt even border to think of the basic needs to sustain a survial, but rather go aftre the material thing or The so called “BRAND”. commerisim brings ineguality within our own African people.

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  5. stephen says:

    I find your article to highlight the problem of consumerism but not bring forward the reaction to not consuming in this fashion. While i do believe that the way in which the mass producing of unnecessary products is having a detrimental impact on the environment, the ceasing of this form of economic reliance will bring about an even greater division in wealth and will change the world in more immediate ways than can be handled by any kind of state intervention. Our society is built off of the need for continuous consumption. The end to this consumption would bring down the foundations of the “American way of life” and would potentially lead to an internal crisis far surpassing that of the last couple years. The main reason in which the US did not implode upon itself is connected to the buying power of the citizen and indeed the export of goods to other, equally high consuming, countries.

    I am in no way saying that this overabundance of consumption is positive, for individuals or the environment. I feel that there is a need to regain the power that comes from not feeling the need to consume in this fashion and to hold so tightly to a way of life that works off the continuous change of that which is felt needed to bring enjoyment and happiness. The way in which consumption of media, products, cultural saturation has stripped us of any feeling of personal contentment and is doing so in a compounding fashion as time passes, leaves one wondering what else is out there to strive for if not the attainment of these things that are supposed to make us happy.

    A world in which we moved beyond the need for the conveniences and conventions that we currently hold to be, as quoted above, indispensable doesn’t exist given the place we a currently standing. We have given out the toys and are now saying the only way to survive is to give them back once we know what they do, not to mention the way in which these products have created a job market that employs such a large portion of the population.

    I know your article is simply highlighting the idea that “Consumerism is bad mm’kay” but as with so many of the ideas surrounding the evil that is consumption, the ceasing of this lifestyle seems to get further and further away from possible while at the same time closer and closer to realization through globalization and more and more centralization. I think we are heading for a stark future either way. I’m just holding onto the idea that the life I was promised, but sadly no longer has a future, and what do you plan for in a future where the basic foundation it is built upon is connected to an economic structure that is eating its own tail, so to speak.

  6. Yes we tend to overdo things and disregard things which are also important.Take for instance the industrial timber companies,vis a v the the waste on paper.Here in swaziland for example 80% of the land that can be used to produce food is covered by water thirsty alien trees(eucalyptus trees).We have to export timber and import food.We have to satisfy paper addicted countries at the expense of the people living side by side with these companies.

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  9. Karen Blair says:

    The statement the author is making about society is very true to society today. Too much focus is given on the material wealth and not enough on the growth and knowledge of our society. There are so many bright diligent minds that may not have come from affluent backgrounds, but are brought up to believe in simpler needs and happiness. Maslow’s pyramid of how we might obtain our levels of wants and needs in life would be ideal…..but not acceptable in todays society. We are about having it all, and then getting more. It is perceived that if you are satisfied, then you are not seeking to reach your full potential and are therefore not worthy of the wealth and finer things life has to offer. You have simply given up. I prefer to think and live in a way that I can accomplish all that I want to obtain all that I need.

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