Consumerism – enough is enough
May 9, 2010 10 Comments
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”. 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
 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