Consumerism is a pattern of behavior that helps to destroy our environment, personal financial health, the common good of individuals and allows the destruction of all types of institutions.
86% of the world’s resources are consumed by the world’s wealthiest 20%.
Two typical German shepherds kept as pets in Europe or the U.S. consume more in a year than the average person living in Bangladesh, according to research by sustainability experts Brenda and Robert Vale of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
So are the world’s environmental ills really a result of the burgeoning number of humans on the planet—predicted to reach at least nine billion people by 2050? Or is it more due to the fact that although the human population has doubled in the past 50 years, we have increased our use of resources fourfold?
Consumerism isn’t even delivering on its own promise—a better life. “Not only is consumer culture causing unprecedented environmental havoc, it is in many cases not delivering the well-being for human beings it is supposed to.
Consumerism and its Discontents
Materialistic values may stem from early insecurities and are linked to lower life satisfaction, psychologists find. Accruing more wealth may provide only a partial fix.
Compared with Americans in 1957, today we own twice as many cars per person, eat out twice as often and enjoy endless other commodities that weren’t around then–big-screen TVs, microwave ovens, SUVs and handheld wireless devices, to name a few. But are we any happier?
Certainly, happiness is difficult to pin down, let alone measure. But a recent literature review suggests we’re no more contented than we were then–in fact, maybe less so.
“Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology,”
“Research suggests that when people grow up in unfortunate social situations–where they’re not treated very nicely by their parents or when they experience poverty or even the threat of death,” says Kasser, “they become more materialistic as a way to adapt.”
Effects of Consumerism
It is estimated that it requires four to six hectares of land to maintain the consumption level of the average person from a high-consumption country. The problem is that in 1990, worldwide there were only 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land for each person. He concluded that the deficit is made up in core countries by drawing down the natural resources of their own countries and expropriating the resources, through trade, of peripheral countries. In other words, someone has to pay for our consumption levels.
Our consumption of goods obviously is a function of our culture. Only by producing and selling things and services does capitalism in its present form work, and the more that is produced and the more that is purchased the more we have progress and prosperity. The single most important measure of economic growth is, after all, the gross national product (GNP), the sum total of goods and services produced by a given society in a given year. It is a measure of the success of a consumer society, obviously, to consume.
However, the production, processing, and consumption, of commodities requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, ore, fossil fuels, and water); it requires the creation of factories and factory complexes whose operation creates toxic byproducts, while the use of commodities themselves (e.g. automobiles) creates pollutants and waste. Yet of the three factors environmentalists often point to as responsible for environmental pollution — population, technology, and consumption — consumption seems to get the least attention. One reason, no doubt, is that it may be the most difficult to change; our consumption patterns are so much a part of our lives that to change them would require a massive cultural overhaul, not to mention severe economic dislocation. A drop in demand for products, as economists note, brings on economic recession or even depression, along with massive unemployment.
As hinted above, within the current economic system of perpetual growth, we risk being locked into a mode of development that is:
– destructive, in the long run, to the environment
– a contributing factor to poverty around the world
– a contributing factor to hunger amongst such immense wealth
– and numerous other social and ecological problems
Furthermore, as also hinted above, as consumption increases (in a wasteful way, which we shall see a bit later), the resource base has to expand to meet growth and related demands. If the resource base expands to other people’s lands, then those people don’t necessarily get to use those resources either. This is also quite bluntly captured in this following cartoon image:
Misuse of land and resources
How land is used to produce food etc. can have enormous impacts on the environment and its sustainability. (This can sometimes challenge assumptions on the instinct and common belief that we are overpopulated by sheer numbers and that this is the major cause of environmental degradation. While populations can burden the environment, the most populous regions in the world use far less resources than the wealthiest nations, and so the issue is more about how resources are used and for what purpose.) Take the following as an example:
Junk-food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, are under attack from major environmental groups in the United States and other developed countries because of their environmental impact. Intensive breeding of livestock and poultry for such restaurants leads to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For every pound of red meat, poultry, eggs, and milk produced, farm fields lose about five pounds of irreplaceable top soil. The water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or ten times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all.
… Overall, animal farms use nearly 40 percent of the world’s total grain production. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of grain production is fed to livestock.
And because food is a commodity, then it is those who can afford to pay, that will get food. The following is worth quoting at length (bulleting and spacing formatting is mine, text is original):
To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.
Food is a commodity.
Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. …
The problem, of course, is that people who don’t have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don’t count in the food equation.
In other words, if you don’t have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (Supermarket to the World) to produce food for them.
What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.
Exporting Pollution and Waste from Rich Countries to Poor Countries
Pollution is also related to increased consumption. That is, the consumption itself, plus the production and waste of products used in consumption. Automobiles are a clear example. Other examples include industrial waste (especially when just dumped into the rivers and oceans), waste from the tourist industry (including cruise liners, air travel, etc.), waste from industrial agriculture, consumer waste such as household waste, excessive product packaging, our throw-away culture, and so on.
While pollution is increasing in poorer countries as well, it is not solely due to rising populations, because, as the U.N. points out, and as mentioned earlier, 86% of the world’s resources are consumed by the world’s wealthiest 20%.
A cycle of waste, disparities and poverty
Poverty, land control and ownership, pollution and so on, are largely parts of economic and ideological systems too. As exemplified by the Lawrence Summers quote above, a value is placed on the environment, on life, on different cultures and so on.
This is so ingrained into the cultures of the wealthy nations, that the thought of massive adjustment of lifestyles and economic systems to a more sustainable consumption seems too much to consider. Instead the system is continued and maintained. Built into the system itself are mechanisms that encourage this, without realizing the costs.
SHOPPING: it’s long been one of America’s favourite pastimes, but more recently it has taken centre stage in the battle to prevent the world’s biggest economy from sliding into recession. As share prices have plunged along with profits, and layoffs have soared, it has sometimes seemed this year as if the American consumer’s addiction to retail therapy was incurable. That’s just as well, because consumer spending has been the main reason the economy has not dipped into recession this year. But now there are signs that even America’s heroic spendthrifts may be losing heart.
Yet poor countries suffer immensely. For example, when the financial crisis hit Asia around 1997, at a time of enormous production, collapse meant that western corporations were able to pick up almost entire industries on the cheap. This helped destroy growing competition, as the situation was getting so competitive and fierce, that the best way (for those who can) to ride through this was to buy out others, merge or consolidate. While capital fled to the West and there was a temporary boom, as exemplified by the hi-tech sector in the U.S., overproduction was likely to catch up, as it seems to have now. Hence the West were consuming on borrowed time and resources from the poor. As Robbins said, someone has to pay.
Another way then, for industries to continue growth and profitability etc, is to try and create demand. Markets may have to be created where there were none before. But, as a result, the following effects can occur:
Demands need to be created where there may have been none previously, or may be minimally. Luxuries can therefore be encouraged to become necessities.
The commodification of food, the impact of policies such as structural adjustment policies and conditionalities have led to mass production of the same commodities from many regions, mostly exported to the wealthy nations.
But the huge price war leads to price depressions.
Mass consumption increases in the wealthy nations that receive these exports at cheap prices and demands are further increased.
Poor producers are further marginalized as the wealthy export producers use even more resources for the drive for further profits to meet this demand.
Additional requirements are made on the environment to produce even more.
Boom and bust cycles lead to various dynamics, such as during booms, there is more consumption in wealthy areas, and from poorer areas there are more people migrating towards rich countries.
During busts, further poverty, increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, and in poor countries especially, pushing the already marginalized onto additional lands because the best lands are already owned and controlled. In worse cases, conflicts can also result.
Why Overcoming Consumerism is Important?
Imagine yourself dwelling in the following world:
You live in a safe pleasant and unpolluted community where you actually know your neighbors and interact with them, be it a small town, a suburb or even a city neighborhood. You can easily walk, bicycle or take effective mass transit to your nearby job, giving you time to think or read as you get there.
The work that you do improves our future, benefits your community and means something to you and those with whom you interact. You actually look forward to Monday. The longer that you are employed the more you learn and the more valuable you become to your employer with an increasing level of pay.
Your work schedule leaves you sufficient time to enjoy your friends, family and outside interests. Money isn’t a controlling influence in your life because your needs are easily met. Your possessions are few, yet of high quality, thus allowing your home to be small, neat and inexpensive to own or rent.
You’re connected to your surroundings, rather than just dwelling in them, your backyard, for example, provides most of the produce you might need plus a surplus that you can trade with neighbors. You have a stake in your community and participate in local decision making at the Town Council, P.T.A. and other grass roots organizations.. You buy what is necessary in nearby establishments whose owners are known to you and live in your community. If you have children, they walk to a nearby well-funded neighborhood school in safety and then learn authentic social skills as they interact with a community of honorably employed adults when away from school.
Occasionally you need to travel to a large store on the edge of town. You do this on a free shuttle bus or perhaps in a simple, older vehicle, the use and costs of which you might share with others or a car that you rent only when you need it, thus preserving for yourself the weeks or months that it takes to earn the thousands of after-tax Dollars that owning a new car would take away from you each year. Your interests, the things that you really like to do with your mind and your hands, all the possibilities of your life, are there to be explored because you have the time, energy and money to do so.
“But this is America, you say, all this is possible.”
“Not anymore it’s not”.
You know what’s happened to the economy and our country since then)
There are growing forces making this way of life almost impossible to attain or maintain, even for the wealthy. If you are among the lucky few who still have the kind of life outlined above, these same forces threaten you. Whether you live in an isolated small town or prefer your anonymity as well as the multiplicity of things available to you in a big city, these same forces will are eroding your security and ability to make choices for yourself.
Do you think what’s outlined at the beginning of this page can only occur in some mythic long-past small town? Before the hegemony of consumerism and bottom-line Wall Street economics, you could do all of these things anywhere, including in our cities. There is no reason that we cannot live like this again if sufficient people work to identify and disempower the forces that promote and profit from limiting our social and economic horizons.
These forces are manifested in our lives as consumerism. People voluntarily hand over their soverignty as Americans and citizens in exchange for things and conveniences that sap and paralyze our ability to fight the forces that are weakening our real economy and our ability to affect change in it.
The process began innocently enough. At first they were a growing number of pleasant conveniences for housewives in the 1950s, then a car for everyone with the gradual and inevitable erosion of mass transit, then the ubiquitousness of things and chemical products technologically unimaginable a few decades earlier.
With this came a growing a availability of consumer credit and debt to make things available, the over-dependence on labor-saving devices, total dependence on the car and absolute necessity of full time work, the two income household to pay for more and more, then the importation of cheaper and cheaper goods and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the commodification of labor and the discarding of loyalties to our citizens and taxpayers and now the decline of service work with professionals next to be downsized….The ongoing disenfranchisement of people from our own community, replaced by commercial transactions with distant strangers…where will it end? When America looks like some faded Third World fragment of the old British Empire? An overpopulated wasteland of pollution, eroded landscapes, worn out infrastructure and hungry people digging into landfills for salvageables? With real unemployment above 20% and manufacturing being outsourced at new levels, this vision is looking more and more tangible. The Middle Class is dying.
We shouldn’t allow this to happen. Things may be starting to turn around in our favor. But it takes work and time and attention to details and a willingness to try new things for our own and our children’s benefit. There are serious changes ahead. We can control some of these for our benefit or we can just react to them after they have happened–or worse yet, ignore the changes and pretend that they do not matter.
Simply stated, there is a lot of money being made and a lot of power being gathered by the people that promote consumerism. You pay for it in gradually limited economic mobility, pollution, threats to your health and a declining standard of living, as measured by the things that really matter.