Consumerism #

We buy things hoping for greater comfort, ease, happiness, status and self fulfillment. Whenever we are down, we also buy things. Ruth Quibell in The Promise of Things, writes:

Into inanimate things we increasingly project the power to animate our idealisations, dreams, yearnings and cravings”.

We need to find things that genuinely satisfy us. We no longer repair things, we dispose of them. Computers, printers, cell phones last about three years. How long can our planet cope with such waste? The more we consume, the more stress on Mother Earth.

The early Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founded a cult known as Epicureanism; today erroneously conceived of as hedonistic self-indulgent pleasure seeking in luxurious food, wine and gluttony.

In its original conception it was just the opposite.

Their guiding principle was the pursuit of pleasure, which they understood not so much as the fulfillment of desire as its rational mastery.

Yet it is a philosophy in which we can see ourselves and our most urgent needs - for a better and more sustainable way of life - reflected from a great distance.

Epicurus taught his followers how to be happy without god and how to be happy with less.

He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect, Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict."

Time and again Epicurus and his followers return to the theme of limits:

“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”

One of the richest women of the world, sits in an expensive restaurant with a group of business leaders and orders the most expensive bottle of wine at $3000 a bottle. As the steward fills her glass, she orders him to keep pouring, spilling most of it on the table, just to demonstrate her wealth, status and power to deprive her dinner companions.

Epicurus understood the gelding of desire and the search for happiness as one and the same thing: in fact it was impossible to have one without the other.

His philosophy of the garden was conceived as therapy for a trinity of common illnesses - anxiety, greed and lust - by a man who declared himself content with water, bread, weak wine and a “pot of cheese”.

Plain dishes, Epicurus believed, “offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table”.

The host and keeper of this place, where you will find the pleasure of the highest good, will offer you freely cakes of barley and fresh spring water.

This garden will not tease your appetite with the dainties of art but satisfy it with the bounties of nature.

Will you not be a happy guest?*

Edited extract from Luke Slattery’s* Reclaiming Epicurus: Ancient Wisdom that Could Save the World, an e-book in the Penguin Specials series.

Create Your Life: Having Nothing Can Mean Having Everything

If you are feeling in a funk, or like things are just not working out, take that energy and redirect it to create new possibilities for yourself.

We are part of a society which is driven to spend, extend, and acquire. The treasures we bring home from such excursions, however, seldom satisfy.

The final decades of the 19th C. were called the “Gilded Age” in America when wealth began to accumulate giving rise to a leisure class and what economist Thorstein Veblen dubbed “conspicuous consumption” where the noveau riche could display the elegance of their ill gotten gains.

In rich countries, consumption consists of people spending money they don’t have to buy goods they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.

Planned Obsolescence:

The LED lightbulb quandary “The thousand-hour life span of the modern incandescent bulb dates to 1924, when representatives from the world’s largest lighting companies—including such familiar names as Philips, Osram, and General Electric (which took over Shelby Electric circa 1912)—met in Switzerland to form Phoebus, arguably the first cartel with global reach. The bulbs’ life spans had by then increased to the point that they were causing what one senior member of the group described as a ‘mire’ in sales turnover. And so, one of its priorities was to depress lamp life, to a thousand-hour standard. The effort is today considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence at an industrial scale … The lighting industry has a term, ‘socket saturation’, that describes the point at which enough short-lived incandescent bulbs have been replaced by durable LED bulbs that light-bulb sales as a whole begin to decline. Market-analysis firms such as IHS Technology and Strategies Unlimited predict that socket saturation will be felt across the global market in 2019.” – The New Yorker

In an article written for Nation’s Business magazine, (1929) Charles Kettering – a director of General Motors Research – opined on the need for companies to keep consumers dissatisfied. The moment people are happy with what they have, “almost immediately hard times would be upon us”, he wrote.

And so it is that marketers persevere with advertising to convince us we’re not sexy enough, popular enough, smart enough, or (whatever) enough, unless we purchase what they’re selling. Perhaps that’s why American comedian Bill Hicks referred to marketers and advertisers as:

“Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage”.

This is where work comes in. In order to fund the lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed, we work. In many cases, we overwork. Then, as our credit card balances swell and our home loans balloon, we work even harder just to keep up. Where households could once get by with just one wage earner, today both parents have little choice but to be employed.

One analysis at the University of Melbourne sought to discover the reasons why people are increasingly compelled to work more than 50 hours a week. The researchers looked at a variety of possible explanations.

Was it that people were motivated by the desire to be ‘ideal workers’? Was it a fear of losing their job? Or was it due to the collapse in union membership?

What came out in front was none of the above. The correct answer was consumerism. It was the “work-and-spend” trap, an endless cycle characterised by the desire for higher living standards, linked with greater levels of debt that can only be managed by working longer and harder.

In an article published in the Pacific Ecologist journal, Professor Sharon Beder from the University of Wollongong chronicled the history of consumerism’s impact on the workforce. It has made, she writes, workers “less likely to question the conditions of their work, the way it dominates their life, and the lack of power that they have as workers”.

That’s because consumerism grants people a taste of the good life – televisions, cars, electrical goods, houses, luxury items, holidays – and they want more of it. But that stuff can only be financed by working more … at any sacrifice.

Technology was supposed to make a positive difference. It was meant to remove the need to work so much, since machines were expected to take over. Instead, the opposite occurred, with technologies chaining many of us to our jobs beyond the standard working week in a drive towards ever-greater productivity.

So what would happen if we were all to collectively reduce our consumption? Undoubtedly, the economy would tank. Jobs would be lost. Politicians would be voted out of office. There’d be a recession; maybe even a depression. This all-consuming consumerism seems to be an inescapable part of life.

It doesn’t help that the success of our nation, and every nation these days, is determined by the strength of the economy – and a preoccupation with perpetual growth – a measure that can only be sustained by a relentless insatiability for products and services.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read what Gina Rinehart had to say yesterday. The world’s richest woman advised us all to live within our means and to be wary of too much debt. Can’t really argue with that.

A group of eager-to-enter-the-store shoppers outside a Wal-Mart in New York trampled an employee to death during the 2008 Thanksgiving weekend. An increasing trend are the Black Friday stampedes in the US, the likes of which are bound to be repeated here in Australia on Boxing Day. It’s tasteless consumerism to the max, turning ordinary people into ravenous and mindless shoppers, with flow-on effects in the workplace.

Using latest figures available, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

(Source: The state of human development, United Nations Human Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)

We consume a variety of resources and products today having moved beyond basic needs to include luxury items and technological innovations to try to improve efficiency. Such consumption beyond minimal and basic needs is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, as throughout history we have always sought to find ways to make our lives a bit easier to live. However, increasingly, there are important issues around consumerism that need to be understood. For example:

  • How are the products and resources we consume actually produced?
  • What are the impacts of that process of production on the environment, society, on individuals?
  • What are the impacts of certain forms of consumption on the environment, on society, on individuals?
  • Which actors influence our choices of consumption?
  • Which actors influence how and why things are produced or not?
  • What is a necessity and what is a luxury?
  • How do demands on items affect the requirements placed upon the environment?
  • How do consumption habits change as societies change?
  • Businesses and advertising are major engines in promoting the consumption of products so that they may survive. How much of what we consume is influenced by their needs versus our needs?
  • Also influential is the very culture of today in many countries, as well as the media and the political institutions themselves. What is the impact on poorer nations and people on the demands of the wealthier nations and people that are able to afford to consume more?
  • How do material values influence our relationships with other people?
  • What impact does that have on our personal values?
  • And so on.

Just from these questions, we can likely think of numerous others as well. We can additionally, see that consumerism and consumption are at the core of many, if not most societies. The impacts of consumerism, positive and negative are very significant to all aspects of our lives, as well as our planet. But equally important to bear in mind in discussing consumption patterns is the underlying system that promotes certain types of consumption and not other types.

The over riding concern should be whether the consumption enhances life or merely detracts from the world’s finite resources.