Transforming Lives for the Common Good: From Consumerism to Sustainability
- Kamran Mofid
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'Like a tsunami, consumerism has engulfed human cultures and Earth’s ecosystems. Left unaddressed, we risk global disaster. But if we channel this wave, intentionally transforming our cultures to centre on sustainability, we will not only prevent catastrophe but may usher in an era of sustainability-one that allows all people to thrive while protecting, even restoring, Earth.’ *
‘Advertising and marketing have shaped the behavior and psychological profile of the American consumer. Consumerism is at the crux of a number of important issues affecting the nation and the world -- creation and maintenance of the false self, spiritual emptiness, detachment from nature, and sustainability. Current levels of consumption are ecologically destructive and unsustainable. Understanding the psychological and spiritual effects of consumerism may be important to reverse the trend of increasing consumption. Opportunities for ecosophical development are key to promoting the behavioral changes necessary to re-establish our connection with nature and address the problems of consumerism and sustainability.’**
How the consumer dream went wrong
"On January 24th, Apple will release the Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984'".
These words make up the voiceover of the most important advertisement ever made.
The ad didn't just announce the arrival of a computer the Macintosh, or even just the arrival of Apple as a brand, but something far more significant:
In the 90 seconds that this ad took to play out, in the first commercial break of the 1984 Superbowl, the voice of Apple declared that the Consumer had come of age, and was now the dominant force in society. All would bow before them - or rather us - and provide us with whatever we wanted, or suffer the consequences. And that this would release us from the tyranny of oppression. Taken in the context of the Cold War in which America and the West now finally had the upper hand, it is hard to overstate the ideological significance of this moment.
Further events built on this declaration that year, reinforcing this revolution and painting it as a golden dream - a dream of a world in which we the Consumers will not only get everything we want, but will solve the world's problems by doing so. The Body Shop floated on the London Stock Exchange, bringing the idea that we can shop to save the planet. With Band Aid, Bob Geldof and friends told us to shop to solve global poverty. And the Los Angeles Olympics, the first to be funded by commercial sponsorship, promised us that shopping could even fund global sport and culture.
We could, it seemed, have it all. So what went wrong?
The truth is this: despite all its promise, the idea of the Consumer is killing us. And before it does, we must kill it.
I can perhaps best explain why the golden dream went so wrong by describing one of a series of recent experiments that have explored the effect of this word on our behaviour.
The simplest was a survey of environmental and social attitudes and values. The group taking the survey was split in half. For half, the front cover said Consumer Reaction Study, for the rest, Citizen Reaction Study. No specific attention was drawn to this and there was no other significant difference between the two groups; just this one word. Yet those who answered the Consumer Reaction Study were far less motivated to care about society or the environment.
That pattern has been seen elsewhere, and the only possible explanation for the difference is the unconscious effect of merely being exposed to the language of the Consumer as a prime, a kind of mental framing of the task at hand.
How can this be? Can a word, just a word, really make us less likely to care about one another and about the world, and less likely to trust and work with one another to fix it?
Here's the thing - nothing is "just a word". Language is the scaffolding on which we build our thoughts, attitudes, values and behaviours. And as we do so, we would do well to recognise that the Consumer is a deeply dangerous place to start.
Because what looks at surface level like a word is in fact a moral idea, an idea of what the right thing is for us to do in our daily lives. This word Consumer represents the idea that all we can do is consume, choosing between the options offered us, and that the morally right thing for us to do is to pick the best of these for ourselves, measured in material standards of living, as narrowly defined individuals, and in the short term.
As such, what we do when we use this language is prime ourselves to think in this way, cuing this moral idea. And when we do that, we become more selfish and more short term.
This might explain the results of the experiments - but now think what happens in our real, day-to-day lives. We cue this moral idea of the Consumer somewhere between 1500 and 5000 times a day, depending on whose statistics you trust. Every time you see an advertisement, every time you hear national success measured in Consumer Confidence, every time you read an article that talks about consumers. And it's inevitable that - unconsciously - we start to internalise this idea. We start to believe that, yes, we are Consumers, and yes, the right thing for us to do is to get the best deal for ourselves, measured primarily in material living standards of living, judged by us as narrowly defined individuals, in the short term.
What then happens is that the Consumer starts to infuse not just how we behave when we shop, but how we behave in every aspect of our lives. It becomes not just one role among many - consumers, parents, citizens, shareholders, and so on - but a kind of meta-role, a dominant idea that sits above those roles and affects how we fulfil each and every one of them.
Perhaps the most significant effect of the dominance of the Consumer has been on politics. Here, the idea of the Citizen has arguably become meaningless in the face of the Consumer. Policies are researched in market research focus groups, just another Consumer product. Parties target key audiences with specific messages, trying to win votes like Consumer market share. Voting, the act of consumption which used to be considered a minimum for participation, has become instead the maximum.
Most important of all, the way we vote has subtly but significantly shifted in line with the logic of the Consumer. The original principle behind the vote is that each individual has their own perspective on what is best for the society as a whole, and the right and duty to express that view as a contribution to the collective exploration of the good of the society. This idea has always competed with the more narrowly self-interested element of our nature. But the idea that we might vote for what is best for the society as a whole now seems naive, ridiculous even. We are now expected to vote not as Citizen participants in a society, but as narrowly self-interested Consumers of society.
And when we do, electing our representatives as Consumers, they represent us accordingly, and our national politicians attend the international stage with the same logic - seeking to get the best deal for the individual nation, measured primarily in material living standards of living, judged by narrowly defined individuals, in the short term. When we bring this idea of the Consumer to bear on big, collective challenges, we are doomed to fail before we have even started. This is not a logic with which we stand any chance of solving climate change or global poverty.
Back in 2010, I was working in advertising, and started to develop this thinking - which was fun, as you can probably imagine. I had a conversation with one of the partners at the agency I was working for, and he said, "Maybe you're right, but what can we do? Consumerism is human nature. It's evolution. Selfish is what we are."
But I don't think that is right. Self-interest, competition and the desire for status are of course part of human nature. But they're not the whole of human nature. Collaboration, affiliation, and empathy seem to be just as important to the miracle of evolution.
And I find reason to be hopeful in the age of the internet that we are really only just entering.
Since the late 1950s, the age of television, a one-to-many medium has shaped how we interact as a society. We had a certain freedom - the freedom to choose between what's offered. But in the age of the many-to-many internet - potentially - we can have a bigger freedom. We can shape the choices, not just make the choice.
Of course there is another world of the internet, that of the most extensive and most intelligent marketplace, where the choices of the Consumer age proliferate beyond all possible belief and where we can always, always find something we want to consume.
And so today we have a real choice. We can understand that the Consumer is a powerful moral idea, a pervasive meta role, and not just an inert piece of language. And then we can do something about it. We can reclaim a different morality, a bigger sense of what it means to be human. We can become participants in shaping the context of our lives, working together and expecting more of one another as we do so.”+
+The above article which was written by Jon Alexander was first published on the BBC News Magazine on 29 October 2014
*State of the World (2010) Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability
**Consumerism, Nature, and the Human Spirit
10 Reasons to Escape Excessive Consumerism
‘Consumerism becomes excessive when it extends beyond what is needed. When we begin consuming more than is needed, boundaries are removed. Personal credit allows us to make purchases beyond our income-level. Advertisements subtly reshape our desires around material possessions. And the consumption culture that surrounds us begins to make excessive consumption appear natural and normal.
Excessive consumption leads to bigger houses, faster cars, trendier clothes, fancier technology, and overfilled drawers. It promises happiness, but never delivers. Instead, it results in a desire for more… a desire which is promoted by the world around us. And it slowly begins robbing us of life. It redirects our God-given passions to things that can never fulfill. It consumes our limited resources.
And it is time that we escape the vicious cycle.
Consider this list of ten practical benefits of escaping excessive consumerism in your life:
1) Less debt. The average American owns 3.5 credit cards and $15,799 in credit card debt… totaling consumer debt of $2.43 trillion in the USA alone. This debt causes stress in our lives and forces us to work jobs that we don’t enjoy. We have sought life in department stores and gambled our future on the empty promises of their advertisements. We have lost.
2) Less life caring for possessions. The never-ending need to care for the things we own is draining our time and energy. Whether we are maintaining property, fixing vehicles, replacing goods, or cleaning things made of plastic, metal, or glass, our life is being emotionally and physically drained by the care of things that we don’t need—and in most cases, don’t enjoy either. We are far better off owning less.
3) Less desire to upscale lifestyle norms. The television and the Internet have brought lifestyle envy into our lives at a level never before experienced in human history. Prior to the advent of the digital age, we were left envying the Jones’ family living next to us—but at least we had a few things in common (such as living in the same neighborhood). But today’s media age has caused us to envy (and expect) lifestyle norms well beyond our incomes by promoting the lifestyles of the rich and famous as superior and enviable. Only an intentional rejection of excessive consumerism can quietly silence the desire to constantly upscale lifestyle norms.
4) Less environmental impact. Our earth produces enough resources to meet all of our needs, but it does not produce enough resources to meet all of our wants. And whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, it is tough to argue with the fact that consuming more resources than the earth can replenish is not a healthy trend—especially when it is completely unnecessary.
5) Less need to keep up with evolving trends. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but religiously follows the new.” Recently, I have been struck by the wisdom and practical applicability of that thought whether relating to fashion, decoration, or design. A culture built on consumption must produce an ever-changing target to keep its participants spending money. And our culture has nearly perfected that practice. As a result, nearly every year, a new line of fashion is released as the newest trend. And the only way to keep up is to purchase the latest fashions and trends when they are released… or remove yourself from the pursuit altogether.
6) Less pressure to impress with material possessions. Social scientist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, this term was used to describe the behavior of a limited social class. And although the behavior has been around since the beginning of time, today’s credit has allowed it to permeate nearly every social class in today’s society. As a result, no human being (in consumption cultures) is exempt from its temptation.
7) More generosity. Rejecting excessive consumerism always frees up energy, time, and finances. Those resources can then be brought back into alignment with our deepest heart values. When we begin rejecting the temptation to spend all of our limited resources on ourselves, our hearts are opened to the joy and fulfillment found in giving our personal resources to others. Generosity finds space in our life (and in our checkbooks) to emerge.
8) More contentment. Many people believe if they find (or achieve) contentment in their lives, their desire for excessive consumption will wane. But we have found the opposite to be true. We have found that the intentional rejection of excessive consumption opens the door for contentment to take root in our lives. We began pursuing minimalism as a means to realign our life around our greatest passions, not as a means to find contentment. But somehow, minimalism resulted in a far-greater contentment with life than we ever enjoyed prior.
9) Greater ability to see through empty claims. Fulfillment is not on sale at your local department store—neither is happiness. It never has been. And never will be. We all know this to be true. We all know that more things won’t make us happier. It’s just that we’ve bought into the subtle message of millions upon millions of advertisements that have told us otherwise. Intentionally stepping back for an extended period of time helps us get a broader view of their empty claims.
10) Greater realization that this world is not just material. True life is found in the invisible things of life: love, hope, and faith. Again, we all know there are things in this world that are far more important than what we own. But if one were to research our actions, intentions, and receipts, would they reach the same conclusion? Or have we been too busy seeking happiness in all the wrong places?
Escaping excessive consumption is not an easy battle. If it were, it would be done more often… myself included. But it is a battle worth fighting because it robs us of life far more than we realize.’++
++The above excerpts are taken from the original article below: