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The reasons for consumerism

roots of consumerism

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate”

Retail analyst Victor Lebow, 1955.

What is honoured in a country will be cultivated there:

  • Rome honoured power and it got it.
  • Athens honoured wisdom and it got philosophers.
  • Florence honoured beauty and it created the renaissance.
  • Modernity honoured hyper-consumerism and we got climate change.

Progress requires not only accelerators but also rear-view mirrors. Those who lack a keen awareness of history and tradition are destined to remain forever children in their understanding.

As the author of this article, I am no activist – far from it. I am just trying to express an objective opinion about what I see wrong in the state of the business world today, and try to suggest solutions, knowing well in advance how belated I am and my own limitations. I believe that with a little more vision and a lot more grit and guts, earning good money and seeing the bigger picture are not mutually exclusive.

ROOTS OF HYPER-CONSUMERISM

I personally think that hyper-consumerism is a celebration of treasured possessions from far-flung locales but without respect for the materials. And respect is in turn based on amazement and appreciation.

For a few years now, I have been wondering what drives hyper-consumerism everywhere around the world and in industrial economies in particular. Persistence led me to identify three root causes: hegemony, individualism, and gratification

1. Hegemony

How a nation accumulates wealth matters more than how much it accumulates. Nations poor in natural resources but who capitalized on other countries’ misfortunes and plagiarized knowledge and technologies (from weary and ancient civilizations) started to take risks, innovate and invest domestically and abroad until they gained the upper hand politically, economically and culturally. Two dozens of nations gained access to enormous natural resources and raw materials cheaply, easily and comfortably, which ended up fuelling a blind consumption. Given access, nations with little to no resources now wanted everything – I coin the term of Paradox of Scarcity (as opposed to the Paradox of Plenty).

Fed by a steady stream of materials and resources that originated mostly in other regions of the world, resource-impoverished nations weren’t scrupulous about excessive exploitation and consumption as long as they led lives of convenience, well-being and comfort and politics built exclusively around securing them.

It must be noted that consumerism is a global plight plaguing populations around the world.

2. Individualism

Daring to resist powerful governmental controls, economic entrepreneurs and their academic counterparts began to spread a philosophy of individualism and rational self-interest that glorified the virtues of an idealized capitalist system supposedly based upon the providential workings of the free market and its invisible hand.

Some business people advocate maintaining a delicate balance between human wants and ecological needs; they emphasize the interdependence of all living things, and people and communities. Others, put the human being at the centre of the universe while the rest consider nature as a purely materialistic resource to be abused and used instrumentally to fulfil human desires without paying any attention to consequences.

As of the middle of the twentieth century, Big Business + Big Tech started imposing uniform standards that eclipsed human creativity, dehumanized social relations, and depoliticized social realities. An ethos of infantilization and flattening of human thinking increasingly turned adults into children through dumbed down advertising, addictive social media and consumer goods while also targeting children as consumers. Thus global consumerism has been exponentially becoming soulless and unethical in its pursuit of profit.

With the advent of the Internet, the more time we spend immersed in digital environments, the shallower our cognitive capabilities become due to the fact that we cease exercising control over our attention. The Internet is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter thoughts, weaken memories and increase tension and anxiety.

The way I see it, humanity’s trajectory is going from Individualism to “Cellularism” to Social Disintegration.

3. Gratification

Some cultures equate creativity with novelty. For them to consider something, anything, creative it must represent a radical break from tradition, regardless of the utility of the new idea or invention.

In that business and cultural environment, marketers are skilled at Marketing. They make even the most minor and inconsequential tweaks appear “revolutionary”. Corporations go for the quick jolt and its rapid-fire flashes of insight. We accord little to no consideration to short, medium and long-terms and consequences of our choices to consume.

But innovation is not defined by sudden and disruptive leaps only but by rather gradual and steady progress. Innovation is evolutionary – for the vast majority of the time.

Southern and Eastern cultures care more about the process; they care about the journey as much as the destination. For example, the Chinese are not concerned with the novelty of an invention or idea as much as they are concerned with its utility. They view every potential innovation within a context of tradition. If it represented a natural extension of that tradition, it is adopted. If not, it is dropped. The South/East imbibes innovation more slowly and therefore takes the long view.

Disruption must be viewed as an outcome, a side effect of innovation instead of being viewed as an end in itself. Usually, people don’t disrupt for the satisfaction of it but because they have a clear purpose and direction in mind. There is no such thing as innovation in the abstract. To describe oneself as innovator or disrupter is as meaningless as describing self as an athlete or thinker. Really? What sports does one play? What does he or she think about?

ENDING NOTES

  • In life, there is nothing to invent, only truths to (re)discover and combine in imaginative ways. We can bring existing materials into new relationships. Nothing is new but the arranging. The creative act is not of invention but of discovery: Electricity existed in nature, Benjamin Franklin (and Edison) discovered it. Airwaves permeated the air way before Marconi discovered it. Sonar guidance existed in the animal kingdom, Reginald Fessenden only discovered it. The idea of creating a wingsuit was inspired by reptiles and lizards in the rainforest; Jari Kuosma only discovered it. Birds flew for eons before the Wright Brothers discovered flight.
  • The greatest myth of innovation is this one: We cannot stop progress. In fact, we do stop progress all the time. If we didn’t, we would be overwhelmed by a flood of novel technologies – some useful, most not.
  • Innovation is about timing, not quantity. And consumerism should be about making sensible choices and thinking about the common good – for our own gain, well-being and, survival, instead of just gratifying the individual self.

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