Consumerism - Big Ideas
Many big ideas have struggled, over the centuries, to dominate the planet, but only one has achieved total supremacy. It's compulsive attractions rob it's followers of reason and good sense. It has created unsustainable inequalities and threatens to tear apart the very fabric of our society. More powerful than any cause or even religion, it has reached into every corner of the globe; it is consumerism.
My name is Jonathon Porritt and, for the last three decades, I've been banging on about the environment and social justice. I first got involved in the 70s, with Friends of The Earth and the Green Party and since then I've been a campaigner, a political candidate, I've taken direct action, I've been an advisor to government, I've written books, I've lectures, I've hectored, you name it I've done it.
For the last ten years, I've been working with Forum for the Future to promote the solutions to today's social and environmental problems and I've come to realise it's consumerism that is, absolutely, at the heart of this. But, what is consumerism? Isn't it just a posh word to describe shopping? We're all consumers, after all, we all go shopping and society obviously couldn't function without some level of consumption.
I'm not talking about consumption here, I'm talking about the idea that we should all, actively, be consuming more and more every year and that this is the best measure of economic progress. Consumerism puts consumption at the very heart of the modern economy and everything is done to persuade us to go and consume more; advertising hoardings, billboards, newspapers, magazines and TV. We are bombar5ded day in and day out by these advertising messages. You may think they're all selling you something different, different products, different brands, but at the same time they're selling you one big idea; that the more we consume, the better our lives will be.
Almost unnoticed, consumerism has become our principal pastime, our zeitgeist, our ideology, all rolled into one. It's a very seductive idea, but it's also a lethal idea. We've become a generation of compulsive shopaholics. Scale up all of these individual acts of consumption multiplied by several billion people and stand back and watch the disaster unfold.
The trouble is, as consumers, we don't always know the real cost of what we're buying. My daughters have a passion for Braeburn apples, They're juicy, they're crunchy, but they're air-freighted in from New Zealand. So who knows how much fuel has been spent to get them into my home town. What we really ought to be doing, is buying far more of the food we need from local farmer's markets. That way the producer's linked to the consumer, environmental impact is reduced and we really do begin to understand the true cost of eating the way we eat today.
Our love of shopping, quite literally, threatens the end of the world as we know it today. As our population grows and we go on consuming more and more, the eco-systems on which we depend are now close to collapse. It's all down to the power of modern consumerism. So how did we fall into this trap?
For much of human history, the biggest problem was scarcity, experienced as poverty, hunger and deprivation. So this urge to acquire, to go beyond meeting one's basic needs, started as a survival instinct. It's part of our essential human nature.
As civilisation advanced, life got easier, material goods became more available, but they were never what we consider plentiful, except for a tiny majority. For thousands of years, there were only a comparatively few conspicuous consumers; the rich and the powerful. For them, the trappings of luxury always had a secondary purpose. They were designed to distinguish the rulers from the ruled. To remind the powerless where the power really lay. Society was so rigidly divided that the poor accepted their lot without question and that was largely due to one very good reason; the fear of God. After all, what really mattered was life after death, not a better life here on Earth.
During the 17th century, new trade routes opened up and a new middle-class of traders and entrepreneurs emerged to exploit them. They revelled in their new found wealth. It now became respectable to consume and flaunt one's consumption. In 1776, one man would capture the spirit of self-interested individualism. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that the pursuit of luxury worked as an economic driver that would make everybody richer. The best way to encourage economic growth is to unleash individuals to pursue their own selfish economic interests. Adam Smith provided the model for an economic system that would take over the world; capitalism was born and consumerism would be at the heart of it.