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Consumerism - Big Ideas

Jonathon Porritt

Materialism

Jonathon Porritt
Jonathon Porritt

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.

Department Store
Shopping

During the 19th century, scarcity was gradually overcome. Personal wealth and the trade it promoted drove an unparalleled economic boom that transformed the West. Giant factories were built to supply the goods that society now demanded. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution there was a gradual shift towards mass consumerism.

It wasn't just the production of goods that was revolutionised, the process of buying was, itself, transformed. After the first department store opened, in 1852, shopping became a respectable leisure activity. Department stores offered a dream world of material luxury, promoting shopping as and experience to savour and stores became the cathedrals for a new faith on the march.

There was one country where shopping and consumerism would become a way of life. By the early 20th century, Americans had the highest personal wealth of any country in the world, creating huge new markets. By the 1920s, the ordinary man and woman in America had come to believe that affluence was their birthright and to have access to consumer wealth became an integral part of The American Dream.

It was around this time that consumerism took a very different turn. Stimulating and manipulating people's desires, spinning dreams and subtly creating envy. As the advertising industry really took off, temptation and seduction became at least as important as providing information. Big business and it's advertising agencies turned to the science of psychology. Advertisers started to work out how to play on our subconscious. It wasn't what the product did that mattered, it was the kind of person it promised to make you feel.

Consumerism didn't always go unopposed. Most famously, in the 1960s, the hippy movement rebelled against rampant capitalism. It transformed it's disgust with materialism, not just into a philosophy, but into a new way of living. It was a movement that had enormous appeal.

Government Heads
Thatcher and Reagan

Then, America and the West took a fateful step. A new breed of politician dismissed environmental warnings and ushered in an age of even more rampant materialism. Hippies were now replaced by Yuppies and a new philosophy ruled; Greed Is Good. Throughout the 80s we were all encouraged to measure our success by how much we earned and how much we bought. Today's successors to Thatcher and Reagan have done little to set aside the toxic legacy of such triumphalist individualism.

Such is the momentum of consumerism that nothing has been able to slow it's relentless march!

CREDITS: All of the above information was taken from the UK's Channel Five series "Big Ideas"

Further Reading:

amazon.com amazon.co.uk The Conquest of Cool: The Rise of Hip Consumerism - Thomas Frank
amazon.com amazon.co.uk The Romantic: Spirit of Modern Consumerism - Zygmunt Bauman
amazon.com amazon.co.uk Serious Shopping: Psycotherapy and Consumerism - Adrienne Baker