Today we live in a historically unmatched world of affluence and material prosperity (in western societies at least). Until just a few centuries ago, hunger and the daily struggle for survival were the order for the day for most humans on this planet and even my grandparents nearly died of starvation during the Second World War.
Today this chapter seems over and huge supermarkets supply everyone with an offer of delicacies that ancient kings could only have dreamed of. We can afford to provide everyone with social security and excellent health care and take care of old and handicapped people. Most people can own a modern car, a huge flat screen TV and a decent house. Long-distance flights to other continents are nowadays even affordable for students and spending the holidays in a foreign country is as normal as it can be.
It seems that capitalism has enabled humankind to replace the struggle for survival with infinite possibilities to pursuit happiness and fulfillment.
However, a move of perspective from the greater overall picture of society down to the individual, lets something seem alarmingly right about the popular quote:
Instead of starvation there is widespread obesity. Instead of the daily struggle for survival there is emptiness and lack of purporse. People live in cities of millions and feel lonely. Young women feel ugly from the impossible comparison with anorexic top-models. Many fight with burn-out or depressions and numb themselves with drugs. And despite all the material affluence there is still an abundance of envy and greed.
What I attest, are the widespread symptoms of materialism that has taken hold of our societies.
With materialism I refer to a value system of basing ones value, status and self esteem on the amount of possessions and the general focus on outside stimulations. A desire for luxury goods, fancy cars, extravagant mansions and designer cloth. This does not relate to the consumption of basic goods and necessities but to the excessive hunger for more and more. Commodity fetishism as some like to say.
It seems that the economic growth and all the material wealth that was brought to us by capitalism came with a price. The imperative for growth.
In our current economic system, more and more products have to be consumed, because stagnation means crash. It is not demand that is creating its supply, but reversely supply that is creating its demand in excess of any reasonable necessities. It needs a constant hunger for more to fuel the engine of our economies. Economies without the concept of enough so that people can be motivated by money into either nerve-racking or mind-deading 40+ hour jobs.
But how is it that people choose to join this rat race of senseless consumption? That our society seems so prone to materialism?
Firstly, it seems natural that a new acquisition such as a new phone or car can feel quite satisfying. Just remember your excitement about your new smartphone. However, this feeling is usually not lasting very long as people adapt and get used to changes quickly, so after a month your new iPhone isn't that interesting any more. But now returning to your old Nokia would feel like a painful loss so going back isn't an option. Further, to get the same pleasure again, an even better phone is needed. So people end up camping in front of apple stores to get this exciting feeling again, like junkies that need an increasingly higher dosis of heroin for the next kick.
Additionally, often a good part of the pleasure that people derive from a new good only comes from the status upgrade in relation to other people around. It’s only nice to own the fancy new Porsche if no one else around has one. In this case a status upgrade for A means a status loss for B. A zero-sum game.
Secondly, the powerful forces of marketing are constantly trying to convince us of the need for new products and how each and every problems solution is more consumption.
You want social approval? - buy designer clothing or a yacht!
Lonely? – you need a plastic surgery and more AXE products!
Expressing your personality? - buy a Jaguar! (or a Hummer H2 respectively)
Additionally, once this gets going, there is a self-reinforcing system of social pressure, controling compliance and branding system-dropouts as weirdos and outsiders. Just look at the social pressure at schools and how many children already feel the need for designer clothing.
But if you take into account the immense amounts of money flows and all the creative people employed in marketing departments to find the psychologically most effective way to fuck with your brain – wouldn’t it be strange if they were not successful? Just on your way to work you are usually bombarded with hundreds of ads literally everywhere competing for your attention. The coca-cola company spends about $3 billion per year on advertisement, that’s nearly $0,50 per every single human being!
And from this constant stream of materialist-propaganda people begin to forget that the values proposed are not their own. Not that this does never happen to me. At some point I got aware of having a subconscious preference for Axe products after their huge advertisement campaign for no rational reason.
Now, all this wouldn’t necessarily be such a disaster if there were not two big problems.
Firstly, there is a difference between the happiness about some new acquisition and general life satisfaction.
I don’t question that buying new things and owning cool stuff brings a feeling of satisfaction. I question though, that this is the kind of happiness that makes up a good life. To explore this issue, it might be instructive to look at the regrets of old and dying people (here or here).
And looking at actual research is seems that materialism is indeed detrimental to a good and fulfilled life. It is more or less proven that a materialistic set of values has adverse effects on pretty much every single area of an individual’s life such as happiness, fulfillment, health or friendship. Further, it is opposed to healthy communities and the stronger the prevailing materialist values, the more criminality, the worse the government and the looser the ties between neighbors.
Admittedly, there is also research that for an individual a higher income usually increases happiness (mind the difference between having a high income and having a materialistic value system). However, there is other research that shows that if a whole nation moves up the income latter, overall happiness doesn't increase after a certain, relatively low level of living-standard is reached.
So if consumption and materialism do not define the path to true happiness - is it possible that all the fuzz about income, possessions and brands stops us from seeing those things that would really bring happiness into our lives?
Secondly, we only have this one planet with limited capacities and a materialistic lifestyle is just not sustainable. To maintain our world economy we need 1.5 planets and if everyone lived like the average American we would even need 4!
Mind Kants Categorical Imperative - you can't want everyone else to consume like that.
Already, the greed for more and more takes its toll on the planet and the multifold problems are obvious:
- overfishing & extinction of species
- destruction of the rainforest and desertification
- pollution & diseases
- inequality and social conflict
So what’s the alternative?
Embrace Minimalism! (see Part 2)