A great friend of mine yesterday had the courtesy of sharing some very interesting thoughts about marketing, consumerism and sustainability. I found that topic very compelling and decided to share this with you as well and to invite you to post your comments in order to expand the discussion.
It occurs to me that I love to discuss or deeply think about a certain concept. Since a couple of days and especially because of my job-focus to marketing which is boosting us to consume even more, I was realizing that actually the main reason for pollution, deforestation, animal extinction, land robberies, etc. etc. is easily brought back to the fact that we consume too much in certain parts of the world. We are buying a lot of stuff we don’t need and for a part we do that because marketers all over the world spend billions of dollars to get into our psychology and to convince us this is necessary.
I started reading a bit about consumerism on the web but the most I could find was just mentioning the negative effects of it, which we do already know. However, that was not very satisfying. I hoped to find a better insight in how the world would be if we did actually consume less all together. No, it is not my intention to write a cheesy protest letter here.
Of course the first ideas that come into our head of consuming less are the fact that many companies would go bankrupt, many people would lose their jobs, but also natural resources would be less under permanent stress and so would nature. We can easily think in the direction of a permanent situation like in Greece, but maybe that is a trap? What if all these horrible consequences would be temporary during an intermediate phase? Today status quo –> period with most likely a lot of chaos –> New status quo?
I know this sounds rather simplistic, but I’ll make even a little more simplistic. Let’s go back to the prehistory where cavemen where ruling the world in harmony with nature. Then surviving was the most important goal. That was during several periods of the year not at all a fulltime job. I remember that one of my teachers in history mentioned an average ‘work week’ of 13 hours for Mr. Caveman. Then suddenly somebody starts becoming good at making hammers for example, he starts selling them and decides to work more than 13 hours a week. He starts advertising his hammers by making every unit unique and tailor-made for the client. Everyone who convinces a friend to buy a hammer gets a hammer for free. So the customers start having more than 1 hammer (which might be nice if you live in an extremely boring prehistory). Then the hammer maker becomes wealthier and can probably buy more elephant meat and women (which also might give a satisfying feeling to the hammer maker).
So we are since then in an ever increasing situation of working more and more to become richer and richer. And to sell the stuff we make, we start to advertise because we want to sell the maximum possible (please think about this while reading further)and we need people to work for us because we sell so much and even those working for us should be convinced to buy our products. That is why salaries have to be balanced.
But where is the exact calculation of value for one unit of time? As I work more and more lately, I realize that the element time is also a very luxurious product. So basically I am working to trade one luxurious good for another. Of course, the less I have time, the more it will be valued by me. I know that but still, I trade time for money (which is the basic concept of working anyway), and the thing is that perhaps this is unnecessary, because we use it to buy many things we don’t need.
Then you can say that I can always start my own closed commune in which we distance ourselves from ‘the system’. I know how hippie this all might sound and yes, I can do that and it wouldn’t change the world at all. But what if everyone acted like this all of a sudden? What if tonight we all have collective amnesia and tomorrow we don’t know anymore about the good taste of Coca-Cola, the convenience of a smart phone or the good looks of Ambiorix shoes? In other words: if you take marketing away, you take away at least a considerable part of the heavy overconsumption without making us feel too sad about it.
Now my main question is: Is it possible in an ever increasing economy and in a system that fears ideas like recession to go in the other direction? Don’t understand me wrong. I’m besides being tired, currently having quiet some fun in my job, but I do wonder if we as humans are capable to always add more? Should the caveman sell so many hammers that he can buy much more elephant meat than he can possibly eat? I believe that when you start marketing your products, you are creating an artificial situation in which buying behaviour is not reflecting demand anymore but in which supply is forced upon us. So we deliberately make too much stuff for which to be able to buy them we have to work harder than we feel good about sometimes, while absorbing natural resources in an unsustainable tempo, so basically screwing ourselves at a certain point in time. Why do we do it? To have the feeling of positive evolution and against boredom like Mr. Caveman? Can the economy be a healthy system without having the need to always increase and how would that look like? Is it possible in a non-heavily-state controlled way? I really don’t want to point in the direction of communism here, because I don’t believe in it since it doesn’t support the human nature of motivation and reward for work.
3 thoughts on “Induction to consumption”
It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would succeed to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel by magazines and other media outlets that if you got energy, a few bright ideas, a garage, you too can start a major thing. And the consequences of this is that there’s a real correlation between the society that tells people that they can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem.
There’s another reason why we might be feeling more anxious about our careers, about our status in the World today than ever before and it’s again linked to something “nice”. And that nice thing is called meritocracy. Now everybody, all politicians on left and right agree that meritocracy is a great thing and we should all be trying to make our societies really-really meritocratic. A meritocratic society is one in which if you got talent, energy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society in where those who merit to get to the top, you’ll also by implication and in a far more nasty way believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom, also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life accidental but merited and deserved. That makes failure seem much more crushing.
In the Middle Ages in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an unfortunate. Literally someone who has not been blessed by fortune. Nowadays, if you meet someone at the bottom of society they may be unkindly described as a “loser”. There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the Gods, it’s us. We’re on the driving seat – that’s accelerating, if you’re doing well and very crushing, if you’re not. It leads in a worse cases in the analysis of socioligists like Emile Durkheim, it leads to increased rate of suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than any other part of the World. And some of the reason for that is that people takes what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success and they also own their failure.” – Alain de Botton
I think this article of Alain de Botton perfectly ties to the post of your friend. We obliviously bestow indeed a lot of products we don’t need, but even you my friend, are consuming way more than the average person, simply because you can (I happen to know the original author of the blogpost). This makes the 21th century breakdown even worse, because criticizing consumerism and marketing without putting the theory into practice, is even worse than not talking about it. The Dutch King Wilem-Alexander declared last week the bankruptcy of the welfare state and opinion makers warn us. “We must feel afraid, the future is not bright, the West is finished”. In the meantime, those intellectuals write beautiful articles on this subject and make ominous future predictions, but however continue to have their lunch in nice restaurants and enjoy receptions at formidable ballroom halls. I’m sorry, but next than when you write such a piece, think twice about your way of life, that’s all I have to comment on that.
My very dear Fred,
It was nice reading your post, but please allow me to disagree with your opinion. First of all I guess the world would be a very dangerous place if people were only allowed to form opinions on topics that are in line with their profile. As you suggest, I’d better first change my own spending behaviour, before asking too much questions about it. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t I first question what I am doing, to then eventually conclude that I want to change my behaviour? And shouldn’t I inquire about the consequences of changing my behaviour?
Second of all, I also mentioned the fact that I didn’t want to change anything just on my own because it wouldn’t change a thing to the world. We all know that we are consuming too much and there is way too much waste, but I am more interested in how everything would look like if we all (read: everybody and not just 20% of the population) changed our habits. This is more of a holistic question. The answer might be enticingly simple: the world would be a better place, you might think. But what about all those companies that will have lower profits because of lower consumption? They will lay off a lot of people to survive and what about all those jobless people? Who will pay for them?
Currently the world economy is depending on growth and growth depends a lot on the continuous and growing overconsumption everywhere.
Therefore my main question: how dangerous is it to have a non-growing economy (read: one that is not overconsuming and only focusing on the essence). Would that bring us into a continuing downward spiral or only into a transition phase? How would a non-growing and permanently flat economy feel like in everyday life and how about companies that want (or need) to grow? Would people still be motivated for entrepreneurship and be willing to take risks to invest? Can we get rid of this whole concept of growing-investing-getting bigger and better? Should we? And if so, is it realizable? There have been large-scale experiments with unrealizable ideologies in the past. What are the realistic consequences that we might expect?
Before I decide to consume less, I want to make sure that I am not contributing to the next economic recession. I don’t want you to loose your job 😉