There are certain phrases which tend to increase the intellectual credibility of the speaker. “Consumer culture” is one such phrase. It is tossed around intellectual circles with little regard to the actual meaning or implication of the phrase. It is used as an accessory to dignify a speaker’s point; but rarely, if ever, is the phrase appropriately digested by the speaker or the audience.
Every culture throughout human history has had a defined purpose for its existence. This purpose brings meaning to the lives of its members. It is the force behind their presence and the ultimate goal of their existence. The life purpose of many indigenous cultures was spiritual fulfillment. Life’s energy, prana, god/s was the driving force behind existence, and it was this force that governed the culture.
In our modern culture, consumption has become our purpose for existence. Materialism has become our spirituality. We exist to consume. This is not a judgment, but a practical observation. Our daily lives are driven by the desire to consume and we find fulfillment in material items. How many choose the less desirable job which offers greater pay? What is the reason for doing this, when the more desirable job would supply more than enough to support one’s basic needs? With higher paying jobs we can afford designer jeans, status cars, and McMansions. We buy these things because they bring us joy. However, the joy generated by consumption is shallow and fleeting. It is inevitably followed by a sense of despair once the novelty of the item has worn off. This creates a void which feeds the desire for an even greater level of consumption.
Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but consumerism is the religion of modern America.
And like any drug, the illusion of happiness will eventually give way to discontent when the consumer is faced with the drug’s destructive reality. We’re at the tipping point right now. We’re beginning to experience the personal and environmental repercussions of our destructive habits. Poverty and crime continue to rise, our water and air is becoming increasingly polluted, and personal satisfaction is decreasing exponentially; but the question remains, what do we do about it? It’s easy to point fingers at the government or corporations, but unfortunately consumer culture can not be isolated to a single manipulative force. The reality is that we all are this culture. Our culture has emerged from a multitude of influences and each one of us actively contributes to maintaining it. The consumer works in unison with the producer to ensure the continuation of this culture. Conservative, liberals, and progressives alike speak of this “consumer culture” as if they are somehow removed from it. But we have all been born into this culture. The second we enter the world we become consumers. It is a part of us. The planet is being stripped of resources and we are working overtime to afford the new iPhone; but… the iPhone is really cool, and we have been conditioned to think that we need it. Education and sustainable living are important and commendable first steps in combating environmental destruction, but they do not change our culture’s purpose—which is to consume.
So the problem I am faced with is this:
The endless and excessive consumerism that defines our modern culture is destructive to both the planet and to human societies. It has lead to the creation of a culture that is founded on false joys and dissatisfaction. Programs do little more than create a façade of hope, because our destructive actions are only the manifestation of a problem that is rooted in our culture’s purpose for existence. How do we free ourselves of the confines of consumer culture while still existing in it? Is it even possible? It would require a complete rewiring. We would have to reset our hard-drives.
Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” – Philip Slater