The five worst things about consumerism
Consumer society is being blamed for all sorts of ills. Who knew shopping could be so bad?
In the run-up to spiked’s next Parliamentary Debate, Celebrating Consumer Choice: Standing Up for Shopping in the 21st Century, we thought it was an opportune moment to survey all the terrible things that greens, health wonks and pop psychologists have blamed on consumerism.
Having access to an ever-expanding range of consumer products, foods, services and so on is apparently making our children into heartless little shits, according to London-based psychotherapist Graham Music. In an interview in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Music is alarmed at ‘the rise of callous, selfish behaviour’. Music claims: ‘Research shows that people who care more about status symbols, what they look like or being famous, have more mental-health problems, and if you are exposed to those values, you are more likely to become unhappy. People who place greater value on being with the people they care about and doing things they believe in, tend to be healthier, both physically and mentally. But consumerism is addictive… Once self-interest wins, it’s hard to get the other side back.’ Because, of course, people in the past were so much nicer in conditions of scarcity. Nothing bad ever happened then…
There are two reasons why consumerism can play a role in obesity, apparently. According to one finance blogger, ‘consumerism can result in extra work hours, which results in eating out more, bringing home fast food, or making those quick meals that are in your freezer’. Moreover, ‘stress plays a huge factor in obesity; it can slow down your metabolism or make you want to overeat. Both of these factors probably have played a huge role in the fact that obesity has become a sort of epidemic in our country.’ Or it could be that after a long working day, fast food and convenience meals are a great relief from having to shop for ingredients and cook a meal from scratch – and that obesity is a more complex issue than eating ready meals.
3) Climate change
According to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World Report 2010, our desire for more stuff is screwing up the planet: ‘Preventing the collapse of human civilisation requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism… and establish in its place a new cultural framework centred on sustainability.’ The report adds: ‘From Earth’s perspective, the American or even the European way of life is simply not viable.’ From Earth’s perspective? You may have thought the Earth was a consciousness-free rock whizzing through space, but apparently it has ‘a perspective’. But what about the perspective of humanity, and humans forced to live in poverty, deprived of modern material comforts? That doesn’t seem to matter to the Worldwatch Institute.
2) Crime and rioting
According to author and campaigner Neal Lawson, ‘if you want the causes of crime then look no further than the impulse of the poor to belong and be normal. So strong is this urge that the failed consumer will lie, cheat and steal to “earn” the trappings of success. In the world of the “me generation”, people become calculating rather than law-abiding in their overwhelming desire to be normal. This is crime driven by the rampant egoism of turbo-consumerism, where enough is never enough.’ This was particularly brought home, apparently, by the behaviour of rioters in England in 2011. According to a review into the causes of the riot commissioned by the UK government, ‘a desire to “have what we want when we want” and “expecting something for nothing” drove the looters on to the streets’. The authors claimed that consumerism and peer status through owning top brands had become a ‘new religion’. Why bother studying the complex sociology of crime when such banal anti-consumerism can explain it all?
With apparently endless tomes being written about ‘affluenza’ and our need to admit that we now have ‘enough’, the claim that having too much stuff makes us miserable is now commonplace. As leftie website Alternet argues: ‘It would be a lot easier to address the increasing rate of depression among Americans if we weren’t so afraid to admit that our consumer society makes us unhappy.’
Perhaps not as unhappy, though, as the young woman George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is 25 and looks 40, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.’
One doubts that those who so despise our consumer society would be happy to swap places with that young woman or anyone else deprived of the comparative luxury of the modern world.
Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.