Off the back of the excellent document compiled by the Post Carbon Institute, ‘Renewable Energy After COP21, ‘Nine issues for climate leaders to think about on the journey home,‘ it seems pertinent to touch on one of the key areas Richard Heinberg Mentions in the report. One of the key stumbling blocks of any climate deal and efforts to mitigate significant climate impacts rests upon our ability to address rampant consumerism, which Richard articulates is not a solution. He is absolutely spot on, yet no one in the mainstream is really talking about this as an effort to mitigate. It seems that many of our problems are not so much technological ones, more behavioural and psychological changes which need to occur.
Many of our biases are rooted in a growth-based paradigm. This paradigm benefits humanity and disregards the externalities of our behaviour. Our unwavering belief in technological mastery has set us up for failure. Our overly optimistic bias that technology can cure all is misplaced. Technology has improved our lives, only at the expense of every natural system on which we depend. We have been closing our eyes, telling ourselves stories and distracting ourselves from addressing more serious issues. This distraction, prevalent throughout society, and propagated through the mainstream media, is hiding one of the biggest challenges and issues known to modern Western society.
As humans we make poor decisions based on biases, beliefs and misinformation. These decisions shape our world and will increasingly influence the future of the species and the planet. These behaviours may not always be expected, make sense, or are rational. They do explain why people suffer internally and make value judgments, decisions and choices not always in line with the reality that exists. Being aware of how conflicting beliefs influence and impact our lives can help us make better decisions and choices.
Envy Bias and Consumerism
“In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.” Thorsten Veblen
Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in 1899 to describe the behavioural characteristics of the new wealth which emerged after the Second Industrial Revolution. Marketers and the modern economy have woven ‘conspicuous consumption’ into almost every aspect of society. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was used to describe how individuals or families publicly manifested their social power and prestige through the possession of material goods or services purchased through wealth creation, be it real or perceived.
An Epidemic of Conspicuous consumption
The 20th century has seen an epidemic of ‘conspicuous consumption’ occur throughout Western countries and economies. This culture is now increasingly infiltrating Eastern society and cultures. With improvements in standards of living and greater discretionary spending capacity of the middle classes, consumption has turned from intrinsic practical goods and services to encompass products and services motivated by prestige, status and the display of social ranking.
While advertisers persuade us that consumption can buy happiness, the true nature of a material driven culture is far different to the glossy advertisements which show happy and content citizens. The relationship between our mental state and materialism is complex. Social comparison bias is having the feelings of aversion and competitiveness with others, be it physically or mentally. Envy is closely related to social comparison bias and also stems from the feeling of lacking something, be they possessions, achievements or certain personal qualities. Not only does the vicious circle of envy and jealously drive us mad with striving to make more money, it can also lead us into the debt trap. Financial journalist Shira Boss, author of Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt, suggests the social side of our finances — a need to keep up with friends, neighbours and colleagues through expensive dinners, designer clothing and, yes, new cars is a huge contributor to high debt and a negative savings rate in the United States.(1)
Record Levels of both Personal and Public Debt Plague Most Countries
With record levels of both personal and public debt plaguing most developed countries, it seems we may be approaching the peak of consumerism. At no other time in human history have we surrounded ourselves with so much stuff which adds so little to our levels of happiness and wellbeing. While our minds are filled with self-centred trivialities and distractions we have little time to contemplate the more important matters of the day such as equality, politics, economy and environmental matters. Private consumption expenditures for most Western nations range from 50% to 75% of GDP, making consumption the principle driver for most economic systems.7 This ethos has dominated most Western nations creating a self-perpetuating cycle of demand the mainstream media and corporations promote with gusto. The mantra of consumption, growth and consumerism dominate modern society.
The Excesses of Consumerism at the Heart of our Current Economic Problems
Renowned sociologist Amitai Etzioni, professor of International Relations at George Washington University, sees the excesses of consumerism at the roots of our current economic troubles. “The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens, is a culture in which people will do almost anything to acquire the means to consume-working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.” Etzioni argues consumerism needs to be eradicated or greatly reduced as the obsession with acquisition has become the organising principle of American life. He is clear to outline this is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. He draws on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to explain the difference. “As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs – safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, and education – it is not consumerism. When consumption turns to satisfying ego driven wants through the acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism – and consumerism becomes a social disease.”(2)
Consumerism and Materially Driven Lifestyles is Highly Correlated with the Depletion of Earth’s Resources
The combination of envy and social comparison promoted by marketers has led to an exponential increase in conspicuous consumption. This increase in consumerism and materially driven lifestyles is highly correlated with the depletion of earth’s resources occurring over the last fifty odd years. The exponential expansion and use of fossil fuels combined with industrial technologies has seen status symbols and consumption move beyond what the ancient pharaohs and kings could have dreamed. Luxury cars and mansions, modern gadgetry and frequent international travel have become embedded into the psyche of many Western cultures. Envy bias has driven consumerism and materialism in an effort to gain favour with the opposite sex, business colleagues or neighbours. Fuelled by clever corporate marketing which taps into our psyche fostering the illusion of happiness through consumption, we have sort spiritual and emotional satisfaction through possessions and consumption.
Empty and Discontent Despite our Material Consumption
This tendency towards seeking emotional satisfaction through conspicuous consumption can leave us feeling empty and discontent with our lives. Despite the accumulation of assets and wealth of extraordinary proportions we are still left wanting. This can lead to a vicious cycle of continual craving. We seek out short term gratification in an effort to appease our veracious appetite for material things. Hence, we make irrational decisions. These decisions not only impact us, but the planet, ecosystems and our very survival as a species. Our cognitive dissonance in hoping technology, the market, or some miracle will enable us to live lives similar to what we have been experiencing over the last five or six decades causes us some internal conflict. As Leon Festinger prominent social psychologist, best known for his cognitive dissonance and social comparison theories suggests, “the existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance”. (3)
It seems as a society we seek to change our beliefs or seek alternative strategies to re-confirm our existing beliefs, that is, everything will work itself out and we can keep on living lives which are highly disruptive to the planet, ecosystems and each other. Instead of accepting we need to change our behaviour radically as opposed to simply looking to technology to solve our wows we choose illusions and explanations which remain consistent with our original claims. Our human misjudgements and biases impact every aspect of our lives and influence what happens throughout society. It is the choices and decisions we make which really matter, as these define us as individuals, communities and nations. These decisions ultimately determine our future and that of future generations. It is through our choices and our ability to see through the fog which will allow us to make better, more informed decisions, for the benefit of all.
excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
(2) Amitai Etzioni, The Crisis of American Consumerism, Huffington Post, 9th April 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amitai-etzioni/the-crisis-of-american-co_b_1855390.html
(3) Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism, The MIT Press, http://ase.tufts.edu/gdae/CS/Personal%20Well-Being.pdf
Cover Image: Flickr