If I’d have to point out what I think is wrong with the global society at large – next to all the things that are going great -, it would be the schism in our outlook on consuming.
On the one hand, there is a movement of stimulation of consumption. The economy, for example, relies on continuous growth. “Consumer confidence” is one of the key indicators of a country’s economic health. Buying a big house or a big car are indicators of success, ways of showing off to your community. People look up to the Biebers and the Madonnas of this world. The same is true for the Zuckerbergs and the Gates. Lords of Consumption. And don’t we all envy the people who post their jungle-selfies and wrestlings with baby tigers?
On the other hand, there is a deep realisation that consuming things that are not strictly necessary is, in fact, a weakness. That’s how we manage to look down on fat people, junkies, bankers and alcoholics. We praise and admire the skinny and well-trained today, and secretly respect the vegetarians and vegans. Moderating consumption is also what most religions teach, and let’s not underestimate their presence in society.
Now, many people depict these contrasts as divisions between people and communities. It’s the left-wing against the right, socialist versus liberalist, religious versus atheist. The truth is that we all carry this division inside us, and it confuses us every day.
Before we go a bit deeper into the disempowering impact this has on us in our daily lives, let’s take another closer look at the term ‘consumption’. My definition in the introduction has been very broad. How can you not distinguish between (over)eating, travelling, buying cars, using drugs and finding entertainment? They are all very different things. And yet they have three important things in common. One: they make us spend money, which has been our reward for work we didn’t like. We deserve to consume. Two: they are attempts to fill an inner emptiness, or several if you will, that will never be fully satisfied by them. Three in all of the cases, we blind ourselves to their considerable impact on the environment such as land use, CO2 and pollution.
So. Every day, we leave our house in search of whatever it is we like to consume. Do we look for ECO logos? Do we buy organic or conventional meat? Do we watch small art house films of big, polluting blockbusters? Will it be a small car, a Hummer or the public transport? Do we look for salvation by taking the plane to India, or will we walk to Santiago de Compostellas? These choices all are weights upon our shoulders. Responsibilities. And with responsibilities come insecurities. People avoid making the choice, and instead look outwards, looking for role models in the surroundings. Surroundings that are fundamentally divided.
What we lack, I believe, is a developed ethical outlook on what consumption means to us today. I don’t think it is right to condemn the behaviour of consuming. Consumption can be a warm fire to gather around. Sure, the warmth will not last, but for a while we are at peace. What would we live for if we cannot deceive ourselves into buying something useless from time to time? What fun would this society be? Then again, we should also have the guts to acknowledge publically that we all have far more than we need. Encouraging each other to consume more is counter productive to a sustainable society.
Our consumptive behaviours are not fundamentally good or bad, but it has gone out of control. Our outlook on consumption is too fragmented, too atomistic. We do not see it in its full clarity, we just look at tiny bits of it. Some of those bits justify abuse, others condemnation. Some make you belong to the lefties, others to the right-wing. Yet looking at consumption in its full form, including its almost sexual persuasion, and wondering how to deal with that aspect, is something we as a society are still too ashamed of. It’s because we fail to accept our own, personal weakness.
Let’s be honest: our way of life is far better than that of cavemen. But our addiction to it is not. And how do you change a society’s mind-set? Well… I don’t know. So I’ll just try writing on it.