A constant struggle in my own life has been how to balance material desire and nonmaterial happiness. I am finally realizing that when considering my future academic or career goals, I need to take more into account than financial security. I need to do something that fulfills me emotionally and gives me a sense of purpose because I no longer see a point in having material wealth if I’m going to be unhappy. I don’t think I’m alone in this line of thinking. I think many people are starting to ask questions and discern the problems within the entire system of consumption rooted within our society.
Does material wealth really make us happier as individuals? Is being able to afford that luxury car worth losing time with our families over? When did we become so hyper-individualistic that we stopped valuing community and only look to neighbors to compete? When did consumerism start taking precedence over personal health? These are some of the questions that critics of our consumer-based economy are starting to focus on and provide answers to.
We are in an era where our consumption practically defines us. Supposedly one can tell a lot about a person by what kind of car they drive, what brands they wear, and how big their TV is. However, as of late, people are beginning to question the role of consumption in their lives and are starting to discern the effects of consumerism. They are realizing that consumption negatively affects themselves (the consumer), our society, and the environment. This discernment process is helping to recognize and heal the competitive consumerism and “affluenza” that has become so pervasive in our modern society.
Consumerism can affect the consumer in a variety of ways. It affects interpersonal relationships, overall happiness, and time for personal growth and leisure. Because people want to buy more, they have to work longer hours in order to afford the things that they want to purchase. “Study after study shows that Americans spend less time with friends and family, either working longer hours, or hunched over their computers at night” (Mckibben 10). This causes stress on the consumer and their family. Ironically, they spend less time at home just so they can purchase items to make their family “happier” and more comfortable. People are starting to realize that the trade-off between working more and seeing their families less is not worth the material advantage.
The anti-consumption discernment process recognizes that as people buy more, they are not necessarily getting happier. In fact, “researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita” (Mckibben and past that it is indeterminable. In actuality, the constant need to buy more only adds to an overall sense of dissatisfaction rather than a feeling a fulfillment. Empty, impulse purchases are entertaining until you’ve unpacked them and used them for an hour. “In one place or another, rates of alcoholism, suicide, and depression have gone up dramatically, even as we keep accumulating more stuff” (Mckibben 8). Many see the modern emphasis on individual consumption and materialism rather than family and community as particularly isolating. They are acknowledging that material possessions are no substitute for family time, companionship, and leisure. It has become the goal of many to “challenge the materialism and selfishness…that undermine loving relationships and family life” (Lerner 1) and to “stop asking ‘What did you buy?’ and to start asking ‘Is your life good?’” (Mckibben 7). Only through accomplishing these goals can we really transform ourselves and learn to live a life rich in family, friends, and personal growth.
New critics have similar ways of dealing with the social costs felt as a result of consumerism. They emphasize a recognition that our modern society has turned into a society of what Buddhists call, “tanha,” or blind craving (Payutto 30). “The religion of the dollar, of materialism and selfishness” (Lerner 3) should no longer reign in the public sphere. There has been a lack of focus on community because everyone is so busy trying to “make something of themselves” that they have forgotten that there are people struggling around them. The discernment process recognizes this discrepancy and asks, “Is it that we are too tired at the end of the day care? Or is it that we are so rich that we think we don’t need to invest in the common good, preferring private pleasures?” (Robin 79). Consumerism has bred a culture of selfishness, with everyone trying to advance themselves materially at the expense of others.
However, even amongst those who are struggling, consumerism is still rampant. Media hype and social pressure have made materialism and fashion a necessity to the even the poorest. The common view is that even if you are poor, you shouldn’t look like it. You should be up on all the latest trends and buying that new pair of shoes can take precedence over basic necessities. This attitude has caused and continues to cause numerous problems within our society, but luckily, many people are starting to realize these problems and are trying to correct them.
Personal and social costs due to our consumption-based economy can be seen in numerous situations. More quantitative, though, is the effect of consumerism on the environment. Within the anti-consumption discernment process, people recognize that overconsumption and “unbridled expansion [will] eventually deplete our resource base” (Mckibben 2) and what hurts the environment will in the end, hurt us. Outrageous consumption of non-resuable goods contributes to this as well as the accumulation of massive amounts of “stuff”. Natural resources are used to make homes larger in order to accommodate all this stuff. Owners of storage facilities are prospering as people’s large houses can’t even hold everything they have accumulated.
However, the accumulation of material wealth has still not filled the void. “Our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, even as it’s failed to make us happier” (Mckibben 9). What is all this consumption for then? If the goal of consumption is to find satisfaction through the purchasing of items, and this is clearly not working long-term, then it seems there would be no point in such rampant consuming. Luckily, people are beginning to recognize that “the flow of money through their lives and through the economy is related to both ecological health and social equity” and that “mindfulness with money is one of the most powerful ways to express care for the earth” (Robin 84). Curbing consumption is no easy task, but many realize that if our current practices persist, the effects on the environment will be irreversible and will ultimately worsen our quality of life.
We need to mobilize collectively in opposition to overconsumption and realize the “right way” to consume. The right way of consuming does not have monstrous negative effects on consumers, society, or the environment. The idea that “production, consumption, and other economic activities are not ends in themselves” (Payutto 35) is becoming more widespread. People are understanding that these activities are “means, and the end to which they must lead is the development of well-being within the individual, within society and within the environment” (Payutto 35). Consumption must have a goal and a purpose beyond ephemeral satisfaction and entertainment. The discernment process is bringing people to reject the idea that what we own and how much our possessions cost define our worth as people. It is an exciting time to live in where people are starting to discover these ideas and reject a life based on consumption. They are realizing that it is not so un-American to live a life rich in family, community, and nature, yet materially deprived.
Vicki Robin, “What’s Money Got To Do With It?” in Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor, eds., Sustainable Planet.
P.A. Payutto, Buddist Economics: A Middle Way for the Marketplace, Ch.2, and Ch.3, pp. 39-46
Bill Mckibben, “Reversal of Fortune,” Mother Jones, 2007
Rabbi Michael Lerner, “Spiritual Covenant with America,” excerpted; full statement on http://www.spiritualprogressives.org/
RMoody October 29, 2007 at 4:02 pm