The high price of materialism

July 25, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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Descartes might have figured this out if he had access to monogrammed bath towels

A war on climate change is a war on materialism, plain and simple. The carbon pollution spewing out of our power plants and tail pipes is a natural byproduct of the monstrous engine of economic growth we have built, an engine that exists solely to satisfy the demand our materialism creates. Indeed this demand is so great that if everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need 4 whole Earths worth of stuff to satisfy it. Yet despite the absurdity in that statement, that’s exactly what’s happening as other nations race to emulate our lifestyle of ravenous consumerism. Therefore taming this beast is absolutely crucial in the fight against climate change.

And yet, it’s sometimes difficult to even see consumption as the problem, since in the moment buying things feels so good! It doesn’t help that everywhere we look there’s advertising, that siren song of consumption, reinforcing our baser instincts. We see these messages of Eat! Buy! Consume! on television, on websites, public bathrooms and even our children’s schools. It is baked in to the very fabric of our society, so much so that we hardly notice it any more. Beyond mere purchases, this drumbeat of materialism also influences the way we organize our lives. We make fundamental life decisions about where we live, where we work, what we do, and how we raise our children, all to maximize income so we can buy more stuff — because that’s what our culture teaches us to value.

The following video (5:37 long), for which this post is named, does a brilliant job of explaining all of this with visual flair:

To one degree or another, we’ve all internalized this narrative of “achieve a better life through buying things.” No one is immune, it’s our culture…as much a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe or the water we drink.

The irony is that this narrative is demonstrably false. This cultural story about happiness gets told to us every day, yet no matter how hard we try it always fails us. Research consistently shows that income raises happiness up to a point (about $75,000), but after that makes no appreciable difference, and can even go down. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are all more prevalent in the rich. So when you think about the happy life you’ll have and who you should emulate, don’t think of Johnny Wall Street, think of Mort the Mailman.

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We’ve all been caught in this cycle… (click to enlarge)

Scientific studies show that materialism:

But there’s good news for sufferers of acute materialist syndrome: it will soon end! Consumerism will disappear for the simple reason that it’s unsustainable — and things that are unsustainable eventually stop.

The bad news is: we’re not ready for it. Western civilization is built on this story of consumerism…as this story begins to break down, so too will the societal systems we’ve built on top of it. Rewriting our entire cultural narrative and devising new systems for economics, governance and energy would be a great challenge even in quiet times. And unfortunately the next few decades will be anything but quiet, filled with turmoil and suffering brought on by climate change.

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If you have the time, I highly recommend this video as well, which puts the whole thing in a more historical context. (click to watch)

Lest you begin to despair, there is one more bit of good news: we know how to fix this problem. Humans are a social species: it’s never been our goods that made us happy, but rather our relationships with other people. Again science has produced mountains of data proving this, but do you really need it? Deep inside we already know. After all, what is watching an idiotic sitcom compared to watching your children play? What’s better, the envy your new purse inspires or having people respect you for who you really are?

The end of consumerism will be the birth of a new age of human social connectedness, because at the end of the day that’s what really makes us happy.

Eric Krasnauskas

Eric spent most of his career as a game designer, but in 2012 he quit his job in digital media to pursue activism and beat the drums of war on climate change. He was drawn to the problem by its awesome size and complexity, and the realization that nothing short of warlike levels of money and and mobilization will be needed to fix it. But as every war first begins with a narrative about what threatens us and what we should do about it, Eric's website focuses on explaining that narrative and what climate change means for ordinary people.

Eric has a degree in Computer and Systems Engineering and lives outside of Boston, MA with his wife and two young children.

Tags: climate change, Consumerism, human relationships, materialism