By Merrin Alice Abraham
Edited by Liz Maria Kurkiakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever – increasing rate.”
– Victor Lebow, Journal of Retailing, 1955
It is as though we were born to buy. The burgeoning number of sales simply implies this fact. We are expected to help the economy by buying the available goods at whatever price they are priced. Huge plastic billboards advertising the latest fashions, paper flyers inserted into morning newspapers wooing people to check out the new sale next door, browsing pages cornered with ads proclaiming the all time low sale, etc. Most of us do run to these sales and we do buy unnecessarily. Yes, consumerism is on the high and if nothing is done to curb the ever increasing demand for superfluous products then our economy(s) maybe facing one of its biggest challenges ever: managing scarcity when it finally decides to come back home.
With the discovery of fossil fuels in the early 20th century, a temporary, cheap and abundant form of portable energy, production started blowing off the charts. Assembly line production brought in enough profit that the industries started churning out goods faster than you could say ‘hello’. More cars, more food on the shelf, varieties of the same product and of course brand loyalty. But after a while, there was too much everywhere, in other words, overproduction. As we can still remember, overproduction led to ‘The Great Depression’. Even after all that was over and dealt with, the trend of excess production didn’t stop. You can still see huge malls with so many goods that sometimes you may stop and wonder where all of it could come from. We are using up the world’s resources so fast that it won’t even last till the middle of this century.
There are two very basic problems concerned with consumerism.
- Consumerism, according to the critics, distorts human values.
There has always been a very visible and identifiable split in the society between those who work and those who exploit the ones who work; as societies develop, the latter come to constitute a ‘leisure class’ that engages in ‘conspicuous consumption’. This is exactly what Thorstein Veblen wrote in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’. ‘’Veblen saw mass production as a way to universalize the trappings of leisure so that the owning class could engage workers in an endless pursuit of status symbols, thus deflecting their attention from the society’s increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and from their own political impotence. Relying excessively on a brand name, or extreme relationship with a product or brand name are dysfunctional substitutes for healthy human relationships. Moreover, consumer choice is a soporific stand-in for genuine democracy.’’
- Limited Resources
Environmental experts have clearly declared that, even though consumerism is socially desirable, in the long run it is physically impossible to maintain its present rate. You can try to do the math yourself; even at a fraction of one percent per year growth in consumption, all of the earth’s resources would eventually be used up. Furthermore, our consumer economy produces an interminable assortment of wastes, of which water, air, and soil can absorb only as much before the planetary life-support systems begin unravelling.
Researchers from MIT took the liberty to run a study using a computer to model the likely future scenarios resulting from population expansion, consumption growth, and environmental decline. Guess what the computer’s ‘standard run’ scenario projected: Continuous growth will lead to a global economic collapse in the mid 21st century!
I am sure these findings don’t sound very encouraging or positive. But there is very little we can do to reverse this situation. That happens to be the ugly truth of this miserable state of affairs, unless of course a majority of the population stops wishful consumption or spending. This seems a bit too unrealistic, and such solutions rarely work. Some have suggested Gross National Happiness (GNH) or Happy Planet Index (HPI). As the names suggest, it aims to measure the happiness level of the consumers instead of the level of production (GDP). There would be a natural shuffling of priorities if this index is used. Plus, the governments would have to promote policies that would lead to more sharing, more equity, more transparency, and more citizen-participation in governance, since it is these sorts of things that push happiness scores higher.
But in the end, happy or not, our world is facing a very austere demise. We can only wait and watch scarcity rip its hungry fangs into our ravaged world.
Merrin is currently pursuing an Integrated Masters Program in Humanities and Social Sciences at The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has a variety of interests ranging from singing and dancing to playing football. She spends her time writing short stories and reading novels. An avid reader, she can survive without food if she has books to keep her company. She attends church everySunday and takes keen interest in her religion.