How did Consumer Culture originate?

Almost everything we buy is NOT essential to our survival, or even basic human comforts, but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price of consumption that we, nature and future generations will have to pay for all of this.

Most people I talk to today know that humanity is doing terrible damage to our planet's life-support systems, which provide us with clean air and water, soil and biodiversity.
But at the same time they feel so insignificant among 6,2 billion people that anything they can do to lighten our impact on nature seems trivial.
I am often asked: what can I do?
Well, how about we look at our spending habits?
Not long ago, frugality and simplicity were considered virtues. But now two-thirds of our economy is based on consumption. This has not come about by chance.

A historical fact

The stock market crashed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression that plunged the world into terrible hardships.
The Second World War was the catalyst for economic recovery. America's enormous resource base, its productivity, energy and technology were put at the service of the war and soon its economy was on wheels. With victory imminent, the president's council of economic advisors was forced to find a way to transform a war economy for peace.

Shortly after the end of the war, market analyst Victor Lebow expressed a possible solution: "Our economy, enormously productive, demands that we make consumption our lifestyle, that we turn buying and using goods into authentic rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, ego satisfaction, in consuming... we need things to be consumed, burned, replaced, and thrown away, all at an increasingly rapid pace."

President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors declared: "the ultimate purpose of the American economy must be to produce more consumer goods." Not better healthcare, education, housing, transportation, leisure, or less poverty and hunger, but supplying more and more things to consumers.
When things are designed to be well made and durable, there comes a time when markets become saturated. To achieve an endless market, rapid obsolescence is introduced (think of cars, clothes, computers...) And with disposables, when an item is used once and thrown away, the market will never reach saturation.

But consumer products are not created out of thin air.

The products we consume come from the material of the Earth, and when they are no longer useful they will be returned to it as garbage and toxic waste. Energy is also needed to extract raw materials, process, manufacture and transport these products; while air, water and soil become contaminated at many points in the life cycle of a product. In other words, what we consume has direct effects on nature.

And there are also social and spiritual costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes write in "The All-Consuming Self": "The purchase of a new product, especially an expensive one like a car or a computer, typically produces an immediate burst of pleasure and fulfillment, and generally provides status and recognition to the buyer. But, as the feeling of newness fades, the emptiness threatens to return again. The usual solution for the consumer is usually to focus their excitement on the next promising purchase."

In the end, it is something that goes beyond pleasure or status: buying things becomes a demand that is impossible to satisfy. Paul Wachtel writes in "The Poverty of Wealth": "Having more and newer things each year has become no longer something we want, but something we need. The idea of ​​greater and ever-increasing abundance has become the center of our identity and security, and we are trapped like the addict is trapped by his drug.

Unnecessary consumption

Almost everything we buy is not essential to our survival, or even basic human comforts, but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price that we, nature and future generations will have to pay for all of this.

When consumption becomes the very reason for economies to exist, we never ask ourselves "How much is enough?", "Why do we need all these things?", or "Are we a little happier?"

Our personal decisions as consumers have ecological, social and spiritual repercussions. It's time to re-examine some of the deeper ideas behind our lifestyles.

* Author: David Suzuki
Original title: "Consumer culture is no accident"
Translation by: Ramón Santos