What’s so Bad About Consumerism, Anyway?

For better or worse, human society is intimately connected to economics. And that’s not a bad thing. The barter system works okay for some things, but it’s unwieldy in practice. If you’re in a barter system, and you want something from someone who doesn’t want what you have, you’re in trouble. If you can pay them with something that represents purchasing power so they can buy what they want, you’re in business.

So there’s nothing inherently wrong with money or technology. I would be lying if I said that I wished there were no money or technology. I like having clean running water and indoor plumbing. I like electricity, and Internet connections, and laptops and video games. In order to have those things, we need to pay for them, and in order to pay for them we need jobs, and most jobs require producing goods and/or services that other people need to pay for. It’s a system. We’re part of it. You have to accept that.

Consumerism — A Symptom of Fear Culture

The problem with the consumer mindset is that it’s excessive, wasteful, and it preys on fear. Advertisements are carefully created to make you feel insufficient. They show you a wonderful life and promise that you, too, could have it if you just bought their product. They show everything that’s wrong with your life, even things you didn’t realize were problems, and tell you the only way to fix this problem is to buy their product.

Or they tap into your longings, your desires, and they make a false promise to you: You can have everything you want, if you just buy our product, or subscribe to our newsletter, or….

Trust me. I would know. I’ve spent much of my adult life writing advertisements, using these same fear-loaded tactics to get people to buy things. And they even still work on me sometimes.

Full disclosure: I drive a Kia Soul.

And there’s several reasons for that — gas mileage, cargo space, 100-mile warranty, price — but I would absolutely be lying if I didn’t admit that I am at least partially influenced by the dancing hamster commercials. Shit, whenever I see the “Share My Soul” commercial I tear up a little, for reasons I cannot fully comprehend.

Critical thinking skills are not something that most people have learned to cultivate, and that puts them at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous advertising companies.

Money, Power and Politics

The worst part about consumerism, though, is the power it wields. It wouldn’t be so bad if every advertisement made itself obvious, but advertising is more insidious than that. For better or worse, power and money are synonymous in our culture, and there are few things more dangerous than the intersection of politics and financial interests.

We like to think we can trust certain authoritative sources of information. Unfortunately, a lot of what we grow up believing to be simple fact is actually clouded by financial interests. For example, the “Got Milk?” campaign that was so incredibly popular a decade ago? That came from the National Milk Processor Board, as pretty much a shameless attempt to get more Americans to drink milk. These ads exhort how wonderful and healthy and essential milk is, which wouldn’t be so bad on its own except that the USDA supports these claims despite pretty compelling evidence that milk isn’t actually that healthy for you and may actually be bad for you.

So someone we thought we could trust — the USDA — is cowing (no pun intended) to the dairy industry. And who suffers? The people who are drinking their 2–3 servings of dairy a day because that’s what they genuinely believe is healthy for them.

I don’t say this to make a statement about dairy one way or another — that’s an issue for a different day — but to point out the danger of assuming you can trust any single authoritarian source to tell you the truth. You can’t, because of their financial interests.

And that, friends, is my biggest problem with consumerism.

This kind of political power overlapping with monetary gain is in every part of our society, from industries funding political campaigns (traditionally, the biggest backers of presidential campaigns are Wall Street and the insurance industry) to corporate sponsorship of events (like McDonalds being the official sponsor of the Olympics — wtf?) to chicken fast food companies donating money to political causes that many people find aberrant.

Not to Mention the Environment…

And all of that doesn’t touch the ecological impact of all the trash we’re dumping into landfills (and our our oceans), the fossil fuels burned making and shipping the goods we buy (and the terrible suffering that fossil fuel industry can cause), the pollution created by manufacturing plants and the natural and unnatural products that go into things that are made, consumed and thrown away every day.

I’m not saying we need to own nothing. We need to own some things. But we probably don’t need to own as much as we do, and the things we buy aren’t necessarily the things we need. I’m just saying we need, as a society, to become more conscious consumers. And maybe the first step to becoming a careful consumer is to stop consuming altogether first — going cold turkey — and realizing then what you really need to buy and what you’re willing to pay for.