The Crisis of Materialism
Is it even materially sustainable?
The New Mindscape #12–2.
In modern times, materialism had in a sense become the substitute faith: people believe in money, as if money were their god. Governments believe that economic development is the most important thing, above anything else: whether as an individual or as a society, the most important thing is to get rich and to assure one’s physical survival. Once that is assured, you are free to believe in whatever you want — whether it’s Santa Claus, God, or nothing. What you believe in is your own subjective problem; the main concern should be material development.
In a sense, then, modernity itself had become a kind of religion. People thought that all the problems of the world would be solved when they became materially wealthy. Materialism became a substitute religion. Even science became a substitute religion — this is called “scientism”. People considered that science would solve all the problems of the world — so long we they moved ahead towards scientific progress, everything would be fine.
From the late 18th Century to the mid-20th Century, this was a powerful belief in modern and modernising countries. It is certainly a very powerful belief in China. Ever since the May 4th Movement of 1919, Chinese people put their faith in “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping put forward the “Four Modernisations”, which he believed would bring China into the future. Even communism itself believes that the ideal state is one of material plenty. It believes that everything will be fine once the world becomes rich and the wealth is distributed evenly to everyone. Thus, most modern ideologies represent some sort of materialist faith.
However, this faith system began to collapse in the 20th century. Doubts in this system can be traced back to the end of World War I. When they saw millions of soldiers put into the battlefield, and when they saw millions of people losing their life to the calamity of this unprecedented war with the use of modern technology at the service of weaponry and military might, some philosophers and artists started to doubt in this faith in modernity and materialism. World War II was even worse. Many more events, such as the environmental crisis, happened during the 20th century, which challenged people’s faith in materialism.
Now, we have reached the stage of material plenty, spending more and more money on things we don’t need. So, people have started to ask themselves, is life only about power and money? The entire society seems to have devoted itself completely to power and money. People have increasingly started to ask whether materialism itself is even materially sustainable — as expressed by this video that considers the consequences of humanity trying to indefinitely maintain a rate of economic growth comparable to a hamster.
The “operating system” of all our societies now is based on economic growth, growing exponentially like a hamster that keeps getting fatter. Every year, there is fear that the entire economic system will collapse, if the rate of growth even declines a little bit. But for how long can such a rate of growth even be sustained? This is the operating system that our societies are based on — ever increasing production and consumption. Now, there is an ever-increasing awareness that we cannot sustain ourselves in this way. Therefore, materialism is also being challenged in a very serious way.
What shall we do? On the one hand, religion has been challenged; the power of the world’s religious systems has been shaken; societies have thrown away the power of religion, making it a private matter. The world has gone through a process of secularisation, which has reduced the influence of religion in the world. Religion has lost its influence in society, while materialism has become the dominant worldview. But now, materialism is being challenged. Can materialism even work materially? This is the situation we now face in the world.
This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.