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First-World Consumption Habits and the Desire to Acquire

The role of consumerism and overconsumption in the earth's descent into entropy

Photo: Dan Burton

Whether or not we want to admit it, people are buying, spending and selling more than ever before in human history. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, governments have been harping on the importance of economy, labor, and continuous consumption of goods and services. From advertisements to coupon codes, this economic encouragement has seeped into modern culture to the point where it is damaging our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the planet. Similar to the population surge of the 1900's, our rates of consumption have skyrocketed to alarming levels in recent years, and unless we turn this carelessness into consideration, the statistics show no signs of changing.

Consumerism is a byproduct of economic growth, which in many ways can be considered a beneficial thing: prosperous economies promote well-established societies, a healthy job market, and increasingly innovative technologies across the globe, all of which improve one's quality of life. What perhaps doesn't improve quality of life is a frequent result of stable economies, which is the insatiable and pernicious need for more. This desire is a cultural ill rooted in encouragement of growth, but there's a difference between advancement and avariciousness, and what many people fail to realize is that an expanding economy doesn't need to be synonymous with personal material gain.

Research shows that while we're spending more than ever, there's no evidence of the happiness many advertisements claim will come as a result of using their product. In fact, time and time again psychologists and scientists have shown us quite the opposite: "Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology," psychologist David Myers points out. In other words, despite our elongated lifespans, increased wealth, and constant spending, we haven't seen any noticeable increase in long-term pleasure or joy.

We'd like to imagine that there are just a few places where people are enveloped in the temptation of materialism, but whether or not we each realize it, almost everyone living in first-world countries today are at fault. Much of this is propagated by the privileged "desire to acquire": the subconscious belief that owning more things or having a specific thing will somehow improve our well-being, reputation, or social status (the practice of retail therapy is a good example of this). In reality, purchasing products we don't need is likely to have one of three outcomes, none of which are the results that we want or expect.

The first is that we like the thing, and it temporarily relieves our tension in a way that cements in our brains the idea that materialism equals benefit. This is a short-term solution that eventually creates a much bigger problem, namely that by putting our trust in objects as stress-relievers, we lose the ability to self-regulate our emotions and solve problems with actual solutions. This is called emotion-based coping, as opposed to the other stress solution of problem-based coping, where we aim to fix our negative emotions by focusing on solving the problem. Emotion-based coping is easier in the short term and materialism is a common way to encourage it, but it doesn't actually solve the issue we're facing.

The second possible outcome is that we don't like the thing, and we feel guilty for buying it or disappointed in ourselves for wasting money with an impulsive purchase. The third is that the product doesn't affect us at all and we forget about it, an extremely common outcome when it comes to impulse buys that fix problems we don't actually care about solving, like chip clips or cable-condensing Velcro strips. The majority of people will look at these things and think, "Oh, I could use this"—or even think nothing and still put the product in their shopping basket—and never do, leading the consumer to waste money and the producers to waste materials.

However, buying things isn't the only problem: we're also buying much more than we need, including food, cars, appliances, and entertainment systems. In fact, the average American household has more TVs than people, and that's been the case for almost twenty years. A few more American statistics: consumer spending makes up 69% of our economy; we contribute one trillion food-related disposable items to landfills each year; and the average American's carbon footprint is four times the global average. With numbers like that, is there still time to reverse the damage? And will our efforts still have impact if we work for change this late?

In short, yes, and any time we spend acting like it isn't is time wasted towards a possible solution. It's true that we're realizing our human impact on the environment too late, but that's why we need to act now. And we can, by intentionally following the principles of conscious consumerism and working as a society to slow the increasing rate of our culturally-induced materialism. That means not buying things impulsively, not buying things we don't need, and only buying the proper amount of what we do need to reduce waste. It means thinking of the earth and the poor before going online shopping "just for fun." It means using what we have instead of thinking about what we want, donating to charity anything we consider "clutter," and properly disposing of objects, containers and materials when they can't provide any more use.

Going through the world like this must be a conscious decision; it's not something that just happens, and the problem won't just go away. If we ignore it, things will only get worse for everyone, which is why it's important for us to be aware of the problem and to work with purpose to fix it. This is the most selfless course of action we as individuals can take, despite the fact that curbing our spending and consuming habits is something that will also benefit us. With financial benefit, economic benefit, and mental benefit abounding as we reconnect with our loved ones and relearn creativity, conscious consumerism is the win-win our world needs, and there's never been a better time to start acting on its creeds.