In the name of “growth,” forests are burning, oil is spilling, ice caps are melting, animals are dying and villages are disappearing. Unsustainable economic systems are being replicated in the developing world where labor is cheap so that more forests can burn, more oil can be spilled, more ice caps can melt, more animals can die and more villages can disappear. What is actually being sold to us under the auspices of “growth” and “development”? How does consumerism contribute to this? Why is this bad for us as persons? And what we can do to change for the better?
The Illusion of Infinite Growth
Corporations see their profits grow exponentially by outsourcing jobs, using cheap toxic materials, wasting limited resources and erecting polluting factories. All of this involves:
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● destroying habitats or ancient towns
● exploiting natural resources and human persons
● losing cultural and natural diversity
To cope with globalization, small towns and farms are being abandoned for the sake of better wages, hence, more opportunities for consumption. But, is the “modern” lifestyle really that much better? The cost of living always goes up, and so do avenues to spend money, especially using the internet. Furthermore, we are largely unaware of there sources involved in extracting materials from nature, processing and packaging them, to be delivered thousands of miles away, and to be found in dumpsters a few months or years later. The epitome of this phenomenon is the life of the common plastic bag, too often thrown in the trash (not recycled) merely 10 minutes after it was acquired to transport food down the block.
Low prices are appealing because they enable us to “save” in order to buy more low-quality products designed to be thrown away, especially since fewer of us now have the skills to fix things. It is easier and cheaper to just dispose of something and buy a new one rather than pay someone else to repair it. In fact, many of us are trying to make ethical choices in consumption, but even that has fallen to corporate trickery involving false “green” labels, loopholes to bypass regulation and fancy marketing ploys. Moreover, the overwhelming abundance of choice has gotten worse, as many companies can simply attract more clients with two kinds of products: one for the social-justice-eco-conscious person and another for the rest.
Instead of re-orienting our outlook toward the self and the world, we are encouraged — if not instructed — to tolerate the status quo, which includes the pressure to live up to societal norms. This way, we can avoid questioning the sources of our sadness by targeting situational stress in lieu of changing social situations that are themselves in need of remedy.
Consumption and (Un)Well-Being
We strive to lead productive lives working 40, 50, 60 hours per week just to sustain current levels of wealth and continue to consume. What is the result? Hard work all day, TV at night, shopping on weekends, with social gatherings sprinkled here and there. We pay taxes only to see corporations get away with paying none. To make things worse, the state rewards the latter with subsidies. Furthermore, by relinquishing industries such as education, health care, incarceration and waste management to the private sector, it makes consumers out of those who must avail themselves of such services. Hence, personal growth means acquiring more and more wealth so that we can meet “needs” that are ever-increasing. Our self-centered (in the individualistic sense of the term) lifestyle of consumption leaves no room for cultural/spiritual practice, community involvement or appreciation of nature. Materialism has been shown to decrease self-esteem, eat away at our inter-connectedness with other living beings and increase feelings of loneliness. The reverse may also be true, in that loneliness can lead us to fall “in love” with our possessions.
Let’s make it a point to give our lives purpose beyond the roles of “consumer” and “periodic philanthropist,” which may give us the impression we are good citizens. Let’s bring back modesty and simplicity to our value system so that people can cease to see money as a means to dominate others and nature. Instead, let’s show them how to be in community with others, aiming for virtuous relationships with all living beings.