Consumerism, the real meaning of Christmas

We consume because of biological imperatives. So how do we stop it being so destructive? [2 December 2014 | Peter Boyer]

You’ll need to know this: including today there are just 23 days left in which to buy your Christmas presents. A season of peace and goodwill it may be, but above all it’s a season of spending.

Advertisement for Sydney-based online supermarket Aldi Stores [PHOTO ALDI]

Season of plenty: an advertisement for Sydney-based online supermarket Aldi Stores [PHOTO ALDI]

Most seem to welcome it. Governments and economists like it because it puts money into circulation. Retailers like it because it’s insurance against harder times.

For the rest of us, there’s pleasure to be had in being out and about doing deals and rubbing shoulders with others doing the same thing. Shopping satisfies a lot of human needs.

We do it without thinking, which is just as well because the quantum of today’s Christmas shopping doesn’t bear thinking about. Along with all the love and sharing is an awful lot of stuff that we didn’t really need and a sudden spike in the quantity of local landfill.

Buying and selling goods and labour to meet daily needs is natural, normal, necessary. But now, as the economists would have it, we do it for a higher purpose: economic growth.

In 1955, with an evangelist’s fervour, US economist and self-styled marketing consultant Victor Lebow called on Americans to “make consumption our way of life” in response to the demands of a booming post-war economy.

“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace,” said Lebow. “We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

People took him at his word. Consumption per-capita has doubled since then, and in the internet age advertising has gone through the roof – more ads in a day than in a whole year back then. With obsolescence built into the system, we throw out nearly all the consumables we buy within a year.

Met with an abundance of wondrous things, huge possibilities, an enormous variety of experience and an unprecedented level of intellectual, emotional and physical stimulation, we still crave more, and it’s driving us mental.

Two centuries ago Wordsworth lamented the “getting and spending” of newly-industrialised Britain. If behaviour was excessive then, today’s consumer revolution must surely amount to a global crisis.

The endlessly-growing frenzy of modern consumerism is now beginning to overwhelm us and the planet that’s our home. There’s an irony to this, captured beautifully in the title of a fine 2011 UK documentary on the subject, Consumed: inside the belly of the beast.

As the movie reveals, consumer behaviour isn’t rational, it’s primeval. We have food virtually on tap but we still gorge ourselves. The planet is crawling with homo sapiens yet we’re still programmed to show ourselves in the best possible light for mating and reproduction.

Having the latest smart technology answers at least two evolutionary needs. It offers prestige, the appearance of being one up on the Joneses, while also providing stimulation – food for the big brains we’ve inherited – in the form of games, social networks and expanded horizons.

Marketing people like Lebow know how to press these evolutionary buttons, tapping into our urges to survive, reproduce and seek stimulation while encouraging each person to believe that they’re the centre of the universe. This is the potent mix that drives the consumer revolution.

Marketing has given each of us a false sense of power and security. Food keeps appearing as if by magic, high-speed transport whisks us across the world and computer technology gives us the power to communicate globally at the press of a button.

Yet most of us don’t have a clue how our technologies work or what sort of impact they’re having on nature. The marketers’ seductive narrative has led us down dangerous paths. What we think is real is a fabrication. The control we think we exercise is an illusion.

It’s been said that to lessen our impact on the planet we have to change how we behave, including our drive to consume. But how do we do this when the behaviour is part of our genetic make-up, deeply-rooted in our evolutionary past, as natural as eating and breathing?

This is the conundrum of the age. If we can’t stop ourselves consuming, perhaps consuming behaviour can be harnessed and redirected. We need a new narrative, one that re-frames and channels our basic needs and aspirations in such a way that instead of destroying the natural world we reconnect with it.

In such a narrative, less will be seen to be more. The smart, sexy choice for the consumer, the only way to the top of the heap, will be low-impact technologies. There’s a marketing challenge for you.

• CLIMATE TASMANIA (climatetasmania.org) is a new independent expert climate body (unconnected with this website) which will be launched in a public event at the Waterside Pavilion in Mawson Place, near Constitution Dock, at 1 pm on Thursday. RSVP by emailing climatetasmania@gmail.com

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