Will we shop till we drop?

Our addiction to acquiring stuff needs two or more Earths to sustain it.  Unless we can break the consumption habit, something else will break. [18 March 2008 | Peter Boyer]

This is nothing to boast about, but one of my generation’s claims to fame is setting off the biggest shopping binge in history. Here’s how it happened.

By the time we baby-boomers entered the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, the big troubles that blighted our parents’ lives – depression and war – had long gone from the radar.

A stable upbringing, a well-resourced education and plenty of job opportunities had caused us to believe that good times were somehow normal.

We shouldn’t have. History repeatedly tells us that good times are infrequent and tougher times the norm, which in the longer scheme of things is what you’d expect. After all, our species evolved by dealing with adversity.

We lived well. War in Vietnam and the odd economic recession failed to halt the momentum that built into an unprecedented spending spree – increasing numbers of people feeding a voracious appetite for stuff. Above all else, ours has been an age of consumerism.

And it continues. Shopping is now the single biggest activity of people in the developed – and increasingly in the developing – world.

As rampant commercialism shapes our lives, shopping malls shape our urban environments. The old idea of non-commercial public spaces seems almost quaint.

The internet has enhanced shopping convenience by allowing us to operate from home. With easily-available credit in the mix, acquisition has never been so easy.

We’re becoming aware of some pitfalls, like buying things we’ve never seen and stretching our credit beyond recoverable limits. But the biggest risk is something that my generation should have seen decades ago.

Over-use of fossil fuels for cheap energy, the most obvious cause of global warming, is the tip of a gigantic iceberg (which despite the warming is getting bigger). Fuelled by ever more insistent advertising, an increasing demand for stuff is seriously threatening our future.

Feeding our lifestyle demands a lot of mining, harvesting, making, packaging, transporting, selling, acquiring, using and disposing. Together these activities, while amplifying the greenhouse threat, also devastate our natural environment and deplete precious biodiversity.

We can’t sustain living at this level on our single, solitary Planet Earth. Eventually, something will break.

“Shop till we drop” became a defining slogan for my generation. If we and newer generations can’t work out how to moderate this apparently insatiable urge, it may yet become our epitaph.

The all-consuming generation

Humans are naturally hard-wired to acquire more in times of plenty so we survive tougher times ahead. But these past 50 years have seen an unprecedented growth in consumption.

• Today’s average Australian consumes about twice as much as Australians did 50 years ago.

• In the last three decades of the 20th century humans consumed a third of the world’s natural resources.

• The world’s fisheries are at breaking point. Three-quarters have been fished beyond capacity, and countless marine habitats destroyed by bottom-trawling.

• Since humans first began to cut down trees, four-fifths of Earth’s forests have disappeared.

• Today we see as many advertisements in one day as people in 1950 saw in a year and people in 1900 saw in a lifetime.

• Advertisements never tell of the enormous waste involved in extracting, producing and disposing of the goods they advertise.

• Home recycling, valuable though it is, deals with less than 15 per cent of the waste created to make the items in the recycle bin.

• And the funny thing is, social research tells us we’ve become less happy through these boom-times. Is shopping a therapy, or a curse?

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