You and I are both consumers. We consume to meet our basic needs, such as food and shelter. Consumerism is different. It is about consuming things that make us feel good. But at what cost? We are now consuming the very planet that sustains our life.
Continuous economic growth is a goal of the leaders of industrialised societies, and they seek to achieve this through continually increasing productivity and consumerism. So that we consume and continually grow the economy, our collective consciousness has been industrialised and conditioned. This has been happening, in earnest, since the Industrial Revolution. It happens through our education system, media, culture, workplace, politics, etc. We have now become addicted to consuming.
Our Vulnerable Ego
We have become susceptible to having our consciousness conditioned, so we consume, as a result of our increasing psychological separation from nature, each other and ourselves. These three separations began in earnest with the New Science Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries led by scientists such as Galileo and Newton. The New Science Revolution established the knowledge required for the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the separations. Then have been firmly held in place by the neoliberal capitalist economic system needed to fund the Industrial Revolution. Through these three separations, our consciousness has been industrialised and this has made us susceptible to being conditioned into being consumers.
Separating from nature, each other, and ourselves has left us with a vulnerable ego that we need to prop up and defend continually. Our ego is the constructed identity that we like to present to the world. It is our self-image or mask. In everyday language, when we use the word ‘me’, we often refer to our ego. It is our self-identity. Being aware that we have a vulnerable ego, businesses use techniques to condition our consciousness so we consume more products and services.
To protect our vulnerable ego, we need to maintain our self-esteem continually. However, due to our separation from each other, we have developed a high level of individual competitiveness. As a result, we are trying more and more to increase our self-esteem by comparing ourselves to other people. Businesses are aware of this tendency and encourage us to constantly compare ourselves to an ‘ideal norm’ communicated to us through PR and advertising, as well as with people in our own social groups. This comparison is threatening to our vulnerable ego. If we compare unfavourably, then our self-esteem is negatively impacted. To protect against this threat, businesses tell us, through their advertising, that if we buy this product or that service, we will impress our peers. So, we buy the products and services, and gradually our identity can become defined by what we purchase. As we are competitive, we can often aspire to be seen as being in a higher group in our community. When this happens, the purchases we make increasingly become conspicuous in terms of their quality or quantity.
The Hole in Our Psyche
Separating from nature, each other and ourselves also leaves a hole in our psyche. The psyche is the entirety of our psychological life. It is the totality of the human mind. We are experiencing this hole in our psyche as increasing mental health problems. In the absence of reconnection, we try to fill this psychological hole with consumption. Fortunately, businesses are all too eager to help us consume. We are encouraged to engage in retail therapy. Even though our purchases make us feel good in the short term, they never fully satisfy us in the long term. While the products we purchase can boost and protect our vulnerable ego, they can never fill the hole in our psyche left by our separations from ourselves, each other and nature. Before too long, we need to get our next consumer fix. It is at this point that we have become addicted to consumerism.
Consumerism as an Addiction
Even though consumerism can prop up our ego and make us feel good in the short term, the products and services we consume do not make us happy in the long term. They do not provide the deeper meaning and purpose in our lives that is essential for our well-being. Consequently, many people are now struggling with their psychological well-being. Again, this allows industry to sell us even more products and services designed to improve our mental health. Although these products may treat the symptoms, they rarely address the cause: our increasing separation from nature, each other and ourselves. If products and services did treat the root cause, would it be good for business? We need to continually self-indulge up to limits; otherwise, the wheels of the economy will stop turning.
The problem is, the economic system our consumerism feeds is eating the planet that sustains our lives. With our industrialised and conditioned minds, we simply cannot stop consuming the Earth. At the current level of consumption, we need 1.7 Earths to sustain us (Global Footprint Network, 2017). By 2050, we will need 3 Earths to meet our consumption levels (United Nations, 2018).
Are you addicted to consuming? Do you like to keep up with the latest fashions, decorate your home in the style of those you see in magazines, keep up to date with the latest technology or have a nice car sitting on your drive? Do you wrestle with other consumers to get the best bargains during the sales? Do you queue outside shops for hours waiting for them to open so you can be one of the first to get the latest version of your favourite product? Despite all this consumption, do you still feel empty inside?
If you have answered yes to some of these questions, you are in tune with most people in westernised societies. We have all been conditioned to consume to some degree. It is what drives our economy.
Written by Terence Sexton
Date 21st August 2021
Extracted and abridged from Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability.