Issues with Over Consumerism
The increase in consumerism began in the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution. It is shown that this materialistic age is a sort of machine and everything in it moves through a system. The driving force behind the system as a whole is consumption by the people. If it were not for the people, the system would collapse. This consumer cycle begins with the extraction of natural resources which leads to production and distribution and eventually leading to consumption and disposal. This consumer cycle is viewed by McDonough as the ‘cradle to grave’ method in which over 90% of products have an almost immediate disposal. “Cradle-to-grave designs dominate modern manufacturing” (McDonough, 2008). One of the main problems is that consumerism was initially only viewed from an economic standpoint which showed the benefits at that point in time.
There were two main methods aiding in the success of this approach: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence was created to make sure there would be continuous growth in spending by making older products useless so that people were forced to buy the newest versions. An example of this are mobile phones – if they are not upgraded, they end up malfunctioning and become useless until a newer version is purchased. Perceived Obsolescence is mainly controlled through media by slightly altering the appearance of an object to make people always want the newest version, even if the older version is still perfectly usable.
Although the initial idea of consumption was mainly to build a better life for the people during the Industrial Revolution, it has spiraled out of control where society now has an addictive dependency on ‘stuff”. During the 1800s, new manufacturing processes were being put in place which aided in economic and social factors, without too much thought being put towards the environment. People were able to spend more which in turn grew local industries and therefore grew the economy. At the time, the idea was a beneficial one when looking at the perspective on the people.
The Industrial Revolution was not planned, but it was not without a motive. At bottom it was an economic revolution, driven by the desire for the acquisition of capital. Industrialists wanted to make products as efficiently as possible and to get the greatest volume of goods to the largest number of people. In most industries, this meant shifting from a systems of manual labor to one of efficient mechanization. (McDonough, 2009, pg. 21).
Over time, this once beneficial method morphed and got out of hand. The population grew and consumerism became a force of habit. It is the way we have been taught to live for decades and has now become a warped lifestyle. Instead of seeking happiness through conversation, friendship, & nature, we seek instant gratification from the purchases we make. The biggest problem with this is that these quick fixes do not last long and instead add to an even unhappier society. “Buying stuff can make you happy for a short time. But you will revert to needing another happiness boost by buying even more stuff. We can, however, replace the boom and bust of a consumption-driven search for satisfaction with lives that are more fulfilling and economically sustainable” (Brown, 2018).
One of the biggest effects that over-consumption has is on the environment. Humans are depleting natural resources at a much quicker pace that they can be replenished. “Early industries relied on a seemingly endless supply of natural “capital.” Ore, timber, water, grain, cattle, coal, land – these were the raw materials for the production systems that made goods for the masses, and they still are today” (McDonough, 2009, ph. 24). Although the concept of climate change is not new, society is still using traditional methods during this critical time. Over-consumption has made enormous impacts on the natural world such as pollution, deforestation, waste production, ecosystem/biodiversity loss, and natural resource depletion.
Over-consumerism can be better understood when looking at underlying root metaphors. These metaphors look at society and the world in a way to see the complexity of an issue within one phrase. When looking at over consumerism in today’s society, there are three root metaphors that can be taken into consideration. First and foremost is the metaphor that sees ‘nature as an unlimited resource’. This rings true with the growth during the Industrial Revolution when humans began extracting mass amounts of non-renewable resources from the environment. More thought was being given to the economic growth and the environment was not really considered as it was seen as an unlimited resource.
Although there is much more of a push towards sustainability, society is still using these traditional practices of extraction rather than replacing these activities with new innovations. The second root metaphor to be considered is that ‘progress is linear’ since the world has been moving in a linear line rather than a circular system. This holds true when considering the consumer cycle from extraction to disposal as well as the growth in the use of natural resources with the increasing population. One of last metaphor to analyze is that ‘the world is in our hands”. This logic shows a distinction between man vs. all other species and environment as a whole.
It is so important to rid our perspective of man being dominant over all living beings and instead see our world as a circular system of interconnectedness. Once this is realized, it will be much easier to work towards a sustainable future.
Solution: Sustainable Development Goals
Although there are many solutions being considered as a way of lowering over consumerism, there are a few that are making great strides towards a sustainable future. One of the greatest solutions being implemented is the Sustainable Development Goals. This set of 17 goals was implemented by the United Nations as a way of working towards sustainable development by the year 2030. Each goal has a specific purpose – Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) deals directly with the notion of over consumption.
Since sustainable consumption and production aims at “doing more and better with less,” net welfare gains from economic activities can increase by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole life cycle, while increasing quality of life. There also needs to be significant focus on operating on supply chain, involving everyone from producer to final consumer. This includes educating consumers on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing them with adequate information through standards and labels and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others. (United Nations).
Humans are using more resources than they really need to survive and live a good life. According to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, there are basic needs that must be met before being able to move up the pyramid. These basic needs include food, water, rest, and warmth. This is a perfect example showing that all the other stuff our society considered to be a ‘need’ is not actually that but rather a ‘want’.
In order to achieve a minimalistic lifestyle, we must begin by implementing education and advertisements towards this new way of living. “If you want your city to run, first you need to teach your citizens to walk” (St.Amant (as cited by Zervas, 2018)).
2nd Generation Sustainability
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 12) proves to be working towards the 2nd Generation of Sustainability as it recognizes that economy, environment, and social structures are all interdependent. Goal 12 understands that social systems and current associations with economic growth are greatly affecting environmental systems and to change that, human impact through consumption and production needs to be lowered and transformed.
Environmentally, this goal is meant to “achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle” (United Nations). Socially, the goal is to “support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production” (United Nations). Economically, the goal is to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs” (United Nations). This activity and its proposed ‘solution’ is sustainable because it directly changes the way the root metaphors listed above are seen. This goal proves that nature is indeed not an unlimited resource in how we must take care of the water, land, and air through lowered waste production. It also shows that progress is not linear and instead shows that everything is interdependent and works together as a system. Lastly, there is a major emphasis that the world belongs to all living beings and the world is not solely in the hands of humans.
Humans have had a massive impact on the environment but are unaccepting of the consequences due to the disconnect between man and nature. The negative impacts of the growing human population has created mass over consumerism, far more than our earth can handle. One of the most important obstacles in fighting over consumerism is the traditional linear progression in modern society. There needs to be a major transition into a more systems, circular movement. It is believed that the earth has a maximum carrying capacity, although humans are living as though there is no cap.
The implementation of sustainable development is the human imperative of the 21st century, requiring strong leadership by local, regional and national governments. A framework across governments is critical to their ability to provide consistent and effective leadership to other sectors of Canadian society, in order to diffuse its concepts and practices in the next decade, before irreversible thresholds are reached. (Dale, 2002).
With the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 12) it is believe that by year 2030, consumption and production can be handled in a more responsible way. This is being done through activities targeting the world’s population to lower over consumerism patterns and move towards a more minimalistic lifestyle. On a larger scale it deals with corporations lowering mass impact as well as smaller scales that aids in social education and resources to work towards sustainability. Overall, an analysis of the interconnectedness of economy, environment, and social structure together and consideration of root metaphors can aid in lowering the rate of over consumerism and working towards sustainable development.
Brown, C. (2018). Why Over-Consumption Is Making Us Unhappy: Create a Meaningful Life and Save the Planet! Buddhist Economics. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/buddhist-economics/201803/why-over-consumption-is-making-us-unhappy
Carson, R., 1907-1964. (2002). Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Dale, A. (2002). At the Edge: Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. Vancouver: UBC Press
Lebow, V. (1955). Journal of Retailing. Retrieved from: http://www.gcafh.org/edlab/Lebow.pdf
McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2009). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. London: Vintage
St.Amant, B. (2018). Environmental Sustainability. Canada: Blue Eyed Explorer
St.Amant, B. (2018). Kickoff Conference – Smart Cities Conference: Can You Hear the Eco? Europe on Track. Retrieved from: https://www.europeontrack.org/kickoff-conference-smart-cities-can-you-hear-the-eco/
United Nations Development Programme. (n.d.) Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/
Westley, F., et al. (2007). Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Toronto: Vintage Canada
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Photo 2: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html