Will we ever change? Is runaway consumerism an inevitable stage of evolution or just a temporary historical glitch?
“Consumerism is the belief that personal wellbeing and happiness depends to a very large extent on the level of personal consumption, particularly on the purchase of material goods. The idea is not simply that wellbeing depends upon a standard of living above some threshold, but that at the center of happiness is consumption and material possessions. A consumerist society is one in which people devote a great deal of time, energy, resources and thought to “consuming”. The general view of life in a consumerist society is consumption is good, and more consumption is even better. It sounds arrogant to say to someone: you are too preoccupied with consumption; you spend too much time shopping; you would be happier if you were less focused on acquiring material possessions.
Aren’t people the best judge of their own desires and preferences? And doesn’t the free market simply translate those references into choices, so if people are buying huge houses doesn’t this just mean that they want big houses? But… We have already identified one problem: environmental sustainability. This one is simple. The planet is simply incapable of supporting American-style consumption everywhere. Either we need to stop buying so many “toys” or our consumption of nonrenewable “natural capital” has to become orders of magnitude more efficient and restorative. Either, of course , would imply massive change in consumption patterns. But hyper-consumerism raises other issues as well. Toys cost money, and money takes time to earn. Many people in contemporary American society feel enormous “time binds” in their lives, in part because they are caught in a work and spend treadmill. Time scarcity is a continual source of stress, but the cultural pressures and institutional arrangements that accompany consumerism make it difficult for people individually to solve these problems. A good case can also be made that hyper-consumerism leads to less fulfilling and mean
ingful lives than does a less manically consumption-oriented way of life.
Research on happiness tells us something that we have always sort of known, but that competitive consumption tends to crowd out. Happy people are those that feel they are interested in their work and think I is useful, feel part of a community, and have some time with friends and family. Nobody on their death bed says “gee, I wish I had had more toys and spent even less time with my spouse, my friends, and my kids.”
If people would really be better off with a less hyper-consumer ist lifestyle, why then do they embrace consumerism? The basic idea here is that through various mechanisms there is a systematic consumption-bias in the decisions people make. If this bias were eliminated, people would in fact make different choices, consume less and in the end be happier. The issue, then, is not really that there is anything intrinsically wrong with shopping and consuming as such, but rather that the nature of the market system in which we live shapes peoples preferences and choices excessively in favor of consumption over other values."
Consumerism has become the cornerstone of the post-industrial age. Yet how much do we know about it and what it is doing to us? Using theories of evolutionary psychology to underpin a bold narrative of our times, this film takes a whirlwind tour through the "weird mental illness of consumerism", showing how our insatiable appetite has driven us into "the jaws of the beast".