Among social critics, the practice of railing against consumerism is as old as wealth itself. In the last 40 years, as the United States has become increasingly richer in material terms, it has been a common arrow in the quiver of environmentalists as well. But like the words “green” or “sustainability,” consumerism is now referenced so widely that it’s easy to forget exactly what is refers to, or why it matters in the first place. Here’s a definition from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:
At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. After all, some level of consumption is a basic requisite for staying alive, since food, shelter, medical care and other necessities all require it. So what’s the problem? I like to think about this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented visually in the pyramid below.
Graphic Source: Wikipedia
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who theorized that the development of each individual can be expressed as a progression from satisfying basic material needs like food, shelter and sex to more complex needs like friendship, self esteem, and self-actualization. Viewed in this light, consumerism is a need from the bottom level masquerading as one from near the top, in the realm of “Esteem.” Consumption becomes problematic, from a social and environmental standpoint, when it becomes conspicuous, motivated more by a need for belonging, social acceptance and status then survival.
If I had any doubts that this sort of thing was on display in American society, my trip into Bloomingdale’s department store with my family last Friday evening was more than enough to assuage them. I sat in an armchair inside the nine-floor labyrinth of high fashion, watching well groomed couples stride by weighed down with their purchases. It was payday, and they were there to convert their cash into social currency. Scores of thin women browsed blue jeans with price tags that could be found on plane tickets. Clearly, there was much more than just “basic needs” on display.
From an environmental perspective, shopping is not the soundest path to a strong sense of self-worth. Friendships, marriages, clubs, sports teams and churches are much better. But the moment you begin to talk about regulating consumption, you are treading on thin ice. Our ability to consume so much of so many things is inextricably tied to the idea of freedom, the idea that each individual should decide for themselves when enough is enough.
Laws regulating the consumption of luxury goods have been highly ineffective throughout history, and they will likely continue to be so. The key is to make such goods irrelevant by strengthening the very thing for which they are a substitute: the social fabric. How we do this is a huge and baffling question, but one thing is certain: it will have very little to do with getting that new pair of jeans.