Consuming the future

nature_chainsVia New Scientist, scientists at the Ecological Society of America confirm my Agent Smithesque suspicions on the cause of our ongoing environmental crisis:

More specifically, all we’re doing is what all other creatures have ever done to survive, expanding into whatever territory is available and using up whatever resources are available, just like a bacterial culture growing in a Petri dish till all the nutrients are used up. What happens then, of course, is that the bugs then die in a sea of their own waste.

Making all this worse is the development of consumerism, which encourages even greater consumption of resources than would be the case if every new human being consumed as much as they have done historically, the NS article comments on the development of this trait:

According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.

American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.

In today’s world, such rhetoric seems beyond belief. Yet the consumer spree carries on regardless, and few of us are aware that we’re still willing slaves to a completely artificial injunction to consume, and to define ourselves by what we consume.

British philosopher John Gray (not the American self-help guru of the same name) has argued something similar in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, in which he lays out a thoroughly pessimistic critique of the notion of human exceptionalism, and his prediction of the imminent failure of environmentalist policies.

I don’t agree entirely with Gray on the inevitability of collapse and decay, but I certainly concur with James Martin‘s view that the 21st century will have to mark a change from focussing on limitless growth to sustainable growth (if such a thing is truly possible), as a precursor to a steady state economy.

The article raises another interesting point:

In an ideal world, it would be a counter-advertising campaign to make conspicuous consumption shameful.

“Advertising is an instrument for construction of people’s everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised,” he says. “We’ve got to make people ashamed to be seen as a ‘future eater’.”

I’m against moralistic ‘holier-than-thou’ criticisms of consumerism, but as “consumerism” as a concept has come about by the deliberate decisions of business people and marketers (and policymakers) seeking to promote ever greater economics growth and consumption, might it not be time to have a similar drive towards sustainability?

[image from Peter from Wellington on flickr]