Friday, March 9, 2012

The Roots of Our Consumerism

"Homo Consumens is the man whose main goal is not primarily to own things, but to consume more and more, and thus to compensate for his inner vacuity, passivity, loneliness and anxiety….He mistakes thrill and excitement for joy and happiness and material comfort for aliveness; satisfied greed becomes the meaning of life, striving for it a new religion. The freedom to consume becomes the essence of human freedom."

Erich Fromm. “The Application of Humanist Psychoanalysis to Marx's Theory" in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

I like to think that I’m totally immune to the lure of consumerism. After all, I’ve spent the past 15 years lecturing students on the importance of voluntary simplicity both as a means to prevent further environmental degradation to our planet, but also as a way to find greater happiness in life.

That latter benefit of reducing consumption is often lost on 20-something-year-olds who have grown up fervently believing that meaning and happiness in life are connected to the ability to buy whatever one wants, whenever one wants, whether one has the funds to do so or not. I’ve found that, even when I show these students hard data from the field of human psychology clearly demonstrating that the “need to always have more” is linked to personal unhappiness and that the happiest people on the planet are actually those who are the most immune to the lure of consumption, they simply don’t buy it (no pun intended).

But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am setting a positive example for my students, right? After all, I’m living in a house that is much smaller than I could afford, I drive a 17 year old car (by choice), rarely eat out in restaurants, and generally wear clothes till they fall apart (literally!). On the surface of things, I am the poster boy for the voluntary simplicity movement.

And yet, deep in the marrow of my being, I am as easily seduced by the lure of American consumerism as the most fashion-conscious student in my environmental ethics class. Just recently, for example, I found myself wanting to replace the perfectly adequate cell-phone that I had been using for about four years with a smart new Iphone. The new phone cost hundreds of dollars more than the old phone did and that new plan that I had to take out to get it was also more expensive, but at least I could now say that I had the smartest, most sophisticated, most stylish cell phone on the market. And I was ever so happy—that is, until I saw a colleague of mine with the new Iphone 4s with even cooler features than the model I had. And then I found myself becoming envious and thinking that my own Iphone just didn’t seem quite as special any more.

Then there’s the issue of my car. I am adamant about the fact that I will not buy a new car until the one I have—a 1995 Toyota Corolla—starts to become unreliable or cost more to maintain than it is worth. 17 years later, I still have the same car, and it is still chugging along perfectly fine. There are absolutely no mechanical issues with the car, but it certainly doesn’t provide as smooth and quiet a ride as a new car would, and lately, the paint on the roof of the car has begun to wear off, making the car look rather shabby. In fact, I’ve been told that I have the ugliest car on campus, and that’s probably true: I doubt that even the most cash-strapped freshman would ever be caught dead driving a car as aesthetically challenged as mine. 

Now, when someone asks me about my car, I tell them proudly that I’ll be damned if I ever get suckered into buying a new car before I absolutely need one. But, in fact, I’m starting to feel just a little self-conscious about being seen driving a car like mine or parking it at the Mall amidst all the shiny new SUVs that people on Long Island tend to own. And this year, I’ve even begun fantasizing about getting a new car—not anything excessive mind you, but something small, cute, and fun like a Honda Fit. Every time I see someone driving one of these cars, I almost automatically think to myself: “Why should they get to drive a nice new car, while I am forced to drive this piece of crap! “After all,” I reason to myself, “I am a college professor and do have a reputation to maintain.”

So you see, although I would like to believe that I am impervious to the insatiable desire for more than I need, this really isn’t the case. I am as much a part of the species homo consumens as anyone. The only difference is that I’ve read enough to know what the root causes of our consumerist desires are. I think that these causes are threefold:

1) Contemporary Americans have come to identify who they are as human beings with what they own. The more trendy things I own, then, the more worthy I am as a human being. Conversely, if I live in a modest house, don’t wear the latest clothes, and don’t drive a nice car, then something is wrong with ME as a human being. In 21st century America we are judged, not by the “content of our characters,” but by the stuff we possess.

2) We have been convinced by modern advertising that we should have as much as our neighbors do. In the past, however, our neighbors could only afford to buy things if they saved for them. But the advent of the credit industry means that ordinary people can buy things they don’t have the actually money for. We don’t know, for example, that our neighbors really can’t afford to live in the McMansion that they recently built or drive their new Lexus, but we think they can, and that makes us feel inferior. So we too are compelled to take out loans and live well beyond our means, just to “keep up with the Jonses.” 

3) In the absence of authentic religious belief, Americans have made a religion out of consumption. If we really believed in God and were convinced that this life is not all that there is, having so much stuff wouldn’t mean quite as much to us. After all, how could owning even the most sophisticated things in the world—fancy jewelry, designer clothes, etc.—ever compare with what we have to look forward to in the next life? Objectively, then, if Americans really believe in anything, it is that salvation comes from buying power—the ability to satisfy our insatiable desires with more and more stuff. God is dead, but at least we have Walmart—or Neiman Marcus, if you prefer—to provide us with ultimate meaning in life.

These are just a few thoughts that came to me as I reflected on the roots of our consumerism in the United States. I’d love to hear what you think about this. Is the problem of consumerism really as bad as I think it is (do you personally fall victim to it?)? And what do you think that the ultimate root of this need to always acquire more and more is?   


  1. I consider myself an environmentalist (of sorts) and I still have a seriously big problem with consumerism. I don't but electronic gadgets or things like that, but my downfall is clothes. I have about 30 pairs of shoes and I still can't resists a sale. I don't know what the driving-force behind my need to consume is, though: I guess I need some serious therapy to address that issue!

  2. There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to own nice stuff. There are definitely ways that we can satisfy natural human desires without causing the problems that you describe.

    All it takes is balance in life.

    - Glenn

  3. Your lack of faith is evident in this post. God has given man dominion over the entire earth to do with as he wills. We therefore should use and enjoy materials goods to whatever extent we desire. That is why capitalism is the economic system most closely allied with Gospel values.

    Your post is both socialist in tone and atheist in content (not too surprising coming from a New York liberal like yourself). If you have faith in God's providence, you know that he won't let us end the world on our time frame. When end times come, HE will be the one to decide when that happens.

    By presuming that humans can destroy the world through our consumerism, you imply that God plan for mamkind can be frustrated due to our actions, which is the height of impiety. Typical for an environmental wacko like you!

  4. I definatley have a problem with consumerism. In many diffrent ways I try to help the earth by recycling and walk places that are close instead of driving, however, when it comes to clothes I cant help but buy new things. I get a new shirt or pants on average every month and I have around 50 pairs of shoes. When I dont want old clothes anymore I do give them to good will but that just makes me want to go out and get more clothes. New clothes is not something that I need, its something I want.
    -Sam B.

  5. I have to be honest and say that I too fall victim to consumerism more often then I should. Just going out with my friends on the weekend can nudge my urge to satisfy all of my retail desires. I'll notice the cute boots Shannon has or the new Michael Kors bag Kiara just got for her birthday. I even make my dangerous habit convenient by working at J.Crew in the mall. Personally I do realize that I must take control of my life and happiness by scaling down just a bit. Now even after admitting to being a shopaholic, I still can't manage to even say that I have ignored God in order to shop. I deeply believe that God is the reason for where I am today and will continue to lead my live according to his will. The root of our consumerism is in fact the influence of our peers.If we all vow to make a change in our lifestyle we might actually stop the existence of these Homo Consumens.

  6. I agree with this. I don't understand why people would spend 900$ on a small Louis Vuitton bag instead of using that money for other necessary reasons. I think we do take advantage of what we really want and try to fulfill it to maintain happiness. I only go shopping once in a while and when I really need to buy something new. But for driving, I can't help but use my car. Living in long island, it's hard to get somewhere without a car. We have to drive and it's hard to not affect the earth in a negative way. I do believe majority of humans have a problem with buying things out of impulse because it wil satisfy their "needs".

    -Sunny C.

  7. I agree with this at times. I myself fall victim to consumerism most of the time, which sadly doesn't always have its pluses in the end. As a 19 year old in college most of the time I see consumerism as something that is a "natural habit". Society has definitely made it this way. You dont't see the famous celebrities walking around with old flip phones or a 1993 toyota corolla. It to me is mostly what the individual is exposed too. Somewhere in everyones ways and habits people do fall victim of consumerism in some way. Although being money concious and realizing what we truly NEED is not materialistic objects, is something that should be in all people. Habit is an evil thing and most definitely has a huge impact on young people and even adults today.
    -Carissa S.

  8. I agree with this to a certain extent. I definitely think that people are living beyond their means. I even tend to have a problem with consumerism myself here and there sometimes. People don't NEED these materialistic things, they WANT them. For example, I bought a new Michael Kors bag that I didn't need. I could've just used the million of other pocketbooks i have in my room but instead i decided to spend the money on it. I'm guilty of consumerism sometimes but once in a while people should treat themselves to new things that they want. I don't think people should go out and just spend their money on anything and everything they want, but once in a while treat yourself to a new bag or shoes. A lot of the problem I believe is everyone just want's to have the latest and newest thing on the market which makes people feel as though they have to have it because everyone else is getting it. If something doesn't work our society now a days tends to throw it away instead of fixing it first.
    -Alexandra P.

  9. Well while reading this piece a certain type of guilt feel over me. I love to shop, and always have. But I feel the root of my problem started at a younger age. My dad was never really around, he just provided us with a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our back, the necessities. But as far as having a relationship with any of his kids, he just didn't. On his days home from work he would either spend time watching tv or being out still. So the way he made us feel better is by buying us things. Bringing home X box, a dog, jewlery, he brought home anything he could to try and make us happy. To my understanding, because he know that he "lacked" being a father in one way, he thought by providing us with everything he could would make up for it. My mother on the other hand was the stay at home mom, but the relationship she built with us was greater than any piece of jewelry or game system I have. Now in my life, I tried to cut back on how many times I "treat" myself to something I want. Yes, I do have a couple of things hanging around some that I've worn once, or some that still have the tags on (some of them I out grew) but kept buying new ones when the ones I had didn't nefor replacing. I also find when going out for a special occasion i need to go buy a new outfit, when in reality I could make about 10 outfits with the clothes I have, just change it up a bit. I do feel that people do by things as a means to cover up things, or to satisfy their own insecurities (based on what I experienced) and I feel that trying not to "chew more than we can bite" is a challenge for Everyone. The debt is society is increasing people are putting buying things they want infront of paying their bills which to me is a very dangerous shopping addiction. Many people is society need to cut back for the sake of loosing their houses, and possibly looseing everything they have worked for.

    By: Sheika B

  10. I personally dont see anything wrong with wanting the latest things but sometimes people take it to another level. Most of the times we can accept the things we have until its breaking apart and not go out there just to have the latest. I am not the type of person to go run and buy the latest, when my cousins see me with the same clothes or shoes after 5 years they wonder how i do it. I have to remind them where we came from but unfortunetly they forgot.I grew up not having a silver spoon in my mouth but at the same time they got accustom to buying clothes and other items that they do not thinking about what the future hold or how they are even hurting the environment. So i do understand what Mike is saying.

    Kadian G.

  11. My philosophy is if I work hard I should be able to get myself something without feeling guilty. However, I only follow my philosophy if I fulfilled my duties such as paying my loans, credit card, etc. The mention of people who buy a lot of things are unhappy, I don’t 100% agree with. I can only speak for myself and when I go out and buy my fifth cardigan it’s not because I am filling a void it’s because I like variety. I like knowing a have x amount to go with x amount of my jeans. Yes. I am a typical girl who loves clothes, but I believe if I had to take on the challenge and slowly turn it into a lifestyle I could do it. Looking at this article makes me think how in the future I would like to teach my children about consumption and how the world can probably benefit if we didn’t consume so much. Going back to the unhappiness, I’m starting to look back on why do I go shopping and to me it’s a diversion to school, work….life in a way.

  12. I really feel that as consumers, we often spend too much money on things that we really don't need. Some people are trying to compete with their friends, family members and anyone that they meet on the streets.I have heard people say “ well why not spend my money now, I'm going to die oneday and I won't be able to take it with me”. Then you hear how much in debt they are. I think that people sometimes describe themselves as being successful by what they drive or what they have. It's sad to be a person who thinks that having more will make themselves feel good.

  13. As I read this article I felt like I was being described perfectly. When I am bored or just unhappy I turn to shopping as a way to divert my unhappiness and the fact that I feel bored. It is a social event to go to the mall and shop even if you do not necessarily need anything. The problem of consumerism really is bad and the sad part is that I am a part of it. Many times I too look at a new phone with better features than mine and feel the need to get rid of my old phone that I was once happy with. The fact that we always want to have something better than our neighbor applies to my dad as well. When snow season comes he always seems to find the need to have to purchase a newer and better snow blower than our neighbors. This is sad but it is the way we do live and it should be stopped starting with me.

  14. I agree with the fact in which society falls into the scene of always wanting more, and never being satisfied with what we have. Society is always searching for new things that improve technology as well as make society as a whole a better looking one when it comes to advancement. But does this mean that as soon as society comes out with a new technology or the newest and greatest invention, do we have to get it even when we already have a working item? I think the answer to this question is that society feels like we all need to be up to date and we get what we want to get to feel important and to try to understand why other people do what they do. For me, i buys things that are more on the expensive side ONLY if i know that i will have it in the long run for a long time.

    -Sara V.

  15. I do think that in our society, we are never satisfied with what we have. When we someone with something new we "have to" have it and are almost sucked into a cycle of buying and competing for the most expensive and new product. I think the media also plays a big part in our need for all of these new products because the more we see, the more we want. I used to spend money on things I didn't really need but have recently realized that it would be much more efficient to spend money on things that I really needed, not just things that i saw as needs which were really just wants. I commend you on keeping your car for as long as you have. I know that there are definitely people out there who just get new cars for the luxury and the look without thinking about if they really need to be buying a new car.
    -Jenna G.

  16. I have to be honest and I am a consumerist. I work hard and I want nice things. I am not the kind of person that will bring myself to debt to get something I really want but I will save some money every week from my job and save up for it. I believe that I have been working so hard and I deserve to get something nice every now and then. I am not going out everyday to buy clothes, electronics, or toys. I have always had a very cheap flip phone for years. When the Iphone 4s came out I really wanted it. So instead of putting it on my credit card I picked up shifts at work so I could have some extra cash. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. People work for their money and they should do what they want with it.

  17. I personally agree with everything this article says besides the consumption is your religious part. Just because you want new and improve things does not mean that is a religion to you. But besides that I find this issue to be a serious one. Throughout my life, especially in high school, I found people always competing with one another. They always want the newest cars, clothes or anything that makes them seem cooler to others. If they don’t have these things then they feel worthless or jealous. I always thought this was ridicules and would not try not to fall into the consumption issue just because everyone else is. Whenever my parents would ask if I wanted a new computer I would say I didn’t need one. And just recently I got an iPhone only because I lost my old dinosaur of a phone and had an upgrade. I find commercials to be poison for the mind and think the richest people in the world seem the unhappiest. I know everyone falls for it but I feel society makes us this way and we should do everything we can to overcome it. It might not be the worst problem we have today but it defiantly something we should try to put an end to.

  18. In our society today no one is satisfied with what they have. You have the iPhone 4 and a few weeks later you want the newest model, the iPhone 5. Kids even act like this too, your parents buy you a bike but your friends have a "cooler" one and automatically you need a new one. Everyone works hard for their money and I feel that sometimes we do need to reward ourselves and I do feel myself falling into consumerism. I always like to have the newest and coolest things out there but I never stop to say "do i really need this?". More people need to think if they really need 20 pairs of nike sneakers or even the most expensive car out there. Society feels we need the newest everything and the just okay stuff gets thrown into the trash, when someone can be putting it to good use. I would say everyone needs to make a change but in the world we live in temptation is everywhere. Commercials lure you in and everywhere you turn people are trying to sell you something new. Its a bad habit to get into and people should learn to realize that they don't always need to have the latest and greatest.

  19. I do fall into the consumerism but is the one reason why we work so hard in order tohave what we desire and feel good about ourselves of course without going beyond the limits i mean buying 10 pairs of UGG its just crazy but one or two it wont hurt.I dont think there is nothing bad with buying things you could afford obviously if you cant afford tthen dont buy it but we all fall into the . OLGA Agu

  20. I don't believe I fall into the category of consumerism only because when I go out and shop it's because I need something. Although there has been times in which I am out with a friend of mine and while she shops I do look around and see things that I would like to buy myself. I drive a 2009 Toyota Camry and my best friend drives a 1999 Toyota Corolla , she pays 40 every week and a half or every 2weeks while I have to pay 55 every week. In my own opinion I would rather be driving her car because it saves much more money then my own. On the other hand she rather be driving my car because its newer then her car. I feel consumerism is all around us and even when we don't want to part-take we do get draw into this life style that we need the latest things or else we will be judged.



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