The Fallacy of Consumerism

We already possess sufficient technology for the world to live from a fifteen-hour workweek. So why are so many of us taking on second jobs just to make ends meet? Because we would rather buy a shiny new thing than have more personal time.

There are many people that would love to travel but say that they can’t afford it or can’t get the time off work. When you “can’t” do something, you are making the choice not to. These same people have the newest smartphones, go out for dinner regularly and wear the latest fashion. They could afford to travel, but they choose not to make the sacrifices required.

It was Rutger Bergman that taught me in his book Utopia for Realists that we could all have a 15-hour workweek, but we want too many things. Our constant desire for shiny new things grows the economy and makes it necessary for us to work so many hours.

Society is choosing to have more stuff instead of more time. I find this astounding. I would much prefer more time than more stuff. If I was given the choice between more holidays or more money, I would take the holidays.

The insatiability of humans

It’s not our fault, our brain has a glitch: it’s insatiable. Sébastien Bohler talks of this in Le Bug Humain, french for “the human glitch”. Historically, this insatiability increased our likelihood of survival. These days it decreases it. We are far more likely to have health complications from overconsumption than from starvation. 

This glitch is not limited to food, we are insatiable for anything that gives us pleasure. Sex, food and power, are the roots of human desires. Everything we do instinctively, we do to satisfy one of these three desires. 

The more pleasure we derive from an activity the more likely it is to be related to one of those three desires. Marketers know this and sell their products by making it obvious that their food will taste better, their product will make you sexier or their products will make you more influential.

We easily acclimate to pleasure. Meaning, when we make a habit out of something we will need to make it better in some way to enjoy it as much as we did last time. Think of the evolution of fast food. The fact that it was fast was initially revolutionary and exciting ‒ now it’s expected. 

Our addiction to more

When there is a natural cool-down period between doses of pleasure we retain the same amount of enjoyment. When our ancestors got lucky hunting some big game animal they were excited and savoured it because it didn’t happen every day. 

Our society has now evolved so that we can almost instantaneous satisfy any desire. We have porn to destroy our sex lives, a food industry producing ever more addictive foods and social media to make us feel powerful as we destroy our lives in the pursuit of more likes. 

How does this really make us feel? Miserable. By always satisfying our desires we forget how to appreciate what we have and instead are left always craving more. It’s a grim existence, but it doesn’t have to be. We can climb out of it.  

Learning to appreciate 

Learning to appreciate what you have rather than wishing for more can be the most freeing experience of your life. Meditation is a very powerful tool for this purpose. It teaches you to be present and notice your cravings. 

It is natural to have cravings, they will always be there. What is important is to learn to accept those cravings as part of your life and move on from them. We all want a bigger house, a nicer car, more money in the bank, a better phone but these things are superficial and often unnecessary. 

The path to happiness is being grateful for what you already have, rather than always seeking to have more. As part of my daily meditation practice, I list three things I am grateful for that day. Sometimes it is things as simple as not being cold or not being hungry but there is always something to be grateful for. 

We live in a society where we are never really cold or hungry, we hide from any uncomfortable situations. If we get a little cold, we get a blanket, when we get peckish, we have a snack, solving the problem before it becomes one. 

This solution to “the problem” is itself the problem. By always hiding from uncomfortable situations we forget how to live with them. If you are never cold you don’t appreciate it when you are comfortable and your body becomes more sensitive to the cold. If you are never hungry you don’t appreciate when you are satiated. If you are never in an uncomfortable situation you don’t appreciate when you are happy. 

You can still have chocolate

Noticing your desires with the help of a meditation practice gives you control over them. You get to choose which ones you satisfy and which ones you don’t. When you start to choose which desire you satisfy you will find yourself a lot more satiated. 

I love chocolate, always have. But now more than ever even though I have substantially decreased the amount of chocolate that I eat. Where I used to eat an entire chocolate bar a couple of times a week I now eat one over the course of a week or two.

The main thing that happened to generate this change was to slow down how I eat it and appreciate it. Instead of having a whole bar while watching a show or driving, I now have a single piece of chocolate at a time and meditate on it. 

Think before you buy

It was Rutger Bergman that taught me in Utopia for Realists that we could all have a 15-hour workweek, but we want too many things. It’s our constant desire for the shiny new thing that makes it necessary for us to work so many hours.

We would rather have more things than more time. I find this astounding, I crave time far more than things and have been perfectly happy going months without income. 

When I bought my noise-cancelling headphones I was in one of these unemployed periods and agonized over the decision. They were expensive and I could hardly afford them. As you can likely guess, I bought them anyway.

I am happy I did. They changed my life and made all forms of public transport substantially more enjoyable and I have used them extensively ‒ which is now visible in the weathering cuffs. They look bad, and a couple of new models have come out since so I could get an upgrade. 

I won’t, not yet anyway. They still work, and so long as the cuffs are comfortable I will keep them. When the cuffs lose their comfort I will buy new cuffs and keep using the headphones until they have a catastrophic malfunction that prevents them from working. 

Then I will probably buy new ones, but not until that point. Even though there are new models available and I would love to have the quality and noise-cancelling improvements that come with them; I don’t need them. 

It’s natural that we would always want the newest of everything. After all, that’s what the advertisement tells us we need. The glitch in our brain wants the power these things promise to deliver. So think long and hard before you decide to buy something new. If you already have a version of it, wait until that version is unusable before buying a new one. I know you can do it. 

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