Free Yourself From the Religion of Consumption

"It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself." –Theodore Roosevelt

If you had young children present during the recent holiday festivities, I assume you saw the same, seemingly endless, conveyer of boxes and present bags—you struggled to corral the same eruption of wrapping paper, ribbon, tissue, and plastic packaging—and you, undoubtedly, spent the next few days wrestling with assembly directions whilst strategizing over how to store and organize this avalanche of toys. Some of you may even be considering a new home to serve as a larger container.

To some degree this is far better than the popular alternative. Video games and smartphones would take up far less room, while trading the child’s desire for movement and tactile discovery for a deep lobotomized trance. Furthermore, the mountain of gifts is often a symptom of children having a large support network who love them dearly. Still, gifts are just things. They are not love and, enmeshed in the current extremes, this bonanza of consumerism isn’t healthy for anyone.

Neither is the overflowing table of desserts, offering each individual an entire tray if their heart desired. Yet even this pales in comparison to the endless buffet of appetizers and entrees. Allured by the abundance of smells and savory tastes, we shovel disposable plate after disposable plate into our mouths, but it still isn’t enough. Leftovers are packaged and distributed but even that leaves over half the food spoiling away in the garbage. This is a better alternative to using your body as the trash can and, again, the surplus of food is a symptom of abundant love. Still, it begs the question, could we show affection without so much consumption and waste? Why do we conceive eating and buying too much as necessary for collective joy?

I get the counterpoint. This is tradition. This is Christmas. It is only one day, or at least, only one season a year, so what is the big deal? And, I agree, when governed by intentionality and self-control feasting and indulgence are wonderful departures from the norms of daily life. This highlights the issue.  

Christmas is just a slightly exaggerated version of the norms that characterize everyday life. Impulse buying, debt, spoiling youth, eating too many sweets, and eating too much in general are probably the most ubiquitous American norms.

Each season there is another holiday we’ve stretched to eclipse the consumption that once only typified the Christmas Holiday Season. When we live at the extremes of consumption, there is nothing to do but go bigger. Every youth soccer game deserves a party and every mundane accomplishment now warrants ceremony and pageantry. There is a large hole we’re constantly trying to fill with store bought cookies and artificial marvel.

Even outside the celebratory, consumption is baked into our daily operations. Rather than using human muscle and efficient public transit like most the world, we waste quantities of gas sufficient for transporting dozens—all on independent trips to the store, or to the gym a couple miles across town where we hit the treadmill and ride the stationary bike.

We even consume entertainment and media, eagerly scanning for more information and distraction. Our lives are a search for the dopamine hit that might have aided our survival in the sparse, nomadic environment our biology is wired to thrive within.  But today, despite our material abundance and mass convenience, we are more depressed, anxious, suicidal, and drug-addicted than any large civilization in history.

We are governed by a 2-million-year-old brain thrust into inexplicable fortune and security. It tells us to do what everyone else does or risk group exclusion that would mean death. It tells us to scan for the negative in case there is a lion in that rustling bush. It tells us to gorge on sugar because it is only available in quickly rotting fruit and winter is coming. It tells us to quickly normalize each positive or negative change in lifestyle as our new set point so that we can remain motivated in times of ease and find hardships bearable. Most notably, it urges us to avoid all pain and seek all pleasure, never adjusting for abundance, or differentiating between the deadly pain of a burn and the necessary pains of delayed gratification.

To our biology, there would have been no need for delayed gratification. That was an inescapable constant of life. Today, it has been shown to be a distinguishing quality and the number one indicator of success and emotional adjustment. 

Rather than helping to equip us with the means to handle this bizarre mass affluence, we’ve promoted a system that inundates each mind with social justification and advertisement. Marketers assault us with expertly crafted subliminal messages, consistently brainwashing us into the belief that we need more—that each new purchase is another step on that linear path towards happiness—that your old purchases are now inferior relics of a deprived, spartan existence. Our clothes go in and out of style. Our needs constantly escalate.  

Writer’s note: I’ve been writing this in the early morning while on a one-day vacation at the house of some extended family. In order not to wake anyone, I’ve sequestered myself in the laundry room, where someone’s phone is being charged. In the three hours I’ve been writing until now, this phone has chimed with 17 advertisements. No embellishment. Normally, I’d not snoop, but given the topic I couldn’t help myself. How indicative of the avalanche of advertisement that characterizes modern life.

After the September 11th attacks, George W. Bush called on Americans to “go shopping more.” Buying more has become the answer to every challenge. We spend to fix national crises and our individual lack of purpose. Yet, the boons of this short-term solution create far deeper long-term consequences for ourselves and the nation.

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Currently the average American holds $16,883 in credit card debt. Many even go into debt for Christmas shopping. We spend money we don’t have in order to buy gifts in unnecessary volume. Living beyond our means has become the norm. According to Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, only 39% of American households could handle a $1,000 emergency with savings.

Despite this bleak reality, news outlets plainly celebrate the fact that Americans spent $850 billion this holiday season, up 5.1% from 2017. This as of December 27th when, as the media put it, the holiday shopping season was still “not quite over.” That’s right. Americans are still pouring into the malls for exchanges and post-Christmas sales. Soon they’ll be spending on fad diets and diet pills. Another purchase intended to fix the problem of unquenchable consumption.

Consumption and waste are the very lens for which we see the world. We burn calories so that we can consume more, rather than investing calories into worthwhile pursuits and nourishing our bodies with the food it needs. We spend our time, rather than invest it in experiences and skills that offer more possibility. There is a very real cost to each day. It is our life, exchanged for whatever we’ve done and there are no refunds. Yet if you look at the limits we place on ourselves and the mundane patterns we resign our lives to, it is clear that most see life just as they see things: as inexhaustible resources requiring little reflection or intentionality to prioritize better use. Our entire lives are a revolving door of accumulation and disposal.

I don’t speak as a poster-child for temperance and intentionality. I’m as guilty as anyone. Immersed in this standard model, my life has been riddled with the same patterns of debt and mindless consumption. These are the cultural expectations we’ve all been handed. The point is not condescension or condemnation, but awakening to the realities of our actions so we might live better.

Furthermore, consumption is not inherently bad. There are worthwhile purchases, particularly educational and experiential ones that tend to be less material. The problem is our collective lack of intentionality and the belief that we should be allowed to waste endlessly in pursuit of ever-increasing comfort and convenience. We feel entitled to consume without consideration about the effects of our existence. In the process we’ve lost a vital appreciation for the value of each item and our connection to the whole.

COSTS OF CONSUMPTION: THE MACRO

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms…. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption…. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate. –Victor Lebow

For those still with me, I’m going to ask that you take the gloves off. None of this is meant to attack any one person or occupation. We are all part of this system and I just want to provoke an earnest self-reflection about how we live that might cause you to see and act differently.

Things tend to get divisive the second the word environment is uttered. The reality is the environment is not a partisan issue and caring about it does not necessitate one way of thinking. In fact, the first environmentalist president was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who called for more parks and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined. At the deepest level we were all made to live harmoniously in an organic natural setting and the departure from this environment has created angst.

The Victor Lebow quote that began this section sheds light on the manipulation that revolutionized our expectations. While this system has created a staggeringly high standard of living, it has moved the United States along a fairly consistent upward trend of depression, anxiety, obesity, drug-addiction, and suicide. These are all at never before seen peaks. Furthermore, this ever-escalating consume and discard ethos failed to account for the finite planet. It was by nature a short term solution that could not be sustained hundreds of years in the future.

I have an issue with this approach. Society seems to have broadly accepted that getting through their own lifespan is the only point. A sort of hubris leads most people to assume they are at the watermark of history and it will all cease to exist after they do.

Think of how much you love your children. How much will they love theirs? Why would we think it is okay to consume at such a rate as to leave nothing for our children’s children? Or their children? Certainly, the cycles of history dictate that there will be hard times, but that doesn’t excuse knowing complicity. We should live in such a way as to give a model that our children could follow. Otherwise, they are going to look back and conclude that we all pretty much just sucked, and they might be right.

Modern consumerist societies are built on a five-part system:

  1. Resource Extraction;

  2. Production;

  3. Distribution;

  4. Consumption;

  5. Disposal

Here is a modest look at the realities of each, unencumbered by the politically inflammatory, however relevant, climate change discussion. The statistics are from the Story of Stuff Project as of 2007. While somewhat dated, they illuminate norms that have only accelerated with the rise of the smartphone.

Resource Extraction:

This is where we go into the environment to procure the resources needed to make products. We dig, cut down, blow up, and otherwise manipulate the planet in order to extract what we desire. This has always existed, but in pre-industrial societies we did this more personally, with cruder tools, and on an individual scale far below replacement. That is, the environment typically reproduced what the individual used faster than we used it. There are exceptions. From the beginning, human communities tended to use those animals highest in the food chain faster than they could reproduce, thus inducing many extinctions. Still, for the most part, our existence quickly fell into a sustainable homeostasis with the environment.

Norms:

  • Over the past three decades 1/3 of earth’s natural resources have been consumed

  • The Amazon Rainforest loses 2,000 trees per minute

  • The US has less than 4% of its original forest left

  • The US is 5% of World pop, but creating 30% of consumption and waste

Production:

After resources are extracted they are typically taken to a factory to be manipulated into products.

Norms:

  • Over 100,000 synthetic chemicals are used in production, creating toxic sheath around the products we bring into our homes and ingest in our bodies

  • The US releases over 4-billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the air we breathe

Distribution:

We go to the store, or go online, and purchase the items we want. We pay a cost and receive a product. Unfortunately, these costs are typically skewed by government subsidies and a failure to price the cumulative effects of the product’s extraction, processing, consumption, and disposal. We are divorced from the costs and effects of our choices about consumption.

Here is where our power really lies. Deciding what to purchase drives what will be extracted and produced. Of course, currently we aren’t driving that system. Brilliant marketers overwhelmingly and predictably drive the masses to actions.  

Norms:

  • In the US we shop 3 to 4 times more than people in Europe

  • The average US person now consumes over twice as much as they did 50 years ago

  • We see more advertisements in a year than people did in a lifetime 50 years ago

Disposal:

We get rid of what we consumed and its byproducts. These discards are either taken to the landfill, or burned releasing their toxins, such as the extremely harmful dioxin, into the air and then taken to the landfill.

Norms:

  • In North America, 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, and transport is no longer in use within 6 months of purchase!

  • The average US person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago

  • Each individual in the US averages 4.5 pounds of garbage per day

  • Waste now surrounds us all, even creating the Pacific Garbage Patch—a floating ball of trash over twice the size of Texas

It is clear that we cannot continue to operate as if the world was disposable. We need to rethink our place in the larger whole and begin to radically shift how we consume.

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The Victor Lebow types will say that the economic costs would be too devastating. A similar argument was made by southerners in the mid-1800’s. An entire economy based on slave labor was forced out of their hideous system and, despite many growing pains, they’ve been better for it. Markets adjust to new patterns.  

Others will say that science will create more efficiency and adapt for us. They’ll point to a Malthusian catastrophe that never happened as evidence that we can consume infinitely. I believe in human ingenuity, but I’m also keenly aware of the unintended costs typically wrought from too much environmental engineering.  

In 19th century colonial India, British settlers were unhappy with the cobras that populated the countryside around their new homes. The British government responded by paying Indian natives for each dead cobra. Seeing an opportunity for profit, the natives began harvesting more cobras. When the British caught on and ended the payment policy, angry natives released the cobras into the wild, thus tripling the Indian cobra population. My point is that our ecosystems are complex beyond the human engineering capacity. There are always cobra effects to shortsighted solutions. We saw this in the 1930’s when the demands of industrial expectations led to over-plowing and neglected crop rotation that created a decade long drought in the American Great Plains.

Furthermore, this problem is simply too large. Scientific efficiency can’t keep up with our rate of consumption. At best, it kicks the can down to the next generation. Rather than look for external saviors we need to come to a personal awakening and change the way we live.

Most assume we now have it all figured out—that we are living in a new, progressive world—but so did your great, great grandparents and their parents. Heck, we’ve all seen this in our own lives. In his 2008 election bid, Democrat Barrack Obama wouldn’t back gay marriage, concluding, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Yet, by 2012 he and the world had largely changed their outlook. By 2015, before Obama left office, the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal throughout all the United States, with little opposition. Even the most hardline conservatives simply moved onto other issues. The collective mass saw the error in their old ways and moved forward, better.

Self-education is the process of freeing yourself. This was the great insight of the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: if we don’t understand why we hold the values that we do, if we just blandly accept those that society has passed on, we can never consider ourselves to be totally free.  

Like the racism or sexism typical of Americans 150 years ago, runaway consumption is so commonly accepted by our culture that we assume it is normal. Slavery was perceived as the natural order by nearly every South Carolinian living in 1850. Likewise, the typical New Yorker of that era knew with certainty that women could not rival men in regards to intellect and, thus, had little place in politics, much less voting. There are almost certainly many ways we are currently living based upon similar faulty assumptions, yet none so obvious as the religion of consumerism. I expect consumerism will be the grand oversight exposed by our next generation. It doesn’t pit race against race, or sex against sex, but, rather, generation against generation.

Eventually, humanity will be forced to change. You could make the argument that individual correction is only a drop in the bucket—irrelevant before larger systemic changes are forced from cataclysmic consequences—but this ignores the bigger issue. These patterns are most destructive to us as individuals.

COSTS OF CONSUMPTION: THE MICRO

“That which isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee.” –Marcus Aurelius

Today, we have less leisure time than ever and we spend it watching TV and scanning social media, exposing ourselves to even more advertisement, and then shopping. It is a vicious, unfulfilling cycle. We eat crap, buy more than we need, spend more than we should or even have, pour through it, and then dispose of the massive waste. The unfulfilling nature of each purchase represented in the speed at which we discard it.

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Russell Brand, a recovering drug addict has come through the 12-step program only to conclude that we are all addicts. In fact, you’re lucky if that addiction is so extreme as to lead you to help. Most find their lives defined by a compulsive addiction to combative relationships, food, smartphone scans, or shopping. Addiction, as he says, is typically trying to “deal with a deficit—a lack of connection and dissatisfaction with the material world—an inability to align within systems that seem erroneous, duplicitous, and meaningless.”

We now conceive every want as a need to be filled. Old is beneath us and we grow increasingly dependent on items we once lived without. We are all trying to deal with an absence, but the consumption never fills that. We need something that can’t be bought.

Money doesn’t buy happiness.” -Everyone at some point in their lives

Overconsumption has a way of making us subjugate ourselves into a dependent relationship. The more we conceive as needs—the more we are dependent on for happiness—the less free we are. Dependency is a lack of freedom. We’ve enslaved ourselves to unrealistic expectations and a cycle that clouds out the development of more fulfilling pursuits, thus devastating our own spirit, whilst destroying the world around. We have more, but we are less: less capable of ensuring our own survival; less competent; and despite immersion into an oversaturated social media landscape, less connected to our fellow humans.

GIVING IS FULFILLING

What brings fulfilled living: delayed gratification, rich experiences, gratitude, and taking your attention off yourself and onto others. This is really the root of the problem. Immersed in this vacant culture of waste, we find purpose when we finally give ourselves to our kids. In breaking the cycle of self-absorption we are filled. It feels so good, we want to give more and more. Immersed within a consumerist religion, we can only conceive of loving our children by giving them more stuff. Unfortunately, this traps another generation into even unhealthier expectations and shackles them to even greater self-limiting dependency. 

The father of free-market capitalism, Adam Smith, warned that overspecialization would create “mental mutilation” and “deformity of mind.” He saw that unchecked consumptive fervor would fracture communities into isolated occupations who lost their connection to the grander whole and, in the process, lost their appreciation for the complex beauties of life.

We have no idea how our materials reach the market and who made them possible. In our own careers we’re largely isolated from the finished product of any work. Rather than harvesting crops, building homes, or forging swords, we’re punching data into spreadsheets—busy, yet completely disconnected from the end result. As cogs in a giant machine, work feels meaningless. Our days spent battling traffic and stressing over sales all seem a necessary evil to earn the paycheck we need to afford all this stuff. Adam Smith’s solution was an inspired education that anticipated and counteracted these issues. Modern education, unfortunately, has simply become a part of this consumerist, outcome oriented system.

NEW WAYS 

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” –Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists

In the nomadic existence that defined 99% of human history, people had very few possessions. Subject to seasons and herds, they never stayed in one place very long, and thus, had to be selective about what they carried with them. The earth provided the bulk of their needs.

Following the Agricultural Revolution that birthed stationary civilizations, people began to accumulate more material. Most people made permanent homes adorned with necessary tools and eventually books and some furniture. This is how most people lived for the thousands of years prior to urbanized, industrialized culture. At the turn of the 20th century, most Americans still lived in small, rural communities that were mostly self-sufficient. We grew our own gardens, patched clothes, and made a point of preserving and maintaining the products we used each day.

Self-reliance, community, thriftiness, and resourcefulness were essential values for people throughout human history. While life has changed considerably, we can restore many of the practices that made these people so admirable and successful.  

On a recent visit, my mother saw the large rip in the arm of our couch. My wife, Neely, and I had resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d deal with this eyesore until the eventual purchase of a new couch. When my mom asked where the needle and thread were, I chuckled. Millenials don’t have those things. No worry. Mom apparently travels with a sewing needle and was able to pull the old thread out of the ripped section of couch and reuse that to sew it back up. It looks brand new. Now that’s old-school.

The minimalist movement has grown considerably over the past decade as more and more find discontent in the standard model of life. Many are finding financial and emotional freedom by dispatching with large homes, cars, smartphones, compulsive shopping, and the careers that were once necessary to maintain that exorbitant lifestyle. The idea is to invest in personal development—to discover the real fundamentals of happiness so that your time, money, and life are invested in the right pursuits.

Maybe you aren’t ready for all that. As attractive as it all is to me, full-scale minimalism can is full of hard practices to adopt, particularly amid suburban family life. At the very least we can reevaluate our assumptions about how life is lived.

“A man must be a little mad if he doesn’t want to be even more stupid.” –Michel de Montaigne

We all simply do what we’ve been programmed to do. But, we can break free from this insane cycle by adopting new boundaries that offer freedom. Some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Restore sanity to Christmas by only giving kids four presents: something they need, something to read, something to wear, and something they tell you they want.

  • Organize an index fund for each child and convince people to contribute towards this, rather than giving gifts.

  • Become a one-car household.

  • Ditch the truck or oversized SUV. You can always rent a truck at Home Depot for cheap.

  • Recycle.

  • Allow the house to be a little cooler in the winter and a little warmer in the summer.

  • Simplify your life and donate the masses of excess cluttering your home.

  • Mandate a 24-hour incubation period before any nonessential purchase.

  • Plan cheaper meals and cook at home. Beans and rice are extremely cheap, which is why they are the staples of Latin America, Asia, India, and much of the Mediterranean. They can be made many different ways, all delicious.

  • Be deliberate about what you consume and who it is supporting.

  • Prioritize purchasing quality items that you will maintain and which preclude future purchases. For example, one nice, adaptable jacket.

  • Go on a 30 spending freeze and take the time to create rules to guide future purchasing.

  • Buy used items and learn to refurbish furniture.

  • Create smartphone boundaries.

  • Invest money in learning skills, in self-education, and in an index fund.

Again, these steps are not prescriptive. They may be large, or irrelevant for some. It is always best to try to discern principles and apply them to your own situation. For example, I wanted to get rid of my car and become a one-car household. Neely was uneasy about the many ways that could leave us exposed in the event of a child accident or unexpected work travel throughout the very spread out Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Seeing the sincerity of my intent, she came to a great compromise. I’d trade in my car and get a beater for emergencies. The beater already exists after all. Why not pay cash for a little security and transition to my primarily car-free lifestyle?

When eliminating the fluff, the most important thing to do is to put the time in to your own self-development. This is really just about being more intentional in our lives, after all. I recommend starting with the IHD core habits. These will transform the way you feel and see the world. If you need more, I encourage you to check out the IHD course catalog.

Question of the week: What in your life is causing more harm than help? A smartphone? A television? A job? A relationship? An addiction? Junk food? How can you rid yourself of this dependency?

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