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Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ~Isaiah 55:2
We, we know the individuality that isolates the man from other men, the either/or, the lonely-one that leads the flesh to clothing, jewelry, and land, the solitude of sight that separates the people from the people, flesh from flesh, that jams material between the spirit and the spirit. We have suffered witness to these pitiful, and murdering, masquerade extensions of the self. Instead, we choose a real, a living enlargement of our only life. We choose community. ~ June Jordan

Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.


  • Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
  • We, we know the individuality that isolates the man from other men, the either/or, the lonely one that leads the flesh to clothing, jewelry, and land, the solitude of sight that separates the people from the people, flesh from flesh, that jams material between the spirit and the spirit. We have suffered witness to these pitiful, and murdering, masquerade extensions of the self.

    Instead, we choose a real, a living enlargement of our only life. We choose community.

    • June Jordan, "Black Studies: Bringing Back The Person" (1969), in Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America (1981), p. 47
  • The fear for me is that the world has been turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people viewed as unforgivable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as "quality of life" but eats us from within. It is as if we've been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes only emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster.
  • Ecological economists argue for reforms that would ground economics in ecological principles and the constraints of thermodynamics. They urge the embrace of the radical notion that we must sustain natural capital and ecosystem services if we are to maintain quality of life. But governments still cling to the neoclassical fallacy that human consumption has no consequences. We continue to embrace economic systems that prescribe infinite growth on a finite planet, as if somehow the universe had repealed the laws of thermodynamics on our behalf. Perpetual growth is simply not compatible with natural law. [...] Our leaders willfully ignore the wisdom and the models of every other species on the planet—except of course those that have gone extinct.
  • Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; verily He loves not the excessive.
  • Balloon-frame houses illustrated four of the factors cited then and later to explain the emergence of the American system of manufactures. The first was what economists call demand and what social historians might call a democracy of consumption: the need or desire of a growing and mobile population for a variety of ready-made consumer goods at reasonable prices. Considering themselves members of the "middling classes," most Americans in the 1850s were willing and able to buy ready-made shoes, furniture, men's clothing, watches, rifles, even houses. If these products lacked the quality, finish, distinction, and durability of fine items made by craftsmen, they were nevertheless functional and affordable. A new institution, the "department store," sprang up to market the wares of mass production to a mass public. European visitors who commented (not always favorably) on the relationship between a political system of universal (white) manhood suffrage and a socioeconomic system of standardized consumption were right on the mark. Grinding poverty and luxurious wealth were by no means absent from the United States, but what impressed most observers was the broad middle.
  • Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?
  • Mass consumption, advertising, and mass art are a corporate Frankenstein; while they reinforce the system, they also undermine it. By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products.
  • America’s central organizing principle is thoughtless consumption.
    • Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, 2021
  • Those who buy things out of season, at an extravagant price, expect never to live till the proper season for them.
  • Those who want fewest things are nearest to the Gods.
  • Satiety is generated by wealth, and insolence by satiety.
  • Man derives pleasure while acquiring gain.
  • In urban and rural communities alike, a consumer consciousness preceded other forms of political or industrial antagonism. Not wages, but the cost of bread, was the most sensitive indicator of popular discontent. Artisans, self-employed craftsmen, or such groups as the Cornish tin miners (where the traditions of the "free" miner coloured responses until the 19th century), saw their wages as regulated by custom or by their own bargaining. They expected to buy their provisions in the open market, and even in times of shortage they expected prices to be regulated by custom also. (The God-provided "laws" of supply and demand, whereby scarcity inevitably led to soaring prices, had by no means won acceptance in the popular mind, where older notions of face-to-face bargaining still persisted.) Any sharp rise in prices precipitated riot. An intricate tissue, of legislation and of custom regulated the "Assize of Bread", the size and quality of the loaf. Even the attempt to impose the standard Winchester measure for the sale of wheat, in the face of some customary measure, could ensue in riots.
  • The green revolution had produced much more food. That made food cheaper. In turn, that meant we had more money to spend. And we had started to spend it on “stuff”: televisions, video recorders, Walkmans, hair dryers, cars, and clothes. And we also started to spend it on vacations. Far more vacations. At the center of this spending spree was the astonishing growth of transportation. In 1960 there were 100 million cars on the world’s roads—by 1980 there were 300 million. With this came a massive expansion of road networks—carving up entire countries, further increasing loss of habitat for other species. In 1960 we flew 62 billion passenger miles. In 1980 we flew 620 billion passenger miles. Global shipping grew at a similarly astonishing rate. All of the stuff we were buying, plus all of the food we were consuming, plus all the raw materials and resources required to make everything was being shipped around the world. By this point, initial signs of the consequences of our growth were starting to show.
  • As GDP (gross domestic product, the standard measure of the wealth of a country and its inhabitants) increases, calorie consumption also increases. As we get richer (or suffer less poverty), we consume more food.
    • Stephen Emmott. Ten Billion (2013)
  • It’s worth reminding ourselves that our stuff does not come from Target, Whole Foods, A&P, Amazon, Walmart, or Best Buy. Our stuff comes from countries like China, Morocco, Brazil, Turkey, Spain, South Korea, and Peru. Whether it’s asparagus, pajamas, or electronics. Something like 500 million containers of stuff—stuff that we will consume—from Japanese and German cars, South African oranges, Peruvian asparagus, and Kenyan cut flowers, to T-shirts and dresses from Morocco or Vietnam, sneakers, music players, laptops, mobile phones, and televisions from China or South Korea—will be handled and transported around the world this year [2013]. Plus billions of tons of raw materials that will form the basis of our consumption—metals, phosphates, grain, oil, gas, and coal.
    • Stephen Emmott, Ten Billion (2013)
  • The behavioral changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them. What are they? We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, and less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton T-shirts, laptops, mobile-phone upgrades. Far fewer. Yet, every decade, global consumption continues to increase relentlessly.
    • Stephen Emmott, Ten Billion (2013)
  • …civilization’s survival dilemma in the 21st century is best described by a concept from population ecology—overshoot. This refers to the situation where a crucial resource temporarily becomes more abundant, thereby enabling a group of organisms to grow its population beyond levels that can be sustained over the long run. For a population of field mice in overshoot, the critical resource might consist of small plants whose unusually robust growth has been triggered by high levels of rainfall. For humanity currently, the critical resource is fossil energy. Temporary energy abundance has led to many good things (for some of us, anyway): more food, more people, more commercial products, more knowledge, more comfort, and more convenience. But we are about to become victims of our own success.
  • The so-called ‘environmental crisis’ has little to do with the ‘environment’ and everything to do with excess human demands on natural systems. For several decades, H. sapiens has been in a state of ‘ecological overshoot’—our species is exploiting even renewable resources faster than species and ecosystems can regenerate and dumping (often toxic) waste at rates well beyond nature’s assimilation and recycling capacities; think plunging biodiversity, collapsing fish stocks, desertification, soil depletion, tropical deforestation, ocean pollution, contamination of food supplies, rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, resultant climate change, etc., etc. By 2016, H. sapiens was 68% in overshoot—i.e., acting as if Earth were 68% larger or more productive than it is.
    • Ibid.
  • Simply stated, people want (and are encouraged to want) goods and services beyond their base needs, and markets are happy to oblige. A common recipe for countries to achieve high standards of living has been the combination of democracy and capitalism. For the most part, people vote for policies that will improve their circumstances, and corporations make decisions aimed at maximizing profits/growth. Politicians and financiers celebrate strong growth numbers (grumbling only when an overheated market might signal runaway inflation) while bemoaning weak quarters, and practically panicking at the prospect of a recessionary period. Today the financialized capitalist economic system dominating human activity is predicated on growth and the expectation of a bigger future, witnessed in interest rates, loans, investments, massive public and private debt, and the outsized role of the banking system. Growth is thought to be such an unarguable good that the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goal #8 actually calls for growth rates of 7% in less developed countries. While this rate is intended to address the inequitable distribution of wealth across nations, the goal is still based on a business-as-usual, fossil-fuel-based economy.
  • Yet built-in conflict looms. Growth, both material and economic, simply cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Economists—supported by only a short period of empirical evidence—have argued that substitution and decoupling are mechanisms that can allow for indefinite growth. Plenty of examples from the past bolster such arguments. On substitution, the Stone Age did not end due to a lack of stones, one pithy argument goes. On decoupling, trading fine art has a tiny energy-to-monetary ratio. But the overall evidence does not support the idea that the basic operation of the modern economy can happen without massive material and energy throughput. In practice, efficiency gains are largely erased by further growth. Remember that all such past examples from the industrial era have taken place in the context of unsustainable exploitation of finite resources. The future need not look like the recent past—in fact, cumulative irreversible impacts mean that it can’t.
    • Ibid.
  • The latent fear that civilization is living on borrowed time has also spawned a counter-market of “happily ever after” optimists who desperately cling to their belief in endless progress. Popular Pollyannas, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, provide this anxious crowd with soothing assurances that the titanic ship of progress is unsinkable. Pinker’s publications have made him the high priest of progress. While civilization circles the drain, his ardent audiences find comfort in lectures and books brimming with cherry-picked evidence to prove that life is better than ever, and will surely keep improving. Yet, when questioned, Pinker himself admits, “It’s incorrect to extrapolate that the fact that we’ve made progress is a prediction that we’re guaranteed to make progress.”
    Pinker’s rosy statistics cleverly disguise the fatal flaw in his argument. The progress of the past was built by sacrificing the future—and the future is upon us. All the happy facts he cites about living standards, life expectancy, and economic growth are the product of an industrial civilization that has pillaged and polluted the planet to produce temporary progress for a growing middle class—and enormous profits and power for a tiny elite.
  • …consumption cannot happen without production and cannot happen without extraction from the environment. On the other side, there’s pollution, emissions waste, and, obviously, greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, carbon emissions are the—fun fact—largest waste, largest pollutant, by weight of industrial societies… so much larger than solid waste, for instance.
    When we consider the whole system, consumption is often viewed as the driver. Sometimes people call production the driver of consumption itself. But consumption is not equally distributed. So almost all environmental impacts can be traced to consumption activities. But those consumption activities themselves can be associated with different income classes around the world.
    And so one of the things we can see, now that we have much higher resolution data, is that we can really see that high affluence. Income and wealth are always tied to higher levels of consumption, much higher levels of environmental impact. So complete—disproportionately high, in fact—because we see that affluent populations consume more energy-intensive and resource-intensive goods, particularly in the form of transport, than less affluent ones.
  • Overshoot is a product of both excessive numbers and rising affluence. Access to the things that create what we call quality of life, like indoor lighting and temperature controls, especially air conditioning; more diverse dietary choices, especially meat; and greater access to transportation, especially air travel — all signs of rising affluence, all delightful if you are a human, yet all demand more energy and material inputs that involve scouring and denuding more wildlands and animal habitat to feed, clothe, house, and energize burgeoning humanity.
  • We all are a product of our times where new, shiny, better, and "more, more, more" seem normal, but that’s only a reflection of the abnormal period of the last century or so, as we spend down our earthly inheritance.
  • People want stuff. We’re like ravens: “shiny” stuff appeals. Ultimate success means a truly sustainable lifestyle, which could well be materially poorer than today’s life, depending on population. How would we mitigate intrinsic individual desires to acquire more stuff (and power)? It may be a fundamental incompatibility in that evolution prepares self-motivated organisms looking out for their own prosperity. If a species develops “unfair” power advantages that were not part of the evolutionary script, the result may be destined to end poorly as that species uses its discovered power to damage ecosystems beyond repair—ultimately only harming themselves.
  • As soon as we take control of who lives and dies (crops, weeds, pests, animals), decide that we can “own” land, accumulate a lot of “things,” commodify food, and transform living beings into property, we have stepped deep into dangerous territory. It is no surprise that such a culture would develop an ingrained sense of human supremacy. […] General-purpose money—exchangeable for practically anything of value—is an outward manifestation of this objectification and arrived as a seemingly inevitable partner to our objectifying, agricultural ways. This construct facilitated and accelerated the pace of unfortunate, exploitative decisions.
  • As economies expand beyond subsistence level, a larger fraction of the total activity can go to “frivolous” elements, such as art and entertainment. The intensity of such activities can be quite low. An art collector may pay $1 million for a coveted painting. Very little energy is required. The painting was produced long ago. It may even remain on display in the same location—only the name of the owner changing. Financial transactions that require no manufacture, transport, and negligible ¿energy are said to be “decoupled” from physical resources. Plenty of examples exist in society, and are held up by economists as illustrating how we can continue to expand the economy without a commensurate expansion of resource needs.
  • … our current prosperity could be that we entered a period of prosperity due to the easy abundance of fossil fuels and the scarcity imposed upon us by their end could play out similar to the scarcity imposed by the onset of colder weather at the end of the high middle ages.

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