What stops us from tackling consumerism?

Jeremy Williams considers the reasons why consumerism is hard to resist.

Not many people are enthusiastically in favour of consumerism. As James Wallman explores in his book Stuffocation, a solid majority of people think society is too materialistic, and that they would themselves be better off with less stuff. And yet the adverts keep coming, the Amazon delivery drivers are busier than ever. Even if there is a broad recognition that consumer society isn’t sustainable and isn’t making us happy, we seem powerless to resist it.

What stops us? I suspect there are a whole range of reasons, but three that come to mind are denial, fear, and power.

Human psychology is a big part of it. We naturally push away threatening questions, and find reasons not to engage with them. Holding unwelcome facts at arm’s length is a common psychological tactic, one many of us will have observed in one way or another. I once noticed that only my friends who smoked harboured any doubts about the dangers of smoking.

There’s a certain amount of denial going on around consumerism, and that’s a defense mechanism to protect ourselves as much as anything. If we were to honestly acknowledge the reality of climate change, or sweatshop labour, animal suffering or plastic pollution, it would inevitably encroach on our lifestyle habits. It would demand something of us, and so it’s safer to ignore it.

As well as denial, I suspect there’s fear at work – a basic and very primal fear that we don’t have enough. For consumerism to function it essentially needs people to be constantly afraid that there isn’t enough to go round. And in a rich country like ours, it’s not necessarily that there isn’t enough stuff, or food, or energy, for everybody – there clearly is, even if not everyone has access to it.

Among those whose basic needs are already met, the ongoing fear is that there isn’t enough respect, admiration, love or dignity for everyone. In a society where people are judged on what they earn and what they own, we’re scared that people will think less of us if we don’t earn enough or own the right things. These aren’t fears for our own survival, but psychological fears of falling short in front of our peers.

Then we have power. There are huge structures that are invested in things exactly the way they are, because they benefit from this fear that keeps us spending. There is a chorus of voices telling us to be selfish, to buy it now, to take what we can, and thereby make ourselves the most envied and admired. There are far more messages urging us to consume that there are reassurances that we have enough. How many billboards have you seen asking you not to buy something? Or TV adverts celebrating what you already have?

The reality is that these ‘principalities and powers’, if you like, are keen to maintain the status quo because they benefit from it. They’re making money, and in a capitalist society it’s money that makes things happen, so the whole system gets geared towards self-reinforcing networks of wealth and power. 

That’s hard to break, even if that endless drive to consume more is proving suicidal through the climate and ecological emergency.

Three of the most powerful forces that stop us from challenging consumerism are denial, our own fears and insecurities, and unjust power. Those can all be redressed. We need the honesty and integrity to refuse denial. A culture of belonging can encourage people to trust that there will be enough, and a theology that encourages us to find our worth in God and in the divine image that we all share, rather than what we own or earn. And unjust power can be challenged too, though it is sometimes a long struggle.

We are not powerless in the face of consumerism. To find out more, perhaps you would like to join (or host) the Plenty! discussion course in your community.

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