Overcoming Overconsumption Before It Consumes Us!

“Transition towns, recycling, alternative power, enduring design; they are just attacking the symptoms. They are merely allowing us to continue living the way we are. They are buying us time. They are not embracing the root cause — our psychology.”

Evolution and psychology explain our urge to consume, argues a new documentary film from the United Kingdom entitled Consumed — Inside the Belly of the Beast. In practical terms that means that the need to acquire status is behind our unsustainable consumption of material items like that new house, new car, new iPad. It’s a strong claim to start off a film with. But then again, it could easily apply to people we know, couldn’t it?

For many people, there are negative connotations to the C-words “consumer” and “consumerism”. But delving a little into the complex of field of evolutionary psychology, this UK documentary draws attention to the idea that as a species we consume as part of “a very natural human urge to experience, and to grow, and to learn, and to play out dreams and aspirations”. In other words, consumption is underpinned by biologically normal tendencies to survive and attract a mate, as others have argued before here on Our World 2.0.

Brain food

So, at what point did or does consumerism move from being normal to reach the point of “mental illness”, as one of the documentary’s interviewees (who are experts in fields like human ecology, archaeology and sustainable design for instance) puts it?

Perhaps it is helpful here to note Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, even though it is not referred to in the documentary. Under Maslow’s hierarchy (see the pyramid), humans have always strived to meet their basic physiological needs (food, water, sex, sleep) and safety needs (for health, family, property, etc).

The film argues that many of us (although of course by no means all of us) have overcome, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, the primordial need to protect ourselves from predators of our own and other species, and from disease.

An interpretation of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. By Factoryjoe.

Subsequently, we climb higher up Maslow’s pyramid to emphasise love/belonging and then towards esteem (respect of others and by others). It is at this point that things have sadly gone wrong. The film-makers argue that we now buy our own social status and the esteem of others through the consumer economy. With the basic needs taken care of by industrial society, we now have the time and brain space to be fixated on consuming.

Consumerism has become a form of nourishment for the human mind that craves stimulation and new ideas. But taken to extremes, consumerism morphs into a process that has social and environmental consequences that jeopardise our own long-term interests (dare we say chances of survival — if not of us humans then of many of the planet’s other species and resources).

The process of consuming has also become increasingly complex and stressful — with too many choices and ever more challenging gadgets and gear that we need to fathom. As the film points out, we are working so hard at figuring out how to be good consumers but paradoxically getting so little back in return.

Sadly, in the search for esteem, status or prestige via consumption, we seem to lose sight of the love/belonging segment of Maslow’s pyramid and our chances of moving onto some form of self-actualization appear increasingly remote.

In a world of information overload, perhaps deliberately, Consumed does not bombard the audience with forgettable statistics. But one statistic stands out for its sheer size: by the age of 20, the average Westerner will have been exposed to 1 million commercial messages, or roughly 140 per day. Clearly, corporations, governments and their marketeers are playing their part to ensure we succumb to our evolutionary tendencies. In such a torrent of messages urging you to consume, how can you not be swept along?

The counterargument is that we are not without self-will and that everyone has the potential to resist these temptations to buy, buy, buy.

Consuming a range of films

Consumed is not the first, and won’t be the last documentary analysis of modern society’s runaway consumption, the dynamics behind it and the remedies to move beyond it.

Consumed takes its lead from filmmaker Adam Curtis’s 2002 dissection of how advertisers and corporations take advantage of our evolutionary tendencies to consume in the highly regarded The Century of the Self.  This BBC series explored the growth of mass-consumerism in the Anglophone world through the lens of psychoanalysis. Primarily, it revealed how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays kick-started the practice of “public relations” in the aftermath of World War I, allegedly to manipulate people’s “unconscious desires” to consume.

Another notable anti-consumerism film is No Logo: Brands, Globalization and Resistance (2003), viewable online here. Through the eyes of Canadian activist Naomi Klein who authored the book of the same name, No Logo assessed the anti-globalisation protest movement that has arisen as an antidote to the environmental and social consequences of unfettered capitalism.

But both these critiques are almost a decade old. And arguably, given that the pace of globalisation and consumerism has accelerated since their release, the solidarity movement they were trying to inspire against runaway capitalism is still struggling to assert mainstream appeal.

The advantage of Consumed, in terms of capturing the public’s attention and propelling us towards a better, more just world, is that it dissects the state of modern society in a scientific, cautious and reflective manner. The film’s timing reflects a sense, albeit difficult to measure, that in a post-global financial crisis context “people are questioning the nature of modern life” more than ever. Reflecting this uncertainly, the producers were careful not to simply reinforce the one perspective from different ‘talking heads’ sources to the point of redundancy. Although the overall sentiment of the film trends in a general direction towards questioning the status quo, there is enough nuance to leave us uncertain of how to get where we need to go.

[quote quote=”The film’s timing reflects a sense, albeit difficult to measure, that in a post-global financial crisis context ‘people are questioning the nature of modern life’ more than ever.” type=”text” ]

However, the film is a good complement, rather than a replacement of more polemic activist films like No Logo that outline an alternative blueprint of where humanity should turn. At just 52 minutes long, Consumed did not allow itself time to explore more deeply ideas of how we can evolve as a species, as if the process of consumerism is inevitably something we cannot overcome, at least in the short term. Certainly a discerning viewer would be thinking, “If not ‘Transition towns, recycling, alternative power, enduring design’, then what?” It may not be fair to dismiss such initiatives as mere palliatives, meant to reduce the pain of life today and allow us to continue consuming. They may instead be forms of medicine that are, as yet, too bitter for many to swallow.

A common but avoidable weakness of this and many other English language documentaries is its Anglocentricity with interviewees either being from the UK or North America. It is yet another parade of the all too common Anglo-saxon angst about the end of days and the decline of western civilisation. It would be instructive to understand the perspectives of people in the emerging middle classes of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other countries who are most probably engaging consumerism for the first time; not to mention those all over the world aspiring to have what the developed world has, however unsustainable or materialistic.

The jaws of the tiger

While the central premise of Consumed might sound depressing, the film posits that society’s current era of hyper-consumption and detachment from the environment is viewed as an inevitable, but relatively short period of human evolution. One strong message from the film is that we are somehow meant to be here — where we are today — in the consumer society. It is a step on the way to somewhere else, somewhere better. Despite its brevity, the film manages to find hope about the future and its participants appear to believe (or at least wish) that the general population is, or will start to wake-up to our self-destructive reality.

So what about the film’s provocative tagline, ‘Inside the belly of the beast’? Well, if we are going to overcome the amazing self-destructiveness of the consumer/marketing age, the film suggests that there is no better place to do this than from the inside — from within the heart of the consumer society. Reflecting the philosophy that “necessity is the mother/father of invention”, the point when human society is under the most pressure is also the best platform from which to leap beyond the obstacles that seem so insurmountable to us today.

But is this theory a wise thought or just wishful thinking? How many times have you heard people say that their goal was to “change things from the inside”? It can happen. But it is also the case that once inside the beast, you could lose the chance to affect change because you have already been swallowed whole. You have passed through the jaws of the tiger and there is no way back.

Or maybe that doesn’t matter at all because the really honest response to today’s predicament, as one commentator in the film points out, is to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers yet. We are still working it out. But we will get there, eventually.

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Overcoming Overconsumption Before It Consumes Us! by Mark Notaras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Mark Notaras was a writer/editor of Our World 2.0 for the United Nations University (UNU) Media Centre from 2009–2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.

Join the Discussion

  • Our compulsion to consume is certainly a symptom of something, and it seems compelling to me that it is, ultimately, a conditioned response to modernity’s futile search for meaning and fulfillment through the acquisition of material things and experiences.

    And, IMO, this futile search is itself a symptom of our western worldview in which we mistakenly believe ourselves to be separate from nature and each other. Conditioned from the start to have this gap – and reinforced by endless messaging – we thus consume ever more but can “never get enough of what we don’t really need.”

    Like clever parasites, advertisers and such have learned to exploit this dynamic for great profit, as this article states. And supporting myths, such as endless economic growth and technological progress, further reinforce.

    It seems clear that the processess of globalization have exported this worldview from the west and colonized the minds of vulnerable indigenous cultures, creating a hegemonic onslaught that is all but impossible to resist given the resources being put toward its dissemination. 

    And while growing numbers are questioning it as the detrimental repercussions become ever more obvious, elsewhere growing numbers are becoming empowered consumers eager to fulfill their newfound dreams of consumption, creating a kind of numerical competition between those being seduced by the dream of consumption and those waking up from the dream. The fate of the earth seems to hang in the balance.

    What to do? I can’t help but think that every person who begins to see through this false worldview of separation becomes a change agent in direct proportion to their awareness and willingness to act in accordance with their conscience and consciousness. And seeing through this obsolete worldview isn’t an uphill battle…I’d argue that it is all but becoming unavoidable. As such – whether one looks from the perspectives of quantum physics, ecology, systems theory, or spirituality – the awareness of our intrinsic connectedness accords with the tide of history.

    Whether we collectively wake up in time to avoid massive disruptions remains to be seen, but I’m not holding my breath as they appear to be inevitable given the scope and breadth of systemic ills. As such, I’m a pessimist regarding the ability for this civilization to rejigger the status quo toward true sustainability, but I’m an optimist that “we will get there, eventually.” It seems reasonable to expect, though, that “there” will undoubtedly look markedly different than “here.”

    • Alan, your thoughts re futile search for meaning and fulfilment remind me of certain taoist medicine theory I came across a few years ago. I’m probably oversimplifying here but a disharmony in the Earth element (to do with being centred, grounded) may mean the stomach can’t digest as well – i.e. make meaning from experiences – and the spleen wouldn’t be as able to extract the chi from food to nourish the body. Indeed a spleen disharmony would manifest as someone not being able to satisfy their need for nourishment – always seeking more. Connecting to the earth, to nature, is grounding. And we’ve always known all this, the evidence is in the English language – its no coincidence we use terms like ‘grounded’! 

      Also find useful the concept of consumerism and detachment from nature as a parasitic idea, or an invasive species, colonising us/ the rest of the world. 

      Agree re rate and scale of radical change needed – unlikely to happen in time to avoid huge trauma to large parts of humanity. Eventually yes we’re a resilient resourceful species and life will go on in some form but I fear, at great cost

  • christopherdoll

    It is interesting that you question whether this is a stage we need to go through, if so, then it may be counterproductive to tell emerging economies to stay away from it. It is akin to telling kids not to smoke, it looks cool and you know its bad for you but most teenagers rebel at being told what to do.

    It is an optimistic view to think that we will get sick of consumerism, elites have always been consumerist, now this can be delivered to everyone, this will continue until we find ways to achieve self-esteem and confidence that doesn’t come in the form of a purchased product. Marketers stay ahead of the game by providing every form of self-expression with an off-the shelf solution and individualism comes in every colour.

  • Phil Davis

    In terms of working it out, Consumed pretty much provides the key to
    building further upon the many and varied works out there that provide strategies
    for a sustainable future. Jonathon Porritt’s Capitalism as if the World
    matters and Caroline Lucas/Michael Wooodin’s Green Alternatives to
    Globalisation are personal favourites. Its not that we haven’t worked it
    out IMHO its simply that these ideas never reach the masses of people
    whose changed opinions could make the difference. Why I wonder? There
    could hardly be a better time to raise awareness given the the state of
    global economics and societal turmoil!!