Why Are We Consumeristic?

I have a question.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who believes that consumerism is a good thing, or that they should be consumeristic. I have yet to meet someone who says that more-or-less mindless consumption is a personal virtue or a badge of honor.

Question: If most of us are against consumerism, why does it still exist?

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

8 thoughts on “Why Are We Consumeristic?”

  1. I’m pretty sure you’re always going to need toilet paper, oil/gas. electricity, clean water, working sewage systems, etc.

    Consumerism is good because we value living in civilized society and not like some kind of Middle Eastern Islamic shithole where they live in crappy homes, don’t have Western style plumbing, don’t have the ability to make ice, etc., etc.

    Name a nation that doesn’t exhibit “consumerism” and then tell me what its like to live there. That should be enough to answer your question.


    1. Quinn,

      For most of human history, we have exited well enough without most of the industrial products you list. Jesus, for example, lived a fairly meaningful life, all without toilet paper, oil/gas, electricity, and modern sewage systems. In fact, Jesus was a Middle Eastern man who probably lived in conditions that you would describe as a “shithole.”

      Personally, I don’t think the ability to make ice is the measure of human happiness. Our civilized society needs a steady dose of drugs and other chemicals in order to sleep at nights, stave off depression, and cope with the stresses of being a cog in the wheel of our post-industrial society. Perhaps these psychological difficulties are avoided in some of the more simplistic communities that you too easily dismiss as “shitholes.”


  2. It’s pretty easy for people to think they need need something or that they are “worth it”. Most people wouldn’t view themselves as consumeristic because they feel the things they buy aren’t mindless purchases and are important. And of course Christmas can justify anything.

    Another point is the idea that buying something, anything, is good because it helps pay for someone else’s job.

    I know where you are coming from, but it always helps to define your terms. For instance capitalism can mean true freedom or license to murder depending on who you talk to. Consumerism will have extremes too.


  3. Matt,

    Yes. Everyone certainly has some psychological sense that they have made a “worthwhile” purchase. However, wouldn’t you also say that we also have the sense, quite often, that the stuff we buy isn’t quite doing it for us? That all the stuff kind of leaves us with an emptiness? I’ve certainly experiences this with the products I’ve purchased (and continue to purchase). I think there’s in inherited psychology that buying stuff will make us happy, but it never does. If we could shed this psychology (easier said than done), then I think we could actually generate more pleasure from our purchases.

    So, yes, I agree with you. We can justify our purchases as “meaningful” or “worthwhile.” One of the important things, though that makes it “consumeristic,” I think is that we have the inherited psychology that these products should deliver some sort of deeper spiritual satisfaction. When it fails to deliver, then we invariably see another service or product that we think we want/need, and this triggers the sense that the next thing will satisfy, which simply keeps the cycle of consumerism going.

    In terms of economics….In our current capitalistic society, purchasing something doesn’t necessarily mean it is paying for someone else’s job, at least not in the sense of putting someone to work who is doing something worthwhile. As you know, many of the profits from our purchases go into the pockets of executives and others who are higher on the corporate food chain. In other words, we help support extreme mindless consumerism: yachts, multiple homes in many countries, prostitution, and other forms of excess.

    Also consider that many of our purchases go to support labor conditions that we ourselves would find deplorable. We wouldn’t dream of working for seventeen cents an hour for sixty hours a week doing mindless, soul-numbing labor; yet we have no qualms purchasing products that “provide” these “jobs” for other people around the world.

    So, while in one sense it is true that each purchase provides a job for someone, in another sense, I think it is critical to consider what sort of job is being provided. When I think of consumerism, I also think of the fact that we buy stuff as cheaply as possible so that we can buy more stuff. Being an intelligent consumer, I think, involves being intentional about how our dollars will be used. Do we really want to support a sweat shop? Or a local artisan? Do we want to support a GMO? Or a local CSA?

    Know what I mean, jelly bean?


  4. I wasn’t supporting the belief that buying stuff is always good because it produces jobs. I’m just saying it’s part of most people’s mindset, as taught by economists and politicians. I agree with your points.


  5. Jon,

    You said, astonishingly:

    “For most of human history, we have exited well enough without most of the industrial products you list.”

    What the hell does “existed well enough” mean? Do you have any clue what the average life expectancy has looked like over the last 2000 years? Over the last 200 years? Over the last 100 years? Of course you don’t. If you knew anything about that then you would never say such a thing!

    Google tracks life expectancy data by country and you need to see this. I checked the USA, Afghanistan, Angola and the world with this link. Notice the HUGE difference in life expectancy. Dying @ 80 compared to dying @ 50 is kind of a big deal.

    If you really think that the quality of life in Afghanistan or in Haiti or in the nation of Angola is better than the quality of life – a life so full of options – here in the USA (compare Angola, IN to the nation of Angola) then you can go ahead and live in those crappy places and promote a third world lifestyle. And end up dying decades earlier as a result. Go right ahead.

    Here are some things I recently bought online for cheap that have made my life better that Jesus Christ and people in Afghanistan are unable to buy and “consume”:

    I ordered 4 boxes of catnip tea with 30 tea bags in each box for @ $13.50 + $5 shipping. It will last me 4 months! Great stuff and very cheap to buy.

    I ordered 6 shirts that I designed online and had shipped to my home for under $60 + @ $9 shipping that I will send out to 6 friends for the purpose of taking pics while wearing the shirts – and use them to promote a new website going up in the next few weeks. Extremely happy about that. That’s a great deal for 6 shirts!

    A few months back I got an HDMI cable to use for connecting my laptop to the big screen TV so I can view movies I download on my laptop on the big screen. Cost me less than $3 + shipping. I use it most nights.

    I will soon order a book of poems that comes with a CD where the author, billionaire Felix Dennis, reads the poems he wrote as a Christmas gift for several friends of mine. I found a place to get them cheap so I can have them sent to several of my friends who live 100s of miles away as Christmas presents. Getting it for my mom also.

    Consumerism is good. Life is better here in the USA than in Afghanistan because of our consumerism.

    Also, I am not a girl, so I don’t make “impulse buys”. Ever. This thinking that you are espousing Jon where you ask “we also have the sense, quite often, that the stuff we buy isn’t quite doing it for us” is often true for girls. At least, all the examples of people buying lots of stuff to get a good feeling from it that I have encountered has always involved a girl acting that way (a mother-in-law in Traverse City comes to mind). Almost never a guy. I mean, I may buy something new to try it out, but not as a way to fill any void. It just may be better than what I normally eat or drink or use, so I give that a try. That isn’t an effort to fill any void, its just the perfectly good and normal desire to use something better when given the option. Especially if I can get a better value out of what I purchase (thank God for Walmart, Sam’s Club, etc. and their cheap laundry detergent, toilet paper and food).

    I am drug-free aside from popping a couple of Aleve to help get rid of pain a few times a year. And catnip tea is not a drug, though it does have natural chemicals that give feelings of euphoria that I enjoy drinking before bed.

    Who the hell do you think you are to say (in the post below) that someone who owns a yacht or multiple homes is “living in excess”? That is not something within your realm of influence to decide or even comment on regarding anyone else.

    I own several homes that I rent out each month to make money. Neither you or anyone else can tell me that I am “living in excess” just because I own more than one home. What gives you the standing to make such a subjective claim to define what “excess” is for someone else?


  6. Quinn,

    I am well aware that life-spans are higher in the contemporary U.S. than in most of human history. If you will re-read my post and comments, please note that I never denied this, nor is this really my point. My point has to do with our spiritual and psychological well-being. I reject the consumeristic notion that living a long life surrounded by luxury items is the ingredient for happiness. I reject this based primarily on personal experience, observations of others, and my religious commitments as a Christian.

    I think you make an interesting statement about homes. I might ask you a similar question: what gives you the right to own and control property or land that you do not live on?

    You asked me what gives me the right to say that anyone living in yachts or multiple homes is “living in excess.” Well, let me explain why I have the right to ask that question by asking you a few questions about your above-listed purchases:

    What are the names of the farmers who grew the tea you ordered? Were they fairly compensated for their work? Can they afford to feed their families? Can they afford to send their children to school?

    Who grew the cotton used for the tee-shirts you ordered? Do you know which country it comes from? Deeper still, do you know how many foreign cotton growers are impoverished because the United States and other wealthy governments subsidize their own cotton farmers, thus driving down the market price for other, non-subsidized farmers?

    Do you know what conditions the laborers worked under who manufactured tee-shirts for you? Can they afford good healthcare for themselves and their children?

    You also noted your shipping costs. What gives you the right to cheap oil? This is a non-renewable resource. When it runs out, that’s it. It’s already getting more difficult to get good, smooth oil. Now we have to drill off-shore and explore Canadian tar sands.

    What about the pollution produced by the oil used to conveniently ship your products to your doorstep? Do you or anyone else have a right to pollute without paying any cost?

    Yes, in some respects, life is good in the United States. I still contend that there is a deep spiritual vacuum that cannot be filled by buying tea, cheap tee-shirts, TVs, or more books. But what gives me the right to say that living in multiple homes and yachts is “living in excess”? Because our lifestyle of cheap goods is gained at the expense of poor people who produce these products. We can ship these around the world because we are depleting natural resources that are non-renewable.

    You asked me about rights. I’d like to know what you think about the rights of the people who produced your products. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you get something cheap, please know that someone, somewhere is paying the piper. Someone, somewhere is poorer so that others can be richer.


  7. Quinn,

    From my experience, men are just as prone to mindless consumerism as women. Examples include the car industry, the sports industry, video games, and other forms of electronic entertainment.

    I include myself in the mix as someone who is driven by consumeristic impulses. I believe mindless consumerism to be in the air we breath; it’s deep within us.


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