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Consumerism: the Insatiable Hunger of Modern Capitalist Society

Updated on May 22, 2019
Eoin Cunningham profile image

Eoin is an Undergraduate student studying Geography in the National University of Ireland Galway.

Consumerism in Modern Capitalist Society

Modern society is captivated and enthralled by the consumption of goods and services, especially in the Developed world. This belief system can be attributed to our society being built on the foundation of Capitalistic values.

Consumerism and Capitalism go hand in hand. High levels of consumption are a requisite to kickstart and fuel growth in a Capitalist economy. A result of this has been the development of a social stratification underpinned by the possession of materialistic items.

In contemporary times, how much one consumes is a clear demarcation of wealth and status in Western society. An unethical system has developed whereby worth is valued through a person's ability to consume and not desirable human traits such as compassion or work ethic.

The end product is a society that is unwilling to respect the ecological limits of our planet along with social inequity which has been brought about as a direct result of overconsumption.

Consumption and the Environment

A theme prevalent in world media today is the environment and with good reason, as it is our life support system. It is the thin red line between our species and extinction yet humanity is doing its best to destroy its vitality and even worse yet still deny it is doing so all in the name of short term economic gain.

There are those among us passing off the more extreme climactic malfunctions and adverse weather conditions being experienced right now on our planet as blips in our global eco-system.

You will not be shocked to hear a large section of those in question are members of the elitist class in our society otherwise known as the Bourgeouise. Members of this class are considered to be the ruling class by in large due to their supreme wealth and status in society. These people are the pillars which stand upon the foundation of Capitalism.

Their businesses consume an enormous amount of resources to produce materialistic items which they can then sell for economic gain. The problem is our environment is limited in the number of resources it hosts. The current level of consumption in society is not respecting our planets ecological limits.

Economic growths lack of respect for environmental limits has led to the development of environmental degradation on a global scale. Factories which produce consumables are emitting harmful gases into our atmosphere along with chemicals which are polluting the environment and destroying habitats. If overconsumption continues to go unchecked there is no telling the damage it could cause our environment.

Consumerism and Social Inequity In and Between The Global South and North

There is a vast gap in consumption levels between the developed and the developing world. As previously mentioned consumption is tied to capitalism, and this would explain why the developed world is so much more wealthy than the developing world. They are consuming more, therefore, have stimulated more significant economic growth.

The Global South has begun its process of industrialisation taking a leaf out of the Global North's book. This action has raised a conglomeration of issues for world leaders and Non-Governmental Organisations alike.

To elaborate, it is unsustainable for countries in the Global South to begin to consume as much as countries in the Global North. The current level of consumption by the population of the Global North is already environmentally unsustainable and with the added stress of the much greater population in the Global South would result in an environmental disaster.

Many would agree that it is unethical to deny the people living in the Global South the right to raise their income by consuming more, but they would also agree it is not sustainable nor practical for them to do so. That is why it is imperative that the Global North take action.

There is a principle in geography referred to as the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. It acknowledges the fact we all have a role to play in stopping environmental destruction, but the economic burden of such action is not equal between all.

The Global North's overconsumption has meant that they are now far better off economically than the Global South but crucially with a far superior ecological footprint. Therefore it is only right that the Global North bear a higher level of economic responsibility on the issue seen as the Global North are responsible for a higher level of environmental degradation. Initiatives such as the Green Climate Fund have been set up by the United Nations which require member states to pay a small percentage of their income which acts as relief aid. This aid is then sent to countries in the Global South to help alleviate the effects of their condition, and better prepare them for the coming and irreversible impacts of Climate Change.

Economic aid from the Global North alone will not be enough. The Global North's level of consumption needs to lower to allow for consumption in the Global South to increase. By doing this, the economic gap between the Global North and South will gradually decrease creating a far more equitable global economy and social situation.

This course of action will develop more trust between nations on both sides, in turn, making coming to agreements on policy regarding issues such as Climate Change and overconsumption a much more straight forward process.

The Problem with Consumerism

Life2 created a booklet titled "The Problem With Consumerism." Life2 create such booklets to, in their own words, discuss "important topics and ideas and provide practical suggestions on ways you can improve your life".

One of the most important points made in the booklet regarding consumerism is how it does not actually meet our needs.

The booklet states, "Some people may believe that consumerism meets all their desires in life. But for an increasing number of people it does not. It creates impossible aspirations – quite simply, the principles it is based on make it a logical impossibility that it will make us happy. If the idea of consumerism is to continually create new needs in people and make them consume more, this will result in us constantly chasing after a carrot on a stick. Although we might reach it sometimes (e.g. by buying a particular product), a new ‘carrot’ (i.e. need) will then appear. A lack of fulfilment is therefore built into the whole idea of consumerism. This is not surprising – if the system is not aimed at meeting human needs and interests, but at generating profit, then it will only be a matter of extreme luck that it ends up doing the former.

The second point follows on from this: consumerism cannot provide many of the things that are important to us. This view is supported by recent studies in the relatively new discipline of ‘human well-being’ which is gaining increasing interest from politicians and others. It can broadly be described as the study of what makes human beings happy and fulfilled, and the desire to base political and social systems on promoting these things.

Research in this area is showing that consumerism is inconsistent with human well-being. The New Economics Foundation is a think tank at the heart of this topic and in a discussion paper setting out the political territory of the topic they note that:

“The areas in which greater [financial] investment will yield continued improvements in well-being lie beyond the reach of markets”

In other words, economic markets and consumption can fulfil some of our basic needs – including areas such as food and shelter - but there are other important things they simply cannot provide. The paper’s author, Richard Reeves, describes these things as ‘non-market goods’. As he notes:

“There is little wrong with Faberge or Furbys. It is what [they are] failing to give us: companionship, time for reflection, spirituality, security, intellectual development and joy in our children”.


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