The Plague of Consumption

“And on the 8th day of creation, humans took over from God and created capitalism. 

And capitalism took over from humans and looked down at them and said: “you are mine now”. 

And humans looked down at their wallets, and they were full of money. 

And they bought everything they could buy, and killed everything in the Garden of Eden, packaged it in plastic and carried it into the supermarket. 

And on the 9th day of creation, the supermarket ran out of products.  The Earth was scorched, and the oceans were full of dead fish.  And humans turned to God, but God was nowhere to be found.”

No one knows exactly at which precise point in our history consumption became an ideology.  It seems that we always had the propensity to be greedy.  However, in the beginning people limited themselves to the essentials – game and nuts which they foraged, or items of special value that they cherished, like a pebble they had found, or a semi-precious stone they had exchanged with an artist from the tribe next door.  It was a survival-based consumption, which must also have felt rewarding and satisfying, in sharp contrast to today’s shopping which only manages to leave us mentally drained and existentially insecure.  Our relationship with shopping today is an extremely complex one: full of self-esteem anxiety, identity issues, social pressure, a toxic cocktail of greed and guilt, and other complex emotions that capitalism has cleverly interwoven into our purchasing decision.  After making us feel almost suicidal about the way we look, how much we own, and who we are as a person, capitalism offers us the only way out: “shopping therapy”.

The act of acquisition of goods today is a far cry from the time when people simply needed something for their survival and went out to get it.  We need to not forget that there was a time in our history when all that we needed was some food and a pretty pebble that we had found in the river.  These items were enough, they genuinely felt like more than enough.    

Fast forward a few thousand years, and a massive industrial machine churning consumer products day and night has been set up to cater to our voracious obsession with owning things in order to nurse our deep personal insecurities.  When we make a purchase, we are not really buying products.  We are buying what these products represent:  all the stereotypes, the social status, the personal self-esteem “benefit” associated with each product, however temporary and fake this may be.  Consumption has moved from a need-based behaviour to obsession-based, and capitalism has managed to normalize what essentially represents a serious self-destructive mental disorder: obsessive ownership. 

The irony is that the more we buy, the less we feel that we own.  Rather than owning and making use of the products we acquire, in the end we feel owned and used by these products.  They own our mental space, our bank account, our self-esteem and our identity.  We have willingly become the personal property of the products we have bought, items that we were supposed to be owning in the first place.

With time, the industrial machine that made all of these products became so highly efficient, so vast, so hungry to sell, that it begun to have a brain of its own: calculating margins, forecasting sales, adjusting bottom lines.  It became preoccupied day and night not with serving the humans with its products, but with ensuring that whatever useless crap it produced was sold one way or another, whether people needed it or not.  This became the objective of branding: the purpose of branding was to add non-tangible, non-usable, non-needs-based attributes to products in order to make them appear useful.

This was the turning point.

It was the point when consumption became completely reversed: no longer driven by people and their needs i.e. demand, but by the industrial machine’s need to sell.  Consumption itself had now become a purpose all on its own for the machine, as opposed to a service. 

As it established itself, the machine became so hungry for money, so greedy, that it was now desperate to sell anything to anyone, whether it was of good quality or not.  In order to sell increasingly inferior products, it had to invent a narrative, a “purpose” that can draw and hypnotize its audience.  The purpose was ownership, and the religion that served it was The Church of Consumption, supported by the Apostles of marketing and branding who disseminated its propaganda.  The machine itself was God, the marketing campaigns were His sermon, and the products became His blessing.  The temples of this new church were the shopping malls, their walls covered end-to-end with millions of adverts of price markdowns. 

Consumption was no longer a need; it was part of peoples’ existence.  The more products people bought, the closer they would get to salvation.  Through its power over peoples’ minds, the machine, working alongside the Church of Consumption, was now not only owning the people, but effectively consuming them.

Once people had been sufficiently brainwashed, they would buy all of the useless products the machine made.  As long as they only realized their mistake after taking their shopping home, the machine had already defrauded them, completed its transaction and turned a profit, with the church receiving a generous cut. 

People kept flocking back to the shopping malls, even though they knew they felt even emptier after each visit.  They were blinded by their faith.  They believed in the new religion unconditionally.  They believed that “owning” something is “good”, whether it was useful to them or not.  The more things they owned, the closer they came to God, to becoming like the machine.  And they could brag about their belongings to friends and feel good about themselves.

But they still felt empty inside, because they were not connected to the things that they owned.  The products meant nothing to them.  They tried to alleviate their emptiness by buying even more products, but all they achieved was falling into further emptiness and debt.

The temples of the new church, the shopping malls, began to overflow with money.  The grander they became, the more pilgrims they attracted, the more funds they collected in order to build even more lavish temples.  It was a self-perpetuating myth, but long as the new religion managed to reinforce its dogma, the machine saw its transactions multiply and its profits exponentially increase.

As with all religions, after some time the faithful became fanatical.  They idealized the machine and couldn’t see that it had manipulated them.  In their eyes, the machine was perfect.  The religion became the biggest one on the planet, merging and engulfing all others under its ideology:  Christianity, Islam and all major religions that had at one time preached some level of self-restraint and modesty, were reduced to mere cultural decorations.  Consumption, excess, economic growth, became the only powerful dogmas in society, not to ever be challenged by anyone. 

Self-restraint became sacrilege.  It became an insult to the new church, and to the machine itself.  Any concept of conservation of resources was seen as a direct attack on the system, and a threat to the existence of civilization itself.  Any drop in consumption or birth rates was seen as an immediate risk to everyone’s well-being, even though not too long ago, a settlement of 50-100,000 people would be considered a mega city, usually the capital of an empire.

Society became one big junkie, overdosing on the resources it pillaged from a planet that had been all but depleted.  Like with any junkie, there was no measure or stopping point.  In a society of junkies, overconsumption became the norm.  

The success of our “capitalocracy” lies in corrupting each and every one of us to become complicit in the destruction of the planet, by the time we reach 18 years of age.  Accepting the so-called imperfections of “real” society is part of every human being’s “coming of age” as they enter adulthood. Legitimized corruption forms much of the bedrock of our social system, and part of the unofficial rulebook of every “democratic” society on Earth.  This corrupt civilization can only have one certain fate.  Although humans may have invented consumerism, Earth is the only, and the ultimate consumer.  While the planet has an incredible ability to absorb most of the toxic materials that we produce, it also has the power to absorb, recycle and reuse all of human civilization, however it sees fit. 

The story of humans did not end well.  There was much squabbling over who owns what, and this led to a big war that brought humanity to an abrupt end, before climate change could even demonstrate its ability to do exactly that.

The survival of 8 billion humans continues to be dependent on the deterioration and eventual destruction of everything that moves, lives and breathes around us, with the sole exception of domesticated and enslaved species.  It is estimated that within just 4 million years, and provided humans are completely extinct, biodiversity on the planet may recover fully from the 6th Mass Extinction.  Earth can, and will, continue without humans. Humans cannot continue without Earth. 

George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books

One thought on “The Plague of Consumption

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s