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Consumer Society

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

In order to be able to fight consumerism and live a more sustainable (if you're determined enough) Zero Waste lifestyle, we need to understand first where our need to spend more money, restlessly demand materialistic pleasures and waste more food is coming from.

I came across an amazing book written by Yuval Noah Harari - SAPIENS - that explores human society from every angle throughout the history of man kind, taking our DNA & evolution in count and interpreting its influence on us in present era.

Let me share an interesting paragraph from this book, that I found very catchy and I think it may be useful to read for anyone that is questioning consumer society, yet can't really express what's so irritating about it.

"Most people do not wish to accept that order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order's most important defence.

For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, 'Follow your heart'. But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to 'Follow your heart' was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths.

Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let's consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There's nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend great deal of money on holidays abroad because the are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions, we must sample various kinds of relationships, we must try different cuisines, we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting and go traveling in distant lands, where we can 'experience' the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about 'how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life'.

Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product or service. Every TV commercial (Instagram post)* is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better.

Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite 'market of experience', on which the modern tourism industry is founded. It doesn't sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells EXPERIENCE. Paris is not a city, nor India a country - they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfill our human potential and make us happier. Consequently, when the relationship between millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes her on an expensive trip to Paris. The trip is not a reflection of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myth of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.

Like elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building "pyramids". Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take a form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Only few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the fist place."

Yuval Noah Harari


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