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Compulsive consumption: The malaise at the core of the climate crisis


Thanks to the capitalist propaganda machine, we’ve forgotten the difference between ‘conscious’ and ‘compulsive’ consumption. Frugality, which once used to be the essence of responsible living has been labelled as ‘shame’. Though rarely discussed, this was the beginning–and now the core–of the climate crisis. And it has begun to control all aspects of our lives.

Swati Agarwal

Someone has rightly said that growth for the sake of growth (if it is not leading to better standard of living for the people) is the ideology of cancer cells. And one may ponder where are we heading with this kind of capitalist growth which is leading us towards ecological destruction, climate change and nothing else? How much of it is even necessary?

Let’s start at the beginning. Millennia ago, humans practiced the barter system where one person had a little excess of one good and the other had a little excess of the other good and they started trading to increase the mutual consumption of both parties. And therefore, this led to an increase in the overall wellbeing in the society. This was the beginning of commerce.

However, when humans consume consciously, they consume within a limit. And by that logic, given that there are only so many people in the world, growth after a point would be stagnant or would be gradual. Therefore, in order to overcome this challenge, over the years, capitalists have worked really hard to keep consumption churning.

To prevent the capitalist catastrophe – ie, to feed the overcapacity built up by capitalism – and to make sure that people are buying whatever is being produced, a new revolution was manufactured – Consumerism. From clothing to food, marketing mottos such as ‘can do it’, ‘you live only once’, ‘live your life’ have worked really hard to fuel consumerism and it’s unidentified links with happiness and satisfaction.

Capitalism, particularly through the wheels of its multi-billion dollar entertainment, marketing and media machine, has performed its job so well, that gradually people (consumers) have forgotten the difference between conscious and compulsive consumption. Frugality, which once used to be the essence of responsible living has been labelled as ‘shame’. Though rarely discussed, this was the beginning–and now the core–of the climate crisis. And it has begun to control all aspects of our lives.

Earlier people built a home because they wanted to live there. Buy clothes and food to an extent to satisfy the needs and wants of a family. But now we have made it so compulsive that consumerism is eating up the planet. When we start shopping we don’t know when to stop! When we start eating we don’t know when to stop!

As a result, people are consuming and over-consuming and also killing themselves and other ecosystems. Beyond a threshold, this mere consumption which gave us comfort at one time, has come to haunt us with its natural feed-back cycle of climate change, air pollution, water diseases, and mortality. We have come to a stage where:

* Consumption and disposal of clothes per capita is happening at a lightning speed. Basic norms of buying sustainably sourced products, prolonging the life of worn clothes, and engaging in community clothes exchange programmes have been eroded. As per an analysis by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, it has been estimated that fashion industry sends almost one garbage truck full of clothes to landfill every second and generates 20% of the world’s waste water.

* In the food industry, FAO has estimated that agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation in the light of feeding human population, but starkly a third of all food produced is actually wasted !

* Planned obsolescence of technology has resulted in a fast-growing surplus in hardware, which has contributed to the increasing amount of electronic waste around the globe.

Where does the solution lie – with consumers, government or businesses?

A simple factor driving economic growth is consumption. The more consumers consume, the more countries/businesses produce, and the bigger grows the pie of economic growth. Therefore,

first we must adopt a minimalist/conscious approach to consumption. While a slowed/reduced consumption may lead to a phase of temporary recession in the economy, this will help provide the right market signal for long term sustainability of ecology;

second, for the residual consumption from above, the more we demand an unsustainable product, business and government will respond accordingly. Therefore, we must adopt sustainable consumption practices. Once we are conscious about how we function, the role of governments and business will remain largely to provide the necessary tools and technologies to meet the ends.

Else, in order meet our current consumption practices clubbed with population growth, business will continue to produce as they wish and governments will keep failing their global pledges increasingly. And even before we realise, unsustainable consumerism will feed on everything that will come in its way.

The author is an Independent Consultant on Sustainability and  Climate Policy based out of Indonesia. Email: [email protected]


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