Consumption Civilization: Our Prospects Since Western Civilization's Historical Adaptation
by Jan Lundberg   
15 September 2014
For whatever its accomplishments and intricacies, Western Civilization has been based on (1) the exploitation of people and the environment, and (2) the attempt of constant expansion -- geographically, quantitatively, and in the mind.

This expression has had such a long run that it has comprised all conventional history. All the while, civilization as top-down exploitation and expansion has been ratcheting up spectacularly, especially in recent decades, despite -- and partly because of -- fast-shrinking resource limits. Climate instability is barely beginning to act as a brake.

The relatively slow process of civilization's march via exploitation and expansion has finally graduated and adapted to something unanticipated little over a century ago: mass consumption.

Abetted by frantic corporate competition, governmental accommodation, and just-in-time distribution advances, mass consumption has become the dominant feature of Western Civilization. Globalized culture has rapidly changed accordingly. If seen from the outside, consumption has been a frenzy and an end in itself.

Since modern civilization and its transnational corporate driver is no longer just Western, it would be more accurate to speak of Consumption Civilization than Western Civilization. Some thinkers might prefer the term Corporate Civilization, but consumers generally don't care if products come from megacorps, cooperatives, or government entities. (Mom and Pop businesses and Community Supported Agriculture farms are not lumped in, because their customers often have a personal and loyal connection to the seller and producer.) It is safe to say that consumers have much more allegiance to consuming and providing for their households than to corporations or nations. Conceivably there could be a consumer society without corporations.

The new brand of Consumption Civilization was almost universally welcomed as meaning greater wealth and convenience for all, but most significantly it benefited industrial & post-industrial society's main owners. Mass consumption, a new Middle Class, and commuting were all accepted by the more energetic powers-that-be toward the end of the 19th century as inevitable and enlightened. Slaves and the very poor could unthreateningly become wage-slaves to work hard to create an unlimited amount of aggregated money to spend for consuming.

The first social movement to question the consumer lifestyle spiritually and politically through the mass media was the hippies, whose general effort failed but has not entirely disappeared, though it has much diffused. Ironically, consumerism and the materialist life was most strongly and widely questioned in its heyday, in the 1960s. It is no mere coincidence that this was prior to such a lifestyle getting more costly and time-consuming as a direct result of the depletion of genuinely cheap oil that became felt beginning in the early 1970s. Yet, as consuming has gotten tougher while oil has become more and more subsidized to keep down its visible cost, consuming entrenched itself and grew, partly through unprecedented debt. Why? How? As people are increasingly bereft of meaningful relationships with each other and with nature, they seek happiness through possessions and money, whether it's a greedy bankster, an owner of a single home, or a living-on-the-edge survivor. Paradoxically, as population has exploded there is more and more loneliness. Consuming only feeds into it.

The world has seen mass consumerism come about very recently, within today's oldest persons' lifetimes, on a large scale following World War II. It took place first in the United States. Plain old products such as toothpaste proliferated into endless choices of flavors, additives and packaging -- an example of freedom for all at a low price, multiplied by millions of units, trumpeted by mass media and glorified by a fashion industry. Similarly, ever more widgets of all sorts, the newer the better, were a blessing and an imperative, and they were (and are) rapidly replaced through annually updated models and planned obsolescence 1.

The overall result is the crisis of Western Civilization's highly entropic end-stage growth spurt. It has increasingly been accomplished through the desperate conversion of any potential resource into waste, ultimately. Unfortunately, it is increasingly toxic waste, primarily from petrochemicals, and radioactive waste -- tolerated in part because consuming is all-consuming.

The growing human population, mostly unquestioning and averse to basic change as members of a community or herd, is key to civilization's quantitative success and serves to a great extent as its ultimate undoing.

The obvious non-sustainability of the system is ignored or obscured by every politician interested in re-election. This facilitates the accelerating damage to the biosphere, fueling the planet's sixth major extinction since life began. This has placed humanity on a track of self-extinction according to prominent biologists. The disruption and unraveling of the climate through human activity is well confirmed, even though what has been observed so far does not include the effects of carbon and methane emissions since 40 years ago, due to climate lag 2.

In addition to civilization's transformation from catering to the elite through past colonialism and imperialism, to mass consumption the world over, there has been a transformation of awareness: almost all the significant players know the global consequences of what they are doing. In the futuristic but scientific short story The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway (MIT Press Journals, 2013), the point is hammered that Western Civilization knew what was going on and didn't stop it even though the consequences were becoming clear:

For more than one hundred years, physical scientists in the Western world had known that carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor absorbed heat in the planetary atmosphere. A three-phase Industrial Revolution led to massive release of additional CO2, initially in the United Kingdom (17501850); then in Germany, the United States, and the rest of Europe (18501950); and finally in China, India, and Brazil (19502050).
Since we have not yet arrived at the story's science-fiction future of "the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2074," (though the distant 2074 is starting to sound extremely optimistic), for a little while longer we have the luxury of applying ourselves to ever more rigorous analysis and political suggestions. And perhaps a culture change.

Numerous minds have come to understand and warn about the culture of consuming, but fewer have grasped the imperative of consuming as a directive. We now know it has rapidly begun to spread from the West as if there is no other way to live:

"The western world now obeys the precepts of commerce. A bloody demanding religion, if you ask me. The do's and don'ts change every season and your 'everyone' doesn't want to be left out, so they rush headlong to comply. That continuous change has a function, a single aim. Maximum consumption. They want to go on milking you. From the cradle to the grave. Face it: You're a brain washed, walking purse, a robot, the fuel multinationals run on." - Esther Verhoef, Close-up (2009 novel)
A major stumbling block in challenging consumerism is irrational faith in technological progress, as it tries to defy resource limits and side-effects of technology proliferation. Yet, in overcoming exaggerated faith in technology as well as blind faith in a righteous god of old, and overcoming escapist New Age magical thinking, we can and must explore fresh insights, data, and kinds of actions to take. It will take great imagination, and as Albert Einstein said, "Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them."

As stated in my previous Culture Change column that also appeared on Sept. 2, 2014,

[R]elated to love and peace: the right to living amidst healthy nature and enjoying the beauty of life. This means rejecting gross artificialities such as the industrial environment, the market economy, and wage slavery.

Can people get along without bosses, employers, brilliant capitalists, corporation-bought politicians, the plethora of techno-whiz gadgets, the god of science, and the bliss of isolated consuming? Are the militarized police who are keeping us in line with fear -- aided by the national surveillance establishment -- securing long-term for life's essentials of untainted food, clean water, clothing, shelter, and the rest?

Until we imagine a different way of thinking that we put into practice, we are further and further away from John Lennon's appeal to Imagine. Imagine there's no division between people. Imagine we can work together. Imagine we are all free, beautiful and creative. Imagine nature is not our enemy. Imagine music and art being truly important for everyone every day. Imagine that time is your own for spending it with family and friends, collaborating voluntarily in mutual aid.

Or, instead, we keep on being "realistic" and live as if it's every man for himself. That's the dead end of the culture of competition and its relentless expansion on our commodified, finite, dangerously stressed planet.

It is not yet popular to think of Western Civilization as a mistake or mutation in human development. But whatever one's view, the novelty of history as we know it and its "progress" is extremely recent relative to the 200,000-odd years of human existence. Perhaps it is easier by now to question "progress" -- unprecedented self-destruction that can eclipse and negate the pride-instilling wonders of the Louvre, Mozart, the Moon Walk, etc. -- when acknowledging we have come to really have Consumption Civilization. Despite its attractions and overbearing self-image, the Consumption Civilization is crowding our lives, serving up history as a plastic bowlful of toxic slop as the possible end result, and is trying to chase Mother Nature over the ecological cliff.

* * * * *

1. Planned obsolescence was explained by Vance Packard in his book The Waste Makers, 1960.
2. Climate lag is described at and discussed in Global Warming Culture versus the Natural Future for Humanity, and the Real Denialism on Culture Change.

Further reading:

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Winter 2013 Daedalus, Vol. 142, No. 1: 4058, MIT Press Journals. Note: A Culture Change correspondent furnished the PDF and reports that the authors have since expanded the Daedalus piece.

A lively history and analysis of the rise U.S. consumption is in the celebrated 2011 book (chapter 8) Plastic Ocean by Capt. Charles Moore.

Imagining an alternative system for work and human survival, in Labor Day Reality for Humanity on the Gallows - or Shall We Imagine Differently?, by Jan Lundberg, Culture Change

Comments (6)Add Comment
A well written article this. It is very important to say these Truths, over and over as many ways as We can.

I feel supportive of all that Culture Change does and tries to do (so far) and will visit you one day in Santa Cruz. I will also ship something via sail boat to a Friend or someone in a far away place. How fun! How romantic! How compatible with Our Dear Mother Earth and the Life upon Her.

Looking forward to more of your thoughts about these dire matters. Dan 1

Dan 1
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Votes: +1 Written by Richard Moore, Ireland.

Carbon dioxide?

CO2 is actually a very unlikely suspect for playing a measurable role in climate, given its trace presence of a few hundred parts per million. Water vapor dominates, by a large margin, in the greenhouse gas category, and any contribution from CO2 would presumably be, like orbital variations, lost in the noise.

The whole basis for imagining that CO2 might measurably affect climate, boils down to the fact that a heating spike was occurring, at the same time the Industrial Revolution came along. For the past two centuries there has been a correlation between increasing CO2 levels and temperature levels, and the correlation has been entirely coincidental. The naturally expected spike has peaked right on schedule, with no perceptible influence from CO2. Lost-in-the-noise continues to be a reasonable assessment of CO2‘s role in climate change.

Stephanie McDowall
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Votes: -4
The article provides sound insight into what society has and is doing wrong and some indication of the consequences. The role of technology is mentioned without providing insight into its fundamental impact on what has happened. The decisions of people would have been very different without the infrastructure (from communication systems up to cities) that society has become very dependent on. The systems in this infrastructure are constructed, operated and maintained by irreversibly using up limited natural material resources, producing irrevocable waste material and degrading the environment during their limited lifetime. This is an unsustainable process. any rational discussion of the future of society should take what will happen to the infrastructure into account
Denis Frith
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Votes: +2
Even before the hippies, there were folks like Scott and Helen Nearing who bailed out of consumer culture in the 1920s and blazed new trails. Their books are worth reading: The Good Life and The Making of a Radical.
Peter Crabb
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Let's say America curtailed its consumer culture. Here's what would happen:

1. America's GNP would plummet, some other country's GNP would skyrocket.
2. America's ability to support military forces around the world would slip away, some other country's ability to do so would emerge.
3. America's ability to control world finance and markets in our favor would slip away, some other country's ability to do so would emerge.
4. Like a falling row of dominoes, America would become more like India is today, and some other country would become like America is today.
5. Americans would live in shacks and drive rusty cars like Cubans do today.
6. The average lifespan of Americans would decrease.
7. Surveys would show that Americans would be less happy than they are today (income correlates with happiness).
8. No other country would follow suit and voluntarily impoverish themselves like we did.
9. No other country would feel sorry for us or give us financial assistance to compensate for things we had lost.
10. The human race would still continue on its race to self-destruction, but led by some other nation.

What would be the point in any of it? Why bother?

If you could trade places with a poor villager in India right now, would you?
John Doe
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Votes: +1
There are a lot of valid concerns in your statement but I think they are overblown

#1 Most other nations are net exporters. Odds are everyone's "GDP" would decline and even if what you said was true, its not relevant to American well being

#2 Also not true. The cots of being a global policeman is too high. You would have regional increases in powers but nothing like the US empire of bases. No economy on Earth can spend as much as we do or would be willing to Also if my above premise, everyone GDP declines is accurate, no one will have money for global games anyway.

#3 Possibly true but most of the US population doesn't own stocks or bonds and is working class or poor. The majority of people won't even notice and if they are buying there lesser demand regionally, not shipping it wherever wages are lower, odds are they'll actually benefit

#4 Utterly and completely false. India is like it is because of cultural issues unrelated to a consumer society.

#5 Also false, voluntary reductions in spending do not equate to poverty, I'm not poor because my house is 1200 SQ feet and not a mini mansion or because I only have one TV or car and do not want another or a bigger house.

#6 Also false. Lifespan is more related to modes of living and genetics, not consumerism which actually makes people less healthy.

#7 Not true. Money buy happiness to a certain point past that. It doesn't help.

#8 Not our problem. If it made people happier, its a win except for the money obsessed psychopaths running the show.

#9 What loss?

#10 Actually that's true. Not our problem though. If we did this and we probably won't it would be for us as a people not "the globe"
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