Consumerism--the eager purchase and consumption of material goods and personal services--is strongly encouraged in our capitalist system. It keeps our economy humming. Yet, tragically, this pattern is both damaging to people's health and happiness, and also disastrous for earth's environment.
Consumerism has been described as a behavioral addiction--"one of the fastest growing and most destructive addictions in our society"--by counseling psychologist Howard Clinebell. According to economist Alan Durning "Even if television commercials or magazine ads fail to sell a particular product, they sell consumerism itself by ceaselessly reiterating the idea that there is a product to solve each of life's problems, indeed that existence would be satisfying and complete if only we bought the right things."
People consume frantically because they expect it will make them happy. Yet research by social psychologists such as Ed Diener and David Myers has shown that high levels of consumption rarely have that effect. When people buy more or earn more, their expectations also rise and their levels of happiness quickly return to their former baseline. Moreover, many people find that "keeping up with the Joneses" is not only financially exhausting but also psychologically stressful.
Survey research has shown that, despite a huge increase in economic prosperity in the last 40 years, Americans' average happiness levels haven't risen at all. Similarly, within the United States and other industrialized nations, there is a very low (or even negligible) positive correlation between income or affluence and happiness. Even being super-rich doesn't guarantee happiness; it may only bring more severe problems in business and in personal relationships.
Environmental effects of consumption
In his book "Earth in the Balance," former vice-president Al Gore highlighted a tragic aspect of rampant consumerism: "Our civilization is holding ever more tightly to its habit of consuming larger and larger quantities every year of coal, oil, fresh air and water, trees, topsoil, and the thousands of substances we rip from the crust of the earth, transforming them into not just the sustenance and shelter we need but much more that we don't need."
A nation's level of consumption of natural resources has been termed its ecological footprint. The United States, with only about 5 percent of the world's population, consumes about 25 percent of the world's commercial energy and natural resources. If all nations were to increase their consumption level to ours, they would require the land and other natural resources of three earths. By our rampant consumerism, we exhaust resource supplies that will be needed by the generations that follow us.
Even worse, much of our consumption is steadily destroying the earth's capacity to support human life. Examples include pesticides and toxic wastes invading and poisoning drinking water supplies, overharvesting of ocean fish species to the point of their near-extinction, erosion causing loss of crucial agricultural topsoil, and cutting and burning of temperate and tropical forests that help to keep local and regional climates livable.
The biggest threat to earth's environment is the tremendous increase in the amount of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" in the earth's atmosphere, which are leading to the earth's warming. Results include the melting of polar icecaps and resulting climate changes that can turn fertile agricultural area into deserts or cause torrential floods in other places. This is the world's most dangerous overconsumption problem, and it needs to be speedily stopped.
The answer to our overconsumption plight is at least fourfold: As a nation we must greatly decrease our overall level of consumption, markedly increase the efficiency with which we use energy and other resources, shift much more of our consumption to renewable resources (e.g., solar power instead of fossil fuels), and reuse or recycle most of the nonrenewable materials that we purchase. Some businesses and states are taking steps in these directions, but both public health and environmental preservation demand a more urgent response.
Psychologists have an important role to play in making these changes toward ending overconsumption. We need to persuade our families and friends, our clients and patients, and the organizations to which we belong to change their behaviors--to minimize consumerism and to maximize sustainable living. This is in our own self-interest as well as to benefit the whole earth. After all, without a habitable planet to live on, there will be no field of psychology in the future.
Stuart Oskamp, PhD, is a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University.