Thoughts & Things

Materialistic Thoughts

February 16, 2019

I consume, therefore I am may aptly summarise our times. Consumer culture has almost acquired a cult status. Has consumerism replaced all other addictions?  Is consumption of material goods the best way to acquire happiness and measure progress? What are the consequences of an endless consumption? These are some of the most important questions we come across in the debate  around consumerism.

The life of accumulation

All of us love buying things. The ultimate end of most of our struggles is to acquire things we like. Few things give people more satisfaction than shopping and for many, it’s an activity more satisfying than sex or other pleasures. Human species is an accumulating species and the desire for more and more is an extremely addictive one. Modern economies depend upon this endless desire of human beings for material goods. The scientific and technological progress added further  fillip to the consumer culture with wider and salivating choices. A lot of people think that happiness depend upon the things we possess. The more, the better.

But the irony is that the more we buy, the more we may become discontented . We always look forward to our next buy and we may never have the means to satisfy all our desires.   John  Gray  says.

“  Where affluence is the rule  the chief threat is the loss of desire . With  wants so quickly satiated , the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic needs. “

(Straw dogs : Thoughts on humans and other animals)

In our endless buying spree , two things stand out  now. One is the transitory nature of most of the things we buy  and the fate of things we discard.  Both are more serious than we imagine. Unlike in the past ,   most of the things we buy  are for a short period. The  philosophy of new age companies is very simple. Create the wants as frequently as possible and make people buy.  Here two questions emerge. Is this way of consumption sustainable and  healthy? How do we balance the use and throw culture with responsible disposal of the same. Because for planet earth,  there is a serious problem of trash  now.

The problem of trash

Trash is one reality we conveniently ignore like all unpleasant truths. According to the data by Global Footprint Network,  a  global organisation which is tracking the human impact on the environment, the biosphere takes one year to produce what humanity consume in roughly eight months.  This gives us a feel of the pressure on manufacturing to satisfy human needs. Countries, especially third world ones are reeling under the heavy pressure of piling garbage.  No discussion on materialism can happen without addressing the issue of scientific and responsible disposal of global waste.  Of all species roaming on this planet, only the human animal produces trash which the nature cannot handle on its own. Mounting trash has put our rivers, lakes and cities under severe strain.  The interesting thing is that very few people are aware of this mounting problem. There is an interesting phenomenon in waste management called NIMBY .( Not In My Back Yard) This means that as long as it does not affect my backyard it does not affect me. Or we can allow anything as long as it is not in my backyard. It is in this context we talk about a New Materialism which perhaps offers a new way of acquiring, using and disposing of materials in harmony with nature and human needs.

  New materialism

New Materialism attempt the middle path between mindless consumption and extreme abstinence. If there is a general consensus that the first option is unsustainable, the second option is an impossible one.  As the Global Footprint Network declares New Materialism envision a future where all thrive within the means of our one planet.  We may also find a radical departure from some of our cherished notions of acquiring and using things. According to New Economics Foundation , a prominent think-tank working along these lines,  the guiding principles  of such  an economy will be inter alia  a commitment to environment, equal living standards , cooperative ownership, decentralised state and empowered committees.

In short, the New Materialism promotes a culture of sharing and environment-friendly consumption. The departure from owning to sharing things is a paradigm shift. Another very important feature of new materialism is the idea of material intelligence . In the globalised world, we are increasingly becoming alienated from the materials we use. We do not know from where it comes and where it goes. Material intelligence ensures that we know the materials we use intimately and that will make us a  more responsible species.  There is also a focus on making products with more lifespan and more scope for repair and recycle thereby reducing the amount of trash.

What will happen to jobs in this scenario? This is particularly relevant for poor and developing countries which are struggling to lift people out of poverty through the creation of manufacturing jobs in large scale. Also in such countries, leave alone luxury goods, there are millions who do not have even basic necessities of life. In any case, even for developing countries, a poor imitation of western levels of consumption may not be the best solution and they also have to frame their development goals in harmony with nature and available resources.  Perhaps everywhere, the economy has to focus more on the service sector than manufacturing.  People should be encouraged to invest more in experience than in materials. (Please see also )  Instead of more shopping we can have more music, cinema, sports and social life.  Instead of extreme burn out at the workplace in the frantic chase to accumulate things, perhaps we can have more leisure. Josef Pieper who wrote a classic on leisure says,

“  Of course the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”

(Leisure : The basis of culture)

Materials and happiness

Finally the most important change required will be in our attitude to happiness. What is happiness for us? Is it only acquiring more and more things?   How one can lead a happy and meaningful life without buying everything we feel like buying? Though materials give us pleasure to a great extent, the fact is that it is only one component of a happy life . Happiness is much more than that. It’s contentment and contemplation too. It is asking the deepest questions on life and enjoying simple things in life in its fullness. Happiness is enjoying music, books, and movies and travelling with loved ones. Happiness is cultivating a refined mind which can enjoy the sublime and beautiful. Happiness is being surrounded by friends  and helping people to find meaning in their lives. Happiness is pursuing one’s passions. This can be a really long list.

 As Will and Ariel Durant reminds us

“it is up to man to find meaning in human existence. Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives and significance that transcends death.”

( The lessons of history)

And life give us an option to discover meaning in our existence without an endless chase after material things. 

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