‘We must equitably balance our own aspirations for wellbeing with that of others’ – Dalai Lama
The World Is Not Enough according to the title of James Bond’s 19th outing, but perhaps a more apt title for 2019 is that the world does not have enough, if everyone wants to have it all. We are literally about to eat ourselves. At present the earth simply cannot sustain consumer demand for resources and commodities and we’re racing headlong towards an inferno of own making. Hell on earth if you live in the planet’s central belt is coming fast.
Regardless of whether you subscribe to the idea that people in the world’s wealthiest countries consume too much, or that exploded / exploding populations in China, India and Africa are to blame the issue is the same: we want more than we need and we have been trained to want material parity with others. The majority of people in wealthy countries have neither the desire nor the mentality to curb their excess (often not realising that what they see as normal is too much), and the natural drive in developing countries to strive for parity will be almost impossible to control. Only a massive change of direction from governments and corporations away from traditional growth models, coupled with a fundamental re-evaluation of our individual consumption, will be able to turn the tide.
Having spent most of the past 14 years working in the market research industry I understand well the psychological levers used within sales culture, as well as the cold and pernicious approach to manipulating consumer behavior used by most of the world’s leading corporations. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is largely a fig leaf for an unfettered capitalism that relies on ever increasing demand, and short-term profits to drive share price and shareholder dividend. Meanwhile marketing and advertising use increasingly sophisticated neurological understanding to tap into your primal / subconscious need states in order to loosen your purse strings. A good example is the emotional blackmail used in selling super safe, but super expensive children’s car seats – what value do you place on your child’s safety? Companies know our weak spots and will target them ruthlessly.
One of the other issues I’ve encountered through my own attempts to broaden my own horizons is within the self-improvement / self-help category of books, web sites etc. The ‘you can have it all’ mentality is frequently paraded as the ultimate life-goal, whereas in reality the drawbacks, both psychological and ecological, are fundamental and need some consideration. Evidence suggests that once we exceed about $75,000 in annual income (US/Western Europe, proportionally less in developing countries), further increases make little or no difference to our happiness. In fact, financial excess may actually make you unhappy as you become money obsessed and fear what you have to lose. Research undertaken by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational demonstrates systematic behavioural change once we enter into a monetised situation, while Thomas Naylor’s Affluenza examines the detrimental impact of our obsession with money and material gain.
A similar logic can be applied to materialism. Most of what we buy is excessive to what we need – even allowing for ‘essential’ luxury items such as a swish laptop or 40″ flat screen TV (hint: one is enough). The marketers goal is to make you feel that you always need more, and that the next item is the one that will make you truly happy, but this is obviously bullshit – albeit very seductive bullshit. Perhaps then, there are better problems to address than the accumulation of wealth and possessions.
As alluded to in my piece on ‘Finding the right problems to solve’; neither consumer excess nor social media popularity will provide any long-lasting happiness. Specifically with regard to material ownership, the damage is also not restricted to yourself – if all seven billion people on Earth lived at the level of a middle-income American or Western European, then every single climate objective would become 100% unattainable as opposed to the current status of highly unlikely. Given that we already need to start mitigating for current and upcoming climate change, and that the world is likely to exceed a population of nine billion people, this should be an immediate call to action.
While I’m not a behavioural economist, I’m a firm believer that people respond to positive rather than negative scenarios. Without a doubt we’re much further up the creek than we’d care to admit but I’d rather grab a large paddle than meekly sail over a highly polluted waterfall. Moving economic output towards green and sustainable industries is critical in the double play of providing jobs for those that desperately need them and is obviously a part of the solution, but taking individual responsibility is also critical.
A prime example of the required behavioral change is the clothing / fashion industry, which contributes approximately 10% of the world’s carbon footprint. Think about the wardrobe full of clothes you don’t wear, or the fuel miles and packaging used in buying and returning online purchases, and then multiply by a billion or so. Equally, attitudes to ‘travel’ are usually positive despite the fact that airline emissions alone will account for close to 25% of the world’s C02 budget by the middle of the century. I’m as guilty as anyone in conveniently overlooking my travel footprint, but it isn’t my god given right to visit every far flung corner of the globe (as and when time and money allow) given the detrimental impact. In both cases the issue is exacerbated by a ‘materialistic / want it all / do it all’ approach which puts our personal freedom of choice ahead of our collective future.
Changing a lifetime of behaviour is not easy, and resisting the slick marketing that’s designed to slip past your eyes and into the subconscious of your brain is even harder. However, ‘you’ have one mind and ‘we’ have one planet – isn’t it worth a little effort on all our parts to look after them both?
Recommended watching / reading
Matthieu Ricard – Happiness
He’s a PhD biologist and Buddhist monk – it’s a super lucid view of how we chase happiness in the wrong places and the damage this does to ourselves and our world.
Try this as an intro:
Kate Raworth – Donut Economics
How to build a global economy that can meet our economic and ecological needs.
Thomas Naylor – Affluenza
An in-depth study on the impact of money and consumer culture on people across the globe.
Dan Ariely – Predictably Irrational
Daniel Kahnemann – Thinking Fast and Slow