“Consumerism can be identified as a systemic psycho-social habit that reinforces status, wealth and dominance, while remaining detached from the environmental implications and finite nature of our earth.”
Today I want to share an academic paper I recently wrote about Consumerism and its role in driving contemporary societies to behave unsustainably. It is much different to read than my usual blog posts, so you may or may not enjoy reading it. However it is written based on factual information about the state of our current society. I hope you enjoy 🙂
Paper is below
Consumerism is a systemic psycho-social habit that reinforces status, wealth and dominance, while remaining detached from the environmental implications and finite nature of our earth. Consumerism is the main driver of unsustainable behaviour in modern society, degrading the earth that we all inhabit. This writing piece will begin with a brief history of consumerism and link it to the development of consumer culture in society and the individual, before demonstrating how consumerism is now exploited by capitalism and economic growth. Followed by an exploration of the damaging effects this has on the environment, and then the most revealing aspect of this unsustainable behaviour, global warming.
The origins of consumerism can be traced back to the eighteenth century in England, where societies began to identify with material goods as fashionable, rather than durable and practical (Miles, 1998, p. 6). A trend that would set up the explosion of a consumer society with the onset of industrialisation (Miles, 1998, p. 6). An era where mass production, coupled with expansive employment saw an increase in wealth dispersed through society. The newly established working class enjoyed increased purchasing power, encouraging their excess money be spent on newly introduced consumer products (Miles, 1998, p. 7). A cycle that stimulated the growing economy, enabling increased production, jobs, wealth and consuming, with Britain leading the charge (Ahlstrom, 1995, p. 288). What emerged was a consumer society, that by 1980, transformed into a consumer culture (Miles, 1998, p. 9).
Consumer culture has revolutionised societies attachment to consumption. Miles (1998) points to an underlying element of consumer culture, identifying it as a psycho-social expression (p. 5), where material goods are endowed with a symbolic and social significance (p. 7). Private affluence on a mass scale began to emerge as the dominant force in the marketplace (Miles, 1998, p. 9). We now see a culture that exaggerates the value of desires, over and above the value of meeting basic needs, which Hirsh & Dolderman (2007) explain as the pursuit of personal wealth by accumulation of material possessions (p.1585). Consumeristic individuals tend to be less satisfied with their current resources, always aspiring to the accumulation of even greater wealth (Hirsh & Dolderman, 2007, p. 1585). Consumerism has established the foundations for unsustainable behaviour in modern society, and highlights a trend the economic system will grow to exploit (Miles, 1998, p. 6).
The global economy now perpetuates exponential growth of consumption, and exploits societies attachment to it. Global consumption expenditure doubled from US$11 trillion in 1973, to US$23 trillion in 1998, and grew to US$31 trillion by 2007 (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2011, p. 117). Clapp and Dauvergne (2011) suggest this rising consumption is largely due to manufactured products (p. 117). This drastic inflation in economic production, demonstrates the highest level of consumption seen in the developed world, of any other time in history. Engineers now intentionally design products for a short-term life span, and a large number of people now enjoy replacing and upgrading their possessions (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2011, p. 121). Globalisation has been influential in creating efficient supply chains that create trade opportunities internationally. Costs can be kept low, while maintaining convenience for the everyday consumer. However, their is drastically increased fossil fuel consumption due to increased air-miles per product. This global inter- connectedness is able to feed consumerism efficiently and much faster than ever before, and as Miles (1998) suggests, is a force supported by the media and governments worldwide (p. 150). To begin to understand this emerging unsustainable behaviour, Cole (2000) exposes the flaw of economic philosophy, suggesting that continuous exponential industrial growth requires an increasing amount of resources. As stocks become depleted, an increase in economic capital is required to obtain resources, leaving less to invest for future growth (p. 44). It can be seen that global economic growth feeds consumerism, while paying little attention to the limits of environmental resources. The capitalist economy fails to account for these limits, and has no mechanism to indicate when resources are being used in an unsustainable manner (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2011, p. 109).
Consumerism is actively driving the degradation of the environment. Using the ecological footprint calculator, it is indicated that if our current human population consumed at the level of the United States, we would require four earths to sustain our needs (Clapp & Dauvergne, 2011, p. 119). An alarming statistic that highlights the exploitation of natural resources as if they were in limitless supply (Cole, 2000, p. 44). China’s impact on Amazonia is one that illustrates this point. China has grown into a global economic force, producing large amounts of consumables for developed countries. The Amazon on the other hand, is the worlds largest Tropical Forest, containing about half of the worlds biodiversity, and a modern day hotspot for exploitation of natural resources. Exports originating in the Amazon and destined to China have increased at an impressive rate of 52 percent yearly from 2000 to 2010, increasing from US$104 million in 2000 to US$6631 million in 2010 (Fearnside, Figueiredo, & Bonjour, 2011, p. 327). China’s imports from Amazonia in 2001 alone, resulted in 55,000 km2 of deforested area (Fearnside et al., 2011, p. 329). From 2001 to 2010, the total deforested area from China’s imports alone, is suggested at nearly 212,000 km2 (Fearnside et al., 2011, p. 329). With China’s contribution, in 2002 to 2003, nearly 4.7 million hectares of forest was cleared in Amazonia, equivalent to 11 football fields per minute (Figure 1). China’s effect on deforestation in the Amazon, demonstrates how consumerism drives the degradation of natural resources such as forests.
Figure 1: Shows deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia since 1990 (Laurance et al., 2004, p. 1109)
Deforestation causes destruction of global biodiversity, habitats and food markets. Fragmenting forest habitats for resource transportation highways, co-opting resources and changing global climate at an alarming rate, Barnosky et al. (2011) suggests we are losing species at a rate similar to those seen in the five previous mass extinction events (p. 51). At this rate of natural resource destruction, it is projected that we could lose 75 percent of our global species within just a few centuries (Barnosky et al., 2011, p. 51). This drastic rate of species loss is not isolated to physical habitat destruction, but can also be a result of global food markets. The worlds consumption of fish illustrates a serious degradation in ocean resources. The latest analysis of the state of resources indicates that in 2003, approximately half of the worlds fish stocks were exploited at or close to their maximum, and about 25 percent of them were exploited either below or above such maximum (Niwa, 2008, p. 14). Fishing policies back between 1950 and 1970 have been described as a “strive for as much fish as possible” attitude, leading to the fishers population growing faster than the earths human population (Niwa, 2008, p. 10). This demonstrates how consumerism destroys the biodiversity of other living organisms, either for our consumption, or as a by product of habitat destruction. Damaging the environment and associated ecosystems.
With the rate of human consumption, and the effects it is now having on the environment, it has a strong link to global warming. Newton & Cantarello (2014) explain how the carbon cycle plays a key role in regulating the Earth’s climate, by controlling the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) distribution in the atmosphere. CO2 is important because it contributes to the greenhouse effect, a process by which the atmosphere traps some of the Sun’s energy, warming the earth (p. 66). Our burning of fossil fuels, increased global trade and forest clearing among many other factors, are releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. To further illustrate the point, I will again use China as an example. In 2007, China topped the list of Carbon Dioxide emissions, with an 8 percent national increase (Figure 2), accounting for two-thirds of the global increase of 3.1 percent (Figure 3) (Yunfeng & Laike, 2009, p. 351). It is suggested that 7-14 percent of these Carbon Dioxide emissions are the results of producing goods for export to the United States (Yunfeng & Laike, 2009, p. 351). In the 420,000 years prior to the industrial age, the CO2 in the atmosphere oscillated between 180-280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), and recently industrial levels of CO2 have increased to nearly 400 ppmv (Newton & Cantarello, 2014, p. 67). This is an increase of between 10 and 100 times that of any other time in recorded history (Newton & Cantarello, 2014, p. 67). A study of fossil fuel emissions in the Mediterranean and its effect on climate, concluded a temperature increase of 2 degrees celsius since 1970 in the region, resulting in potential decreases in annual rainfall, an increase in sea level and an increase in frequency and severity of drought periods (Ouahrani, Mesa, & Merzouki, 2010, p. 18). These effects have been widely researched and projected for different regions all over the world, highlighting the global issue of consumption and its wider effects on our environment and future social well-being.
Figure 4: Shows the CO2 Concentration (ppm) in the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years, recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii before and after 1958 (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2013)
In conclusion, the origins of consumerism can be clearly identified as far back as the eighteenth century in England, and can be linked to the creation of consumer culture in modern day society. With a society that values consuming, the global economy has been able to grow at an extraordinary rate, exploiting consumer culture through capitalism and globalisation. Now we are seeing massive environmental implications such as the mass deforestation of the amazon, and biodiversity loss at a rate similar to previous mass extinction events. Consumerisms effects have caused a sharp rise in CO2 in the atmosphere not seen in the last 420,000 years, increasing global temperatures and leading to potential catastrophic weather events in the near future. It is clear that consumerism is the main driver of unsustainable behaviour, causing a psycho-social attachment to acquiring possessions and wealth, leading to the subsequent perilous condition of our current earth.
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