Balancing the Pyramid: Can Consumerism Stay on Top?
In early human history, it was easy to determine needs. People consumed accordingly; most worked simply to maintain the basic needs outlined by Maslow’s hierarchy, and luxury was reserved for the upper echelon of society. But as our society has grown and changed, so have our needs. It now seems that a new peak has been hoisted atop Maslow’s triangle, balancing precariously. The need to consume promises to bring the human pyramid to new heights, while simultaneously threatening to tip out of balance, sliding down the steep slope of humanity and creating a devastating earthquake that could shake the construct of the human self to its core, and swiftly reduce the consumer culture to rubble. Perhaps this societal earthquake is inevitable; it may be that consumerism is akin to the San Andreas Fault, lying in wait, teasing us with small shakes, with the threat of ‘the big one’ always looming in the horizon. Every era has its end, and just as the consumer culture appeared, it is sure to disappear, replaced by a new era of humanity. How can we balance an addiction to decadence with a need for basic emotional satisfaction to utilize the benefits of consumerism without succumbing to its emotional emptiness?
One effect of consumerism is an ambiguous grey zone between needs and wants. The basic needs for physical and emotional health are no longer alone; they are now accompanied by an insatiable need for consumption. Since this putative need for consumption can never be fulfilled, the goal of emotional completeness has become unattainable, and consumerism relies on this new truth to stay afloat. As Zygmunt Bauman observes in The Art of Life, “by subtly shifting the dream of happiness from the vision of a full and fully gratifying life to the search for means believed to be needed for such a life to be reached, markets see to it that the pursuit can never end” (RD 41). Consumerism presents us with a vision of happiness as a constant search for more. It sticks us in a maze, promising cheese at the end of the rat race but always changing the destination, promising a bigger and better block of cheese at the other end of the maze. This has had a drastic effect on the mental health of our society, and in some cruel twist of fate, we have reached a point where having more is a burden instead of a benefit. Bauman refers to a study conducted by Richard Layard which concluded “that although the indices of reported satisfaction with life grow by and large in parallel with the level of national product, they rise significantly only up to the point where want and poverty give way to the gratification of essential, ‘survival’ needs – and stop climbing or tend to slow down drastically with further rises in affluence” (RD 38). This conclusion suggests that consumerism may be incompatible with happiness. How can we be happy if the standards for happiness are dynamic, and fluctuate from day to day? It appears that the consumer culture that has blossomed in recent history is a bubble on the verge of bursting, and the only way to maintain the aggregate happiness of our society is to rethink what happiness means to us.
A comparison of classical and contemporary happiness reveals a striking difference in the human psyche; luxury is no longer a luxury, but an expectation. The introduction of consumerism quickly instilled a need for wants. The difference between needs and wants is almost constantly redefined. In a matter of years a product can transcend the boundary between a novelty item to a supposed necessity simply through societal pressure. As Philip Cushman observes in Why the Self Is Empty, “the self has undergone extreme, erratic, often discontinuous change because it is part of the larger sociohistorical fabric of time” (RD 25). The solution appears simple enough. It seems that by reverting back to the traditional standard of happiness - fulfilling survival needs and living a complete life – our woes would be wiped away. But this simple suggestion has complicated consequences.
The world we live in is different than the world in which our ancestors lived. Rapid economic growth has reduced or eliminated many of the perils that threatened happiness in the past, such as famine and disease, allowing many of us to put these survival needs in the back of our heads. The modern dilemma for many is not “how will I eat tonight?” but, “where will I eat tonight?” Around every corner is a McDonalds offering dirt-cheap hamburgers, a Taco Bell peddling unbelievably priced tacos, and a Jack in the Box hawking both products. The rampant growth spurred by consumer culture has provided many great services that have brought standards of living to previously unfathomable levels. But the system relies on the idea that there will always be more growth, which requires resources that simply do not exist. The ever-rising tuition costs at UCSB are nothing compared to the exponential growth of consumerism, and if the growth stops, our consumer society withers away with it.
It seems that consumerism has consumed us. The constant economic growth has come at a price impossible to measure in dollars and cents. It feeds on our souls, devouring our innate desire for completeness and replacing it with a virus that commands us to purchase. Cushman asserts, “that disorders of the self… are one of the more popular diagnoses of our time” (RD 28). The culture we have built is self-destructive. It demands constant growth and relies on infinite needs, when both are limited. There seems to be only one end to the consistent rhythm of consumerism, and it is not a promising one. Gradually the fuel will run out, and we will be stranded in the desert of existence, left with empty souls and no means to fill them.
This prophecy should not be surprising, and need not be a cause for sorrow or anxiety. Empires rise and fall, always being replaced by (we would hope) an improved system of being. The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were once considered the pinnacle of human existence. But had they not fallen, much of the progress that humanity has made in the last two millennia would have been stalled or halted entirely. Human civilization is caught in a cycle of death and rebirth similar to the Buddhist idea of cyclical life; societies rise, fall, and rise again, each time moving one step closer to enlightenment. In the novel Ishmael, Daniel Quinn equates the building of civilizations to the building of aircrafts; he notes that, “trial and error isn’t a bad way to learn how to build an aircraft, but it can be a disastrous way to learn how to build a civilization” (Quinn 110). Perhaps the fall of consumerism is just a temporary dip, to be succeeded by a new rise that will take humanity to heights that we cannot begin to imagine. It is obvious that the aftermath of consumerism will be ghastly; but once the dust settles, we will rebuild, as we have done time and time again, reaching further and further into the heavens, and, hopefully, building a civilization that can withstand the force of time and allow humanity to prosper. Our society is alive. It beats with the hearts of all of humanity, and like every other living thing, it must adapt or die. When the consumerism bus runs out of gas and strands us in the desert, we ought not panic. Instead we should rejoice; this is the time to build a new vehicle, one more fuel efficient, more durable, and more powerful, hoping that our new creation will be able to take us to the coveted land of enlightenment.