I sometimes read or hear of people complaining our society is plagued by (spit, spit) consumerism. This always sounded like some sort of epithet but didn’t really have much meaning to me. It was just a word that every “right thinking” person knew was a “bad thing”.
It wasn’t until I read this article that things started to jell in my mind. It was this paragraph that really connected with me:
Humans are not merely consumers. Every consumer is also a producer as well, and production is how we have improved our standards of living from the dawn of man till today. Every luxury, every great invention, every work of art, every modern convenience that we enjoy was the product of a mind – in some cases, of more than one. It then stands to reason that the more minds there are, the more innovations we will have as well. A reductio ad absudum reveals the obvious truth that a cure for cancer is more likely to emerge from a society of a billion people than from one of only a handful of individuals.
The problem I have with people that whine about consumerism is that they are only looking at one side of the picture. In order for consumers to exist there must be producers. In a free market there tends to be more production capacity than consumer capacity. And that excess capacity makes things more affordable and available to everyone.
Production and market competition yields tremendous benefits to society. Extended lifespans and higher quality of life are just the most obvious. Entertainment via Netflix, MTV, professional sports, and concerts might be considered frivolous and a waste but it is an improvement in the quality of life that is a result of our being able to produce more than what we need for survival. It is our excess production capacity that makes it possible to earn our food and shelter in fewer hours per week than it would have 1000 years ago. Back then a similar amount of effort, unless you were royalty, nobility, or politically connected, would have yielded death by malnutrition, disease, or exposure.
Yes, there must be physical limits to human growth on a single planet. But we don’t yet know what those limits are on this planet. The barriers to interplanetary travel and exo-planetary living are high. But from a simple available energy balance sheet (do the arithmetic on how many Joules of sunlight energy fall on a 40 acre field on a summer day, then extrapolate to the vastness of interplanetary space) it doesn’t seem farfetched to claim that human expansion beyond this planet is feasible.
Continued improvements in the human condition depend on increased production. In a free market producers must always produce goods desired by the consumers. Some of the products will seem frivolous but the net result has always been progress in improving the lives of people and more productivity per person. Moving society toward greater productivity will yield far greater benefits than discouraging consumption. Just look at the benefits of increased productivity of the last 1000 years.
When you hear someone use the word “consumerism” in a disparaging way demand they look at the requirements for it’s existence and consequences of it. And that is “productivism” and vast improvements in the human condition. Demand they tell you what they have against increases in productivity and improved quality of life.