Westerners are constantly worrying about consuming too much and living too well. This is not a new concern. For at least the past 2,000 years we have worried about having to pay a price for prosperity. What is perhaps more surprising is that we continue to worry. During the first millennia of human existence, increases in consumption were extremely slow, but over the past 200 years or so industrialisation led to an unprecedented increase in prosperity in the West. This was topped off by a super-increase in the 1950s and ’60s. And yet, we have still not had our comeuppance. Instead, for most Westerners, the principal outcomes have been longer and more comfortable lives.
That said, the benefits of increasing prosperity are distributed highly unequally, making growing inequality perhaps the most pressing economic and social problem of our era. Consumption is one of the areas where inequality is felt most strongly, not so much due to excessive consumption at the top, interestingly enough, but because of increasing deprivation at the bottom. If we want to correct this imbalance, through redistribution, we need to recognise that this will inevitably result in a further substantial increase in overall consumption. That might be no bad thing, providing policymakers make the effort to understand the long tradition of criticising consumption that is almost as old as Western civilisation.
The oldest and perhaps most influential critiques of consumption emerged within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is commonly understood as a divine punishment for depraved sexuality. However, as US theologian Stephen Long points out in Christian Ethics (2010), the sins committed in the two cities had ‘more to do with economics than homosexuality’. Obsessed with luxuries, Gomorrohans failed to show the selfless hospitality and charity that God expected of them.
This link between sin and material greed resurfaces in the New Testament. Using an odd metaphor, Jesus warned that the difficulties a rich man would encounter on his way to paradise were akin to those of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. His advice on how to go to paradise was to radically ‘de-consume’ by giving away all material possessions.
A worldly version of this argument that does not depend on believing in God and/or the afterlife was proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. Rousseau voiced his concerns against the backdrop of the consumer revolution that took place in his time. In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750), he lamented that, in a commercial society, possessions and appearances were the main motives of human action. Genuine sentiments and convictions had become secondary. Instead, what counted was to act in a way that helped you move up the greasy pole of wealth and prestige. The result was moral corruption. Men and women stopped living in an authentic way and instead lived for others and through others.
David Hume and other 18th-century apologists of commercial society likewise acknowledged that the fascination with consumption put an end to many expressions of passionate and genuine human feelings and impulses. But they also pointed out that this need not be corrupting. The new system helped channel human behaviour in ways that were compatible with peaceful coexistence. Men and women formed in the spirit of commercial society might covet another person’s glittery possessions; but rather than following their authentic impulse and simply take them by force, they would work hard to afford these objects of desire themselves, or else seek out the rich and bask in the reflected glow of their consumption. In commercial society, authentic sentiments were often ignored. But there was also less throat-cutting than in earlier, more genuine eras.
This was a powerful comeback, at least in theory. However, the argument was based on an excessively negative view of the so-called ‘dark ages’ before the appearance of enlightened commerce. And the civilising effects of commerce were soon thrown into doubt once again by the spread of colonialism, slavery and the mass pauperisation of workers, as Europe spread its tentacles across the globe. Rousseau’s arguments could not be easily set aside.
As industrialisation progressed, a new thread of consumption critique emerged. In 1798, Thomas Malthus used basic maths to argue that limitless consumption would condemn humanity to a life in misery. If population and hence consumption grew exponentially, while resources, most importantly arable land, were finite, then it was inevitable that a point would be reached when the system would collapse. Famines, he believed, would periodically reduce population numbers; however the insatiable sexual appetites of the lower classes meant that the masses could never rise above the most miserable level of subsistence.
Malthus’s calculations seemed irrefutable and yet his predictions did not come true. Poverty is still a problem in the West but almost nobody lives in the kind of misery he predicted, for which we can thank technological progress. Technology allowed humans to give in to their sexual urges without procreating (a kind of consumption without consequences). The progress of science also meant that existing resources could be used more efficiently, and new resources tapped. Agricultural yields have grown dramatically since Malthus’s day, and we are today using sources of energy and other supplies that his contemporaries could not fathom. Malthus’s specific predictions turned out to be wrong but the underlying logic of his doom scenario has continued to capture the imagination of Westerners.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/can-we-consume-our-way-to-a-fairer-more-prosperous-society