We worship the consumer because the consumer is us. We consume constantly and obsessively. We buy clothes to the tune of $12 billion dollars a year, far more than is needed for our existence. We consume food and alcohol like no other country, spending thousands of dollars per a person. We consume thousands of hours of television and movies and video games a year. We buy furniture. We buy 75-inch TV’s not out of any sense of utility but because “why not?” We take lavish vacations we definitely cannot afford, maybe because we think we deserve it. (But I get the sneaking suspicion some of that is related to wanting to put those pictures on our Instagram or Snapchat stories.) We are on a neverending treadmill of consumption. Are we actually free any real sense if this is the case? Aren’t we just slaves to wage labor?
I tend to think so. I don’t see most people at peace. At least not the ones I see in therapy, which is admittedly as skewed sample size). I see anxiety and consuming and more anxiety and more consumption from the general population. And I see how we are more and more slaves to our phones. I don’t know if I realized this fully until recently but social media, while useful for keeping in touch with people, is hijacking our brains. As Sean Parker, a founder of Facebook has said about the platform he started, “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Essentially social media is designed to keep our attention for as long as possible. Our time is the company’s profit. And how do they profit? Advertising, of course. What is social media in the end? An algorithm to keep our attention as long as possible so we can view more ads, which we will click on and hopefully consume some more. It’s as if life has been hacked into a game where our only goal is to consume and consume.
This isn’t to say that consumption isn’t fun or doesn’t make me feel good. God knows the way-too-expensive dinner I had a Michelin star restaurant was sublime recently for a big life event. (And yes, I got the wine pairing and fully enjoyed it). God knows I love a good TV series and completely enamored how it looks on my giant television. God knows I bought an expensive table from Pottery Barn the other day because it was pretty, and that table looks great in my apartment. And God knows new Nikes I bought the other day make feel good.
But I also get the sense of the hollowness of this consumption. The writer Neil Lawson said pointedly about consumption that it is “the heroin of human happiness.” It’s an apt phrase. Consumption is an addiction. It is never enough. And the truth is consumption is destroying us. It is destroying the planet. We are literally consuming ourselves out of existence.
What to do? There is no good answer, I think. Capitalism is not going away. It is so ingrained in our society that we cannot escape. Consumption is central to our economies, our way of life. And that means, as much as I’d like to not believe, climate change isn’t going away.
But in terms of human happiness, I do think there is something we can do: create. I don’t care what it is. Producing something on your own, whether it’s a meal or woodworking. Maybe you make nesting dolls or write or paint or dance but art and creativity often feel like the only way out of consumption, maybe because instead of consuming we are bringing life. In that way, creating makes us gods. It will not stop climate change or change the course of human existence. But it is far more real and important than the shoes I just bought. And it may be the biggest reason to keep going.