If it sometimes feels as if we spend our entire lives in the pursuit of either earning money or spending money, there's a good reason: it's very close to the truth. Our addiction to possessions means we have little time to just be. We are too busy working, shopping, managing our finances and looking after the things we own, to even realise that we've stepped onto a treadmill that is virtually impossible to get off.
According to issue #2 of the thought-provoking NewPhilosopher magazine, "[m]uch of modern-day life involves attending to the needs of our products" that "take up space and must be packed away, cleaned, repaired at times and eventually disposed of. It's not unusual for people to spend most of their day attending to their family of products: their lawnmower, swimming pool, kitchen appliances, technological goods, car, caravan, bike, clothes, sunglasses."
The most worrying point in this piece was that while the list of products was long, the author managed to list only three "activities without products" which were "thinking, watching the clouds, or talking to a friend face-to-face". It highlighted how almost every activity we do is dependent upon possessing a particular object, and thus is, in some way, fuelling the economy.
The subject of Twelve Questions: Bryce Langston - a minimalist and "leading voice in New Zealand's tiny house movement" - was asked "Why do you think humans like stuff so much". He attributed it to "intentional planning using PR and advertising to keep us wanting to buy more so that we can grow the economy."
Another NewPhilosopher article explored the way that certain purchases - such as "extravagant sports cars, expensive watches, high-end apparel, brand labels, designer kitchens" - are used as status symbols and claimed "their value [is] largely derived from how we think others will perceive them". The writer concluded that the "status economy just brings along further spending and sinks us ever deeper into a consumer society".
Back in NewPhilospher issue #2, it's noted that we've lost the survival skills our ancestors had such as "growing vegetables, making and repairing clothes, baking bread, making soap, keeping chickens". Indeed, if we overlook the example set by self-styled Green Goddess Wendyl Nissen (who made a cottage industry out of performing such tasks), this is largely true.
Our reliance on businesses to meet our most basic needs is disconcerting. For example, if it weren't for supermarkets (which are labelled "survival warehouses" in this piece) some modern day consumers would be at risk of starvation. "Many of us experience a kind of existential angst in these survival warehouses, a gnawing sense of dependency and isolation possibly related to the subconscious realisation that our carer, our sustainer, isn't human - but instead is an entity that will provide goods for us as long as we continue to pay. It's a deep realisation that our modern-day carer does not, in fact, care."
I'm an avid supermarket shopper but I don't shop a great deal aside from procuring the daily essentials. We don't indulge in retail therapy purely for the sake of it or for recreation. We don't hang out at the mall. As a rule, we don't buy things unless they're needed. We replace sneakers when they have holes the size of twenty-cent pieces in the soles. My daughter gets a new sweatshirt when the old one no longer covers her bellybutton. I wear clothes older than her 11 years. Each day we still use the plain white Country Road crockery I bought 18 years ago, ignoring its subtle hairline fractures. But, in the scheme of things, these pathetic little protests against consumerism are
insignificant. They are trivial token gestures that fail to disguise my materialistic ways.
Contemplating how much we are absorbed in consumerism is frightening. There's no elegant or easy way to step off the roundabout of earning, spending and buying. It's a frenetic endless loop. We're so accustomed to it that we seldom stop to contemplate it - which is probably a good thing since it's daunting to realise quite how trapped and how brainwashed by the inescapable tide of consumerism we are.
Do you feel trapped by consumerism? What methods have you devised to thwart its power? Do you think you are more or less materialistic than the average New Zealander?