Have you been getting the message
lately that consumerism is on the nose? If you have, you may have
also noticed that this latest mood spreading through industrialised
societies is not just in response to the global recession. The guilt
we humans are feeling about over-consumption is much bigger than
that.

If you need evidence of the trend you
need look no further than some recent movies. Possibly the most
obvious example is Confessions of a Shopaholic. The title says
it all. Then there was the Devil Wears Prada in which the main
character gets hooked on the fashion industry’s endless craving for
conspicuous consumption and novelty and then breaks free again. There
was also last year’s Disney hit WALL-E, about a robot, one
of many, left on earth to clean up the mess when humanity abandoned
it. Not only did the earthlings have to leave because of all the junk
that consumerism fostered, but for most of the movie they seem doomed
to an endless existence of ugly consumption and pointless pleasure
seeking.

And now a prominent writer has made a
dramatic plea to humanity to say “enough” to consumerism. In
Enough: Breaking free from the world of more, health writer
for the London Times newspaper John Naish counsels readers to
put an end to humanity’s apparently limitless craving for more of
everything.

“Over the past decade,” writes
Naish, “two facts have become increasingly obvious – that our
ever-increasing consumption is wrecking the planet, and that
continually chasing more stuff, more food and more entertainment no
longer makes us any happier. Instead, levels of stress, obesity and
dissatisfaction are spiralling.”

None of this, of course, is new. We all
know that owning more things does not make us happier and that those
who possess most are often sicker and more stressed than anyone else.
But what is new is Naish’s attempt to identify the reasons why we
continue to pursue happiness through materialism long after it has
become clear that we are on the wrong path.

Naish refers to biological research to
help identify the reasons for our apparently unlimited cravings for
more. His logic is that the more we know about the irrational
impulses that spur us on to ever more consumption, the more we will
be likely to be able to resist them.“It’s our primitive brains,” he
argues. “These marvellous machines got us down from the trees and
around the world, through ice ages, famines, plagues and disasters,
into our unprecedented era of abundance. But they never had to evolve
an instinct that said, ‘enough’. Instead, our wiring constantly,
subliminally urges us: ‘Want. More. Now.’”

Naish says that Western civilisation
wisely reined in this urge for thousands of years with an array of
cultural conventions, from Aristotle’s Golden Mean (neither too
much, nor too little) to the Edwardian table-saying: “I have
reached an elegant sufficiency and anything additional would be
superfluous.” But he says that consumer society has
invented a barrage of ways to stimulate our want-more brains’
acquisitive instincts.One by one he works his way through the
latest findings that may shed some light on humanity’s irrational
desire for endless consumption. He argues that Neolithic cave sites
may partly explain why.

“Many contain millions of hand-axes –
far more than cave-dwellers ever needed. Anthropologists believe that
the best axes were not just prized tools, but precursors of Ferraris
and Jimmy Choos. Owning Stone Age bling displayed your high
reproductive value. Nowadays this status-chasing urge
makes designer goods sorely alluring, even if they make no real
difference to our luxury-glutted lives. Our hunter-gatherer brains
seem wired to experience constant buyers’ urges, too. Brain scans
by Emory University in Atlanta show how the reward-chemical dopamine
is released when we spot a product and ponder its purchase. But only
the anticipation, the hunt, releases dopamine. After the deal is
sealed, the high may evaporate in minutes, leaving what shop-owners
call ‘buyer’s remorse’.”

Another trend that Naish looks at is
our gluttony for information. He points to surveys indicating that
the vast majority of people say that they “can never have too much
information. But more than half also said that
they don’t have time to use the information they already have,”
he says. “One way of trying to cope with this overload is to cram
in more information-seeking. Most 20-somethings now watch TV while
also being online.” Naish says that some psychology studies
suggest that we should limit our news-watching to 30 minutes a day –
or risk anxiety-related depression.

While our appetite for information has
been growing, so has our appetite for food. Naish points to
spiralling obesity levels in Western societies – a quarter of
Western adults are obese and a third are overweight – and says it
is expected that the majority of people will be overweight in the
next 20 years. Research, he says, suggests that one
reason for our ballooning waist lines is the haste with which we tend
to eat meals. “It takes 20 minutes for your brain
to realise that your stomach is full,” Naish says, “so taking
time to chew undistractedly enables your mind to keep up with your
galloping appetite.”

Apart from offering readers some
information about the irrational nature of many of their urges to
consume without control, Naish also offers some reasons why they
should quit the habit. The main problem with over-consumption,
he argues, is that we spend so much time working to earn enough money
to feed our impulse to consume that we have little time left to spend
on real needs, particularly on spending time with family and friends.
As it is often pointed out, when people reach the point of death,
they don’t tend to wish they had spent more time on their work –
or on shopping for that matter – but they do wish they had spent
more time with the people they love.

So how do consumers who want to reclaim
their lives take the first steps? “I’d suggest that people jettison
this culture’s deeply ingrained and generally unquestioned
assumption that ‘more’ of anything is automatically better,”
says Naish. “We should instead be becoming a ‘post-more’
society. We should work on ditching ‘more’
and working on our ability to feel gratitude and appreciation for all
the amazing stuff we have. We’re constantly told we’re not
cool enough, rich enough, glam enough, networked enough, attractive
enough, etc. It’s proved an amazingly successful sales tactic –
it’s like a toxic substance that turns rational brains into needy
toddler-like grizzlers. We need to challenge it, loud and clear.”

Bill James is a Sydney freelance
writer.