Overconsumption: An all but too relative concept

Overconsumption: An all but too relative concept

Visual by: Sasha Berg

From environmental degradation to obesity and cardiovascular diseases, drug or even social media addiction, the plethora of options that presented themselves inspiration for the topic of overconsumption were as diverse as they were depressing.

The only point of convergence on overconsumption was this: the culprit for these nasty developments was none other than humanity’s insatiable appetite for stuff. We are the origin of those material commodities; of the myriad of goods and services produced by the dematerialized economy.

As I began to reflect on the information that I was gathering, I could not help but feel that a key point had barely been addressed in the larger discussion around overconsumption: How much consumption is “too much” consumption anyway? How can humanity hope to prevent the cataclysmic events that are bound to occur if it remains on its current path? What if it does not have a clear consensus on what it deems socially acceptable and desirable?

Before digging deeper into this question, it is particularly important to note that overconsumption has been severely condemned since the dawn of current civilizations. This type of behavior was considered so destructive that it even made it into both the Bible’s Ten Commandments (Gluttony, anyone?) and the Quran. Its place in these books effectively transformed a belief about the negativity of overconsumption into one of the earliest institutionalized norms. Buddhists as well are some of the staunchest denouncers of compulsive consumption; their belief system views the abandonment of earthly possessions as a pre-requirement to achieving a higher sense of understanding and well being. To the West and the East, through the natural linkages that exist between religion and culture, it is safe to assume that these convictions regarding consumption behavior have continuously shaped the informal and formal institutions, knitting the social fabric that unites us all.

And yet, the world is the way it is today. It is not uncommon for a 20-something year old in Western Europe to own multiple computers, phones, and vehicles, with dozens upon dozens of items of clothing shoved into a cluttered closet. And yet, he can consider himself to be part of the solution, not the problem. After all, because he is aware of the evil intentions of the economic and political elite, how could he share any of their guilt?

Ironically, it is probably this very same young man who keeps flooding your news feed with alarming messages about the impending doom facing our hyper consumerist society. A self-proclaimed champion of the Keyboard Warriors, he will fight through thick and thin to make sure global leaders address his concerns, as long as he has free Wi-Fi.

When I compare this to my grandmother’s stories of her childhood, a time when at Christmas an orange and a doll were welcomed by euphoria; a time when women had to struggle in and outside of their homes to mobilize to be given the basic human right to vote; I cannot help but feel ashamed. We have excess and no satisfaction; they had endurance and joy. Currently, the ability to rationalize our modern consumptive behavior by applying a relativistic definition to the concept of overconsumption itself testifies that we have much to learn about the meaning of personal fulfillment.

It is now widely agreed that our ecological footprint – the cumulative environmental strain imposed by humanity – is highly unsustainable given the planet’s fixed biological capacity to absorb pollution and provide intelligent life with natural resources. Even though the recent efforts at COP21 will allegedly provide us a global legal framework and strategy to address the impending environmental catastrophe, no progress will be made without a complete shift in our own perception of how much we are entitled to consume. Let us assume – just for a second – that the way in which we spend our hard-earned cash is representative of where true priorities lie. If this is true, then we have unanimously elected a consumer electronics firm that goes by the name of a popular fruit, as the world’s single most important organization; their most recent record-breaking quarterly sales prove that this behemoth of consumerist society has a solid hold on its throne.

Until a majority realizes that the current ‘standard’ about how much we should be able to consume is unsuitable given the absolute limitations of our small, blue planet, progress addressing the range of concerns linked to our voracious appetites (i.e. the crux of the problem) will not be made.