Breaking the Cycle of Consumerism

By Josh Rueff on July 16, 2013

Let me tell you a sad story with a happy ending. For the sake of privacy, let’s call her Kate.

Kate was an industrious creature.

Work brought stress and appetite, but she was okay with that. She knew that all work and no play would make her… well… a boring person with a boring life.

So she liked to break the pattern of work and sleep with something enjoyable and relaxing. There’s nothing wrong with a little fun in life right?

For her this meant the excessive consumption of high quality narcotics. Bud that is.

NOTE: This is not an anti-drug campaign, but if you’re against marijuana feel free to take it that way 😉

Problem was, pot made her hungry. VERY hungry.

She would buy a bucket of chicken, convincing herself it was for dinner and tomorrow’s lunch. Of course her munchies-driven mind was never completely on board with this plan, and she would consume the entire bucket in a single sitting, scraping every greasy crumb from the bottom.

Kate would feel guilty for eating too much, so she’d wake up at 5 in the morning to run til she puked.

Then it was back to work and the cycle restarted: Work, weed, too much food, guilt-driven masochism.

Pretty rough. (There is a happy ending though.)

So what does Kate’s story have to do with consumerism?

Here’s part of the answer from one of my favorite minimalist writers, Chuck Palahniuk:

“Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love.

Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will.
At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.”

Kate obeyed her cravings and the Greeks obeyed their gods.

Who do you obey?

The Cycle of Consumerism

Like Kate, most people are stuck in an unhealthy cycle. Some people have many layers of unhealthy cycles, but there’s one cycle common to just about everyone.

The cycle of consumerism works like this:

1. Excessive consumption. Pursuing the American Dream, keeping up with the proverbial Joneses – call it what you want. Whenever you consume too much, a separate area of your life takes a hit. Alcoholism, cigarette smoking, and other drug addictions are obvious examples. But what about credit card debt? Student debt? Mortgage payments? Are these forms of excessive consumption?

2. Mandatory Labor. To keep afloat in the sea of bills and debt, people force themselves to work as many hours as it takes to make ends meet. That usually means 45 to 50 hours a week, although it’s more for some of us.

3. The stress of long and unfulfilling labor leads to… More consumption. It’s no secret most people hate their jobs. Do you? If you said no you’re either lying or you’re a part of a very happy 2% of the population (I made that percentage up, but you get the point.) In most cases, too much mandatory labor causes stress and even depression. So what do we do? We may treat ourselves to movies, ice cream, television, alcohol, drugs (prescription or not so much), fine dining, or maybe even a weekend getaway – and that’s exactly what all these things are – ways to get away; to escape the sad reality of the cycle of consumerism.

There’s a lot of reasons this is unhealthy, one of the most important being a person’s inability to create. When we spend all of our time on meaningless labor, we’re unable to pursue the more fulfilling activity of creating.

The Ending Can be Happy

By the way, like some people do, Kate ended up moving on to heavier drugs like acid and cocaine. She ended up dying peacefully on a DMT-induced spiritual journey to what turned out to be her actual afterlife.

Peace at last. Told you she had a happy ending.

Anyway, the main point I’d like to get to is that we can have an even happier ending if we find a way to break the consumer cycle.

Kate obeyed her cravings and the Greeks their gods.

Who do you obey?

There’s a lot of different voices in our ears these days, but in the end you’re the only one responsible for your decisions – it’s your voice that counts, not the countless others.

So how do we break the cycle of consumerism?

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, believes the answer is getting “back to culture. Yes, actually to culture. You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books.” That’s a pretty good point.

But what about the pursuit of happiness? I want a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I want at least two nice vehicles, one or two pets – I owe that to myself, my spouse and my children.

Do you?

Why does everyone need to have those things? Why do we owe that to ourselves? Who put that into your mind – was it the gods, mass media, the government? Was it you?

Confucius says “a true gentleman is one who has set his heart upon the Way. A fellow who is ashamed merely of shabby clothing or modest meals is not even worth conversing with.”

I say make your own way.

Find a way to avoid excessive consumerism – break the cycle!

Jarod Kintz wrote: “The problem with Marxism is the proletariat isn’t going to rise up against capitalism and consumerism. The only time they’ll rise up is during a commercial break to either go to the bathroom or grab more beer.
”

He may be right and he may not be. I’m not sure there’s need for a mass uprising, but your personal life may need a coup against a mindset you didn’t ask for.

Can living simply break the cycle of consumerism? Is minimalist living the answer? The only one who can answer that question is you.

Good luck!

Josh

Minimalism vs Materialism: Know Your Enemy.

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By Josh Rueff on April 22, 2013

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

-Sun Tzu

No one likes having enemies. But having enemies is an inevitable part of life. Often, our enemies are not other people, but our own habits, mindset, and other amorphous concepts.

In the case of minimalist living, one of the primary enemies is materialism.

If your goal is to simplify your life through the process of minimalist living, you need to know your enemy.

What is Materialism?
Materialism is: “Preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.” (Dictionary.com)

Or more simply:

Materialism = Unhealthy priority on “things”.

When people make material possessions and money the highest priority, the things that really matter suffer. A classic example is the absent workaholic father who’s convinced he’s doing right by his family by working twice as much as he should. His heart and ideals may be good – he just wants to provide his family with the good things in life.

But the result is disastrous:

Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2011, Table C8. Washington D.C.: 2011.

In 2008, American poverty rates were 13.2% for the whole population and 19% for children, compared to 28.7% for female-headed households.
Source: Edin, K. & Kissane R. J. (2010). Poverty and the American family: a decade in review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 460-479.

That’s enough to get you thinking about the consequences of materialism, but it’s just the statistics – what numbers can’t show is the emotional and psychological devastation present in the minds of those children.

There’s many other ways materialism causes problems, but the good news is that the mindset of materialism can be eliminated.

Mastering the minimalist lifestyle is one of the best ways to do it. But we have to know our enemy.

So let’s go beyond the simple definition and compare the materialism of ancient cultures with our own.

Materialism in Ancient Cultures

“The Master said, “A true gentleman is one who has set his heart upon the Way. A fellow who is ashamed merely of shabby clothing or modest meals is not even worth conversing with.”

-Confucius

Before we jump into this topic, I want to throw out a  quick disclaimer: My purpose is not to denounce the value of materials goods or money. Things are not bad, and money isn’t evil.

It’s when we give money and things too high of a priority – to the detriment of more important priorities – that’s when things get sour.

To understand the “enemy” of materialism, I began to research the economic systems of ancient civilizations, to see if the comparison between their society and our own would produce any insight.

In Egypt, a very clear distinction can be seen between the lower class and the elite; just looking at the landmarks in Egypt shows something about the ruling class. The tombs in the pyramids, as well as historical documentation show that the pharaohs were highly preoccupied with luxurious living: Spices, perfumes, gold jewelry, slaves, banquets loaded with culinary delicacies, and more.

As I looked into the cultures of Babylon, Assyria, Israel, Rome and Sparta, I noticed the same thing: An ever-increasing gap between the ruling class and the common people, and a strong sense of materialism in the ruling class.

Without getting too far off subject, the main observation I can make is that the elite class had a very strong sense of materialism.

But there’s a subtle difference between ancient materialism and modern materialism.

Ancient materialism was clearly prevalent in the ruling class, but there’s very little materialist activity in the common class.

 In modern societies, ALL classes take part in materialism. There’s a reason why the poor in America have a high depression rate, while the poorer in many third world nations are happy. It’s a corrosive mindset that’s pervaded every corner of our society.

The “American Dream” has become “The Materialist Dream”. 

There’s another comparison that stuck out as I conducted this research.

The Class Cycle and Materialism

History repeats itself over and over again in cycles. One of the most glaring cycles is one that’s been observed, studied, and consistently revisited by economists, historians, and political scientists:

In just about every nation in history, there is a marked struggle between economic classes:

As lines are formed and the gap between classes increase, the struggle intensifies, and eventually results in some form of war in which either the elite (rich) class or the common (poor) class gains control.

If the ruling class wins, they continue to oppress the poor (at least in the eyes of the poor). If the “common” ( or poor or working) class wins, they typically establish rules and laws favoring equality and fair distribution of wealth, which only works until human greed takes over, and the “common” class eventually becomes the rich class. And the cycle starts over.

Here’s a few examples of class wars that led to revolutions, coups, and militant upheaval:

508/7 BC: The Athenian Revolution establishing democracy in Athens.

464 BC:The Helot slaves revolt against their Spartan masters.

73–71 BC: The failed Roman slave rebellion, led by the gladiator Spartacus.

66–70: The Great Jewish Revolt, the first of three Jewish-Roman wars that took place in Iudaea Province against the Roman Empire.

248: Lady Trieu Uprising of Vietnam against Chinese Domination

713: Mai Thuc Loan Uprising of Vietnam against Chinese Domination

817–837: The revolt of the Iranian Khurramites led by Babak Khorramdin.

869–883: The Zanj Rebellion of black African slaves in Iraq.

1250: The Mamluks killed the last sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty, and established the Bahri dynasty.

1497: The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 in England.

1514: A peasants’ war led by György Dózsa in the Kingdom of Hungary.

1515: The Slovenian peasant revolt.

1549: Kett’s Rebellion.

1573: The Croatian and Slovenian peasant revolt.

1642–1660: The English Revolution, commencing as a civil war between Parliament and the King, and culminating in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of a republican Commonwealth, which was succeeded several years later by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.

1791–1804: The Haitian Revolution: A successful slave rebellion, led by Toussaint Louverture, establishes Haiti as the first free, black republic.

1848: The French Revolution of 1848 led to the creation of the French Second Republic.

1916–1923: The Irish War of Independence, the period of nationalist rebellion, guerrilla warfare, political change and civil war which brought about the establishment of the independent nation, the Irish Free State.

1918: The German Revolution overthrows the Kaiser; establishment of the Weimar Republic.

And of course:

1775–1783: The American Revolution establishes independence of the thirteen North American colonies from Great Britain, creating the republic of the United States of America. (Class wars: Source.)

Here’s where it gets interesting:

These class wars were largely supplemented by materialism, or at least perceived materialism in the elite class. Of course religious, political, and economic freedom had a lot to do with many of these conflicts, but at the root of these class wars was the materialist mindset and oppression of the elite class.

Even America’s own Revolutionary War was sparked in part by the outrage of the patriot’s against heavy taxation, which gave the ruling class (King George the 3rd) the means to support their (his) luxurious living and overall materialism.

Materialism and Consumerism

It can be easy to assume that consumerism and materialism are synonymous, and they certainly are similar in meaning. But materialism is the general mindset of placing unhealthy priority on material possessions, while consumerism is simply materialism that has been instilled by mass media and advertising.

Before I go on, the point of this research isn’t to show how the government or large corporations utilize mass media to brainwash the common people into economic slavery.

But the point is that consumerism causes economic slavery, in the form of debt, and a materialistic mindset. For the purpose of this article it doesn’t matter who created materialism or pushed consumerism on the nation.

For more information about consumerism, Read “How Consumerism Shapes Our Lifestyles”.

Materialism takes on many forms, and consumerism is fortunately one of the more black and white forms.

The materialist effects of advertisements and marketing campaigns can be avoided in part by simply turning off the sound when commercials come on, or watching less TV in general. Unfortunately, the mindset of consumerism is deeply embedded in our culture – wherever you turn you see it: Every show on television flaunts materialism because that’s what people like to see. 

Here’s an excerpt from an English professor’s take on materialism in Reality TV:

Each fresh faced reality star is showered with extravagant gifts and thrown into a luxurious lifestyle after signing up to participate in a show. These gifts include rides in decorated limousines, a celebrity style mansion to live in, the latest fashions to wear, and free passes to the most exclusive clubs in whatever major city these stars are located in. Television producers create this manufactured setting simply to entertain audiences while keeping their ratings up, as we are more likely to watch shows in a setting that “wows” us. However, young viewers now look up to these reality stars just as children of past generations use to idolize their favorite sitcom stars. The only difference between these two role model figures would be: one is wholesome and comical while the other is materialistic and vain. Teenagers today watch reality stars live extravagant, yet shallow, lives and then expect their own lives to mirror that of their role models. This is a dangerous cycle that is leading the youth of today down an unrealistic path. Therefore, reality television shows instill materialistic values and unethical morals in today’s young generation. (Source: Professor Clark)

Of course this is only a scratch in the tip of the iceberg – television and media as a whole presents some form of materialism for our brains to process, consciously or subconsciously.

Know Yourself

“Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

I believe this mindset should apply to us all, and in the pursuit of the minimalist lifestyle, materialism is one of many obstacles.

There’s many ways to turn the mindset of materialism into an opportunity (marketers do it every day!), but for us, understanding materialism – knowing our enemy – is the best window of opportunity.

To complete Sun Tzu’s strategy from the quote at the beginning of this post, we have to “know ourselves”:

1. Are you effected by materialism?

2. Are there any areas of your life that are hurt by materialism?

3. How can you eliminate the materialism in your life?

4. What new opportunities does the understanding of materialism and consumerism open up in your life?

Answering these questions may lead to a life changing mindset and lifestyle. They certainly have for me.

Josh

How Consumerism Shapes Our Lifestyles

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As I’ve taken on the goals and idealism of Minimalist Lifestyle, the subject of consumerism has come up many times in my conversations with other minimalists.

The general mindset within the subculture of minimalism is that consumerism is the vile, manipulative, and enslaving result of mass marketing and corrupt corporations, but I want to approach the subject more objectively – at least until I’ve found a clear answer.

There’s two different definitions of the word “consumerism”:

The Economic Definition: “The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers.”

The Philosophical Definition: “The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.”

The research in this article revolves around the philosophical definition of consumerism.

What is Consumerism?

By the short definition given, consumerism is the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods, but what does that mean exactly, and are there flaws in this mindset?

The first questions I have are:

1. Does America and other 1st world societies have a preoccupation with money and goods?

and

2. Is the focus of acquiring consumer goods unhealthy?

First off, is consumerism prevalent in the 1st world nations of the modern world?

This struck me as a very interesting question because of the steps I had to take to find out the answer. The first thing I did was a general research on time. To pinpoint priorities and “preoccupations”, I had to figure out the time the average person spends in each area of life.

Average Time Spent on Weekends

This is what I came up with:

This chart shows the change between 2005 and 2010, in how people spend free time over the weekend.

Jon Peltier from peltiertech.com created some very helpful charts that helped me better understand the amount of time the average individual spends in each category of their life:

So from these charts we can conclude that most people:

1. Spend most of their time eating out, watching movies, and with family and friends.

2. Spend more time watching movies and other forms of media than we spend with family and friends.

3. Place a surprisingly low value on hobbies (5%), but the percent is increasing.

4. Time spent with family and friends is decreasing.

That third observation is more of a personal observation by the way, it’s not really relevant to the topic.

The first two observations however, seem to show that people value the luxuries of eating out and watching movies… quite a bit – spending almost half the weekend (43%) on these activities.

This information seems to solidify the idea that consumerism is prevalent in our society, but since this study only addresses the weekend, I thought I’d have a look at time spent during the weekdays (I’m not feeling very optimistic about it, considering the number of hours I spend working…)

Average Time Spent on Workdays

 Here’s some information I found from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I was hoping for something a little bit more optimistic, but this is about what I was expecting. Clearly the majority of time is spent sleeping and working.

Conclusive Points About Consumerism in America

So there’s two conclusive points I’ve gathered from the data:

1. On the weekends the priority is entertainment and family/friends.

2. On the weekdays the priority is work (sleep is as well, but there’s no getting around the need for sleep).

From these conclusions I can only assume that people place a high value on working, social interaction, and entertainment, although the following statistics reveal that working is not a desired priority, but a necessary one:

According to Forbes, 71% of employees hate their jobs.

The question I ask myself is “why would everyone voluntarily spend the majority of their time working at jobs they hate?”

I think the answer is similar to the reason we go to war – no one wants to kill, and no one wants to die, but out of necessity (self interest) we fight and kill each other to survive. In the same way, 71% of Americans hate spending the majority of their lives working at jobs they hate, but they do out of necessity – In a previous post “Minimalist Living: The Lifestyle of Freedom” I found that the debt may be the reason many of these people have no other option but to work at jobs they hate:

  • Average credit card debt: $15,000
  • Average student loan debt: $32,000
  • Average mortgage debt: $150,000
  • Total Average Household Debt: $197,000

The more information I gather, the closer I get to the answer to the first question: Does America and other 1st world societies have a preoccupation with money and goods?

If we spend the majority of our lives working for money, it seems clear that yes, we do have a preoccupation with money. And since the time spent on days off  revolves around entertainment, which points to a preoccupation with entertainment. I wouldn’t typically think of entertainment as “goods”, but in a temporal sense they are.

So the answer is yes, America (and probably other first world nations) fits the consumerist description: “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods”.  So what about the second question?

Is the Focus of Acquiring Consumer Goods Unhealthy?

After thinking it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no right answer to this question.

Everyone has a different set of values and morals.

Many people make a convincing argument for consumerism. Most of us are taught early in life that money and things don’t buy happiness, but have you ever seen a sad person riding a jet ski? (I’m pretty sure I plagiarized that by the way, I just can’t think of who said it first.)

Why do you think kids are so happy on their birthdays and on Christmas? Because of the things they get, the loot.

And what makes a parent more happy than seeing their kids play in a safe, clean neighborhood, in a big fenced in yard, and a house with all of the luxuries of first world living?

Guess what you need to get those “things”: Money.

I’ve heard these arguments, and it’s hard to deny the importance of money and goods in our lives. Personally, I see more value in relationships with friends and family, and the good news (at least for me) is that spending time building relationships is one of the highest priorities people have in their off days.

Final Observations and Conclusion

I’ve seen miserable and even suicidal rich people. And I’ve seen miserable and suicidal poor people.

I do think that money can buy at least temporary happiness, but I don’t believe that a preoccupation with money and things leads to a fulfilling lifestyle (self-actualization). 

It seems to me that for some, focusing a large amount of time acquiring things and money can be fulfilling, especially if the majority of those assets are poured into relationships and helping others.

Think about Andrew Carnegie – he spent the majority of his life working 3-4 hours a day because of his preoccupation with gaining material assets and money. The rest of his time was spent with his family and friends. The same was true for John D. Rockefeller (I think he worked a little bit more, but much less than most people do today).

And then for others, consumerism becomes an enslaving mindset that forces them to work ungodly hours at jobs they hate to hold on to the assets they’ve acquired, or pay off debt they accumulated in the acquisition of these goods.

I think the questions we have to ask ourselves are:

1. Is consumerism healthy or unhealthy for me?

2. Do I love or hate my job?

3. Do I despise or enjoy working 8-9 hours a day?

4. Do I spend enough time with my family and friends?

5. Do I spend enough time working?

6. Does the time allocated to my activities align with my goals and aspirations?

And most importantly:

7. What activities gives me fulfillment?

That last question is the question that should be the foundation of my lifestyle decisions. Maybe there’s words that describe it better for different people. Self actualization, achievement, fruition, satisfaction, happiness, joy?

I think different words describe different things for different people, but pick a word that makes the most sense and plug it in. Does consumerism; “My preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods” give me __________?

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Minimalist lifestyles and Consumerism isn’t your lifestyle of choice, here’s a few posts you might be interested in:

“Minimalist Living: The Lifestyle of Freedom”

“Freedom Defined: Are You a Slave to Your Lifestyle?”

“Thomas Jefferson’s Approach to Self Sufficient Living”

“7 Self Sufficiency Strategies”

“3 Steps to Become Independently Wealthy”

“Off the Grid Living: The Comfortable Way”

“Minimalist Hobbies”

-Josh