Show me the Money!
June 2, 2007 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Is consumerism bad?

Should I feel guilty about wanting the things that I do? A bike, a laptop, a mobile phone with a camera and audio files. These aren’t things that I need (as in life and death survival kinds of things), but would love to have if I could. Should I pursue the course that will get me these things; a stressful job that might not be as spiritually fulfilling as I’d like it to be? Or should I take the Gandhian way and absolve myself of such trivial pursuits? Believe me, I’ve tried, and the only thing that it’s gotten me is a skewed perspective of society. For years I thought “People who buy stuff = Bad” and “People who forgo such things = Good”. But lately, I’ve been seeing things as not so black and white as before, and I feel there may be a huge grey area to explore. So, should I take the plunge? (I’ve been clinically depressed for a long time now, and ever since my treatment started, and I started to get my life back in order, I’ve been planning to do all those things that I always wanted to do, but never thought I could.) Plus, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no Gandhi.
posted by hadjiboy to Work & Money (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

Should I feel guilty about wanting the things that I do? [emphasis added.]

Should you feel guilty for WANTING something? Of course not. You can't help what you want. It's not wrong to want to punch someone in the nose; it's just wrong to throw the punch.

Others will disagree, but I don't think ethics questions are intrinsically chatfilter. But in order for them not to be, they must be framed within a specific ethical system. Is it wrong not to honor thy father and mother? Depends. It is if you morals are based on The Ten Commandments. If they're not, who knows.

A seemingly simple moral system begins with good = "the more happiness there is in the world, the better." There have been studies that show people don't need all that much to be happy. They don't need to be rich; they don't even need to be middle class; but they DO need their basic-human needs met. (Can anyone site a source for this?)

In other words, if we could create a world in which no one goes hungry and everyone has shelter from the cold/heat, there will probably be as much happiness as there could be if, say, we made everyone rich.

But we don't live in such a world. There are tons of people who live way below the poverty-line while you and I wallow in your DVD players and iPods.

Should we feel guilty about that? I'm a little confused about that myself. Is there a CAUSAL LINK between the fact that I have an iPod and Fred is homeless?

Maybe the answer is not to worry about consumerism so much. If you want something and have the means to buy it, buy it. Meanwhile, work to help lessen the number of people who are living below the poverty line. You can do both at the same time.
posted by grumblebee at 8:29 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buy the shiny things you want, within reason. But also give you money and your time to good causes in your community. The later will make you feel good about the former.
posted by LarryC at 8:38 PM on June 2, 2007

It's not so much that the problem is in you wanting things as much as it is in the practices associated with consumption. (I took a class on this but an fuzzy on details so apologize if I get things wrong)

1. When you consume and get Fun New Things, you are, at the same time, throwing away your Previously Fun Old Things. The practice of throwing all of your old stuff away is bad news because it is waste and there are landfills that are over flowing and people need to, ideally be focusing on what they already have and focusing on reusing and reducing.

2. The things you want you don't actually want but have been trained to want by ads and the consumerist culture. The stuff you buy will make you momentarily happy because you've fulfilled a manufactured need but, overall, it will make you unhappy because it will make you want more stuff.

3. True happiness is in actually doing things rather than buying things and consumerism tries to convince you of the opposite.

4. Consumption chains = the iPod you buy for $400 actually sort of cost thousands of dollars to produce.

I am sure there are other reasons that others will outline better but these are what I recall. Try looking up some writing by this guy or just reading some anti-consumerism for environmental reasons writing. Some of it that isn't too preachy is really interesting.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 8:39 PM on June 2, 2007

well, you do recognize that there's a question of scale, that there is a gray area you'll have to become comfortable with. wanting things isn't bad, and indulging desire isn't bad. (i, too, have a tendency to be stuff-orexic, feeling that the denial somehow makes me stronger and more virtuous. then i realized that nonconsumption/self-denial is just another form of materialism--i.e. that taking a stand against owning those things imbues them with more meaning than they should necessarily have.) once you have decided to consume more than you need to meet your basic physiological needs (calories, clothing, shelter) it becomes a question of taste.

so my policy is that you shouldn't go into debt for things you don't need, but if you have the money for them, it's okay. and considering that the bike is better for your health and environment than a car, and that the laptop will increase your productivity at work, they're pretty legitimate purchases in the world we live in. these are things you can certainly buy secondhand, though, which is great. (the phone with bells and whistles is an indulgence, sure, but not evil.)

get a job that makes you happy and go from there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:48 PM on June 2, 2007

Assuming you buy as responsibly as you can, I think the only catch is to check you haven't fallen into the pitfall of "well, I have the laptop and and phone and bike now, but I'm still don't quite feel... fulfilled. I've wanted a video camera for a while now... I should get that, then I'll have the stuff I want", as that is the carrot dangling in front of the donkey unaware that it can't ever reach the carrot.

You're doing well because you have a short list of obtainable things. When you get those things you want, if you still feel like something is missing, that's an alarm bell that you're barking up the wrong tree and it's time to find what really makes you happy.

If at that point, instead, you feel that you've got what you need, consumer-wise and stores cease to hold much interest to you any more, then you're fine - consumerism helped you where it could, and you're not looking to consumerism to salve areas it can't patch. And things will continue to come up from time to time that you want, and that's ok, so long you remain in this camp, not the donkey who thinks that if he keeps walking, he'll solve his hunger.

The main thing is to have that initial list small and obtainable, so it doesn't take you until you're 45, having finally got the house, two cars, boat, etc to discover that you were chasing a mirage, and you've wasted half your life on it.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:55 PM on June 2, 2007

Here's another recent question yours reminded me of (I can't believe I managed to find that by searching mac, screen and regret). It's a different slant but I think a lot of the answers may resonate with the questions you're asking yourself.

Personally, I think the stressful, unfulfilling job vs world-saving ascetic is obviously a false one. One person's stressful is another person's challenging. Obviously work that is a good fit for you and also provided what you wanted materially would be a more ideal answer, and you shouldn't discount the possibility. I'll also point out that it is possible to make a decent living doing good works, though on the whole no, it doesn't prove quite as profitable as doing work that's motivated solely by profit. It is also possible to do good works in addition to working an "ordinary" job.

Certainly material things alone do not bring happiness, and it appears to me that people who develop lifestyles centered on material acquisition tend to be unsatisfied people, always questing for the next, bigger, shinier object that will finally fill the gap. On the other hand, there is genuine and honest pleasure to be derived from things. A person who loves to take pictures is going to get real pleasure from a nice camera. But, and I think this is a telling distinction, that person would take pictures regardless - they would take pictures with the camera they could afford. The belief that some gadget will make you interested or adept at something is a common and erroneous one. Nevertheless, useful tools are worth owning and a pleasure to use.

In the end, you are not restricted to follow a particular path forever. Why not take the plunge, as you put it, pursue more lucrative employment, and see how you feel about it? You can always stop, and do something else. Siddhārtha Gautama was a wealthy prince, after all, before he became Buddha.
posted by nanojath at 9:04 PM on June 2, 2007

Do I need a nice cushy mattress to sleep on? No, a piece of plywood would work just as well.

Don't confuse your quality of life with consumerism.
posted by JujuB at 9:05 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, "taking the plunge" doesn't necessarily mean suddenly buying everything you want. You should think about which things you would actually use a lot and would be... well, things by themselves won't make you happy, of course, but they can give you opportunities to do fun, happy-making things. So, the things that would actually give you those opportunities.

Get the bike, if there's somewhere nearby you can ride and you enjoy cycling and don't already have a bike. That's something that can become a good, fun hobby. So it's not the bike itself that would necessarily make you happier, but it could open the way to something that could.

But don't get a job you hate just so you can have more shiny stuff. If you do that, all you're doing is using the extra shiny stuff to try to offset the stress of the job.
posted by Many bubbles at 9:07 PM on June 2, 2007

On preview: Quality of life was what I meant. Consider whether any given thing would actually improve your quality of life.
posted by Many bubbles at 9:09 PM on June 2, 2007

Gandhi was a capitalist. He wanted it done responsibly, so the British weren't keeping India as a client state, a "junior partner" that was not entitled to its own resources. Above all things, Gandhi wanted people to be self-sufficient, to be able to trade and govern themselves as fairly as possible. Gandhi was great, but there's been a tremendous amount of myth-making.

I’ve been clinically depressed for a long time now, and ever since my treatment started...

So, you're still in the middle of treatment. Keep going with this before you start giving away all your worldly possessions or attempt to buy your way to happiness.
posted by frogan at 9:23 PM on June 2, 2007

absolve myself of such trivial pursuits

Absolve things: no; absolve the pursuit: yes. If you can find what you want without spending five hours a day reviewing the newest, greatest things and agonizing over the best possible answer, you're fine. Just decide on something and enjoy it, even if it doesn't have the best reviews on Amazon or an extended warranty. Possessions can enhance your life, but if you're always looking for an improvement over something you already have, you're not going to "find" anything you're looking for.
posted by mdonley at 10:00 PM on June 2, 2007

"In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?"

The Singer Solution to World Poverty.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:10 PM on June 2, 2007


I'm sympathetic to the principle, but I think that specific example is a poor one to use because money clearly has no relation to how many people are in need of organs, nor to the lengths some of them will go to obtain organs in order to save their life.

posted by -harlequin- at 11:22 PM on June 2, 2007

3. True happiness is in actually doing things rather than buying things and consumerism tries to convince you of the opposite.

I agree with this, and I think the thing to do is to make the stuff secondary to the activity. Instead of saying "I want a bike", say "I want to take up cycling". Start a new activity with borrowed, used, or cheap gear and then upgrade when you've established that you're actually going to benefit from buying new stuff. It's much easier to enjoy a new hobby if you don't have the pressure of having spent a lot of money on it.
posted by teleskiving at 2:32 AM on June 3, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I feel a little guilty now because I didn’t make it clear that the bike I mentioned was a Motorbike, and not the kind with pedals on it. I’ve been a bike enthusiast for a long time now, and the bike that I want is just the one for me. I understand what you’re all saying, about the pitfalls of going after the things you want and getting addicted to that sort of a lifestyle, and I don’t want to be that person. But at the same time, I’d also like to have a bit of fun before it’s too late, and see how the other side lives. Like someone said above—I don’t have to be either one of these two things, nor do I have to make the decision right this moment.
posted by hadjiboy at 4:37 AM on June 3, 2007

hadjiboy -- I'm in kind of the same place as you, although I probably haven't been quite as disciplined as you have. I think that these specific things you mention -- even the motorbike -- are tools, and that you may well be getting enough use and enjoyment from them that they are worthwhile investments for you. A lot of people buy things without having a real plan for how the new things will fit into their lives, so they sit unused. If you have old things that will be replaced by the new things, maybe make sure the old things will still have useful lives.

One could argue that humanity as a whole is evolving, that a cell phone and even camera for communicating are becoming as necessary as clothes. They aren't yet, but they could become so. Is it even possible for every single person in the world to have one of these? I don't know. But it seems far more feasible than the idea of everyone having a big car, or a big suburban American-style house.

Good luck, and thank you a lot for caring and thinking enough to consider this question.
posted by amtho at 8:35 AM on June 3, 2007

If you think supporting the jobs of billions, producing taxes that pay for security and social services, and having tools that enhance your life means "bad" then yes.

“People who forgo such things = Good”

In my experience people who make this claim end up buying old used crap that is actually worse for everyone concerned. There's nothing "green" or moral about driving around in a beater that burns oil because you want to stick it to the man.

No, youre not gandi, youre not a 19th century son lawyer of the president who fought for independence. Youre a 21st century guy. Lets not raise your concerns about "stuff" to this level. Buy what you want/need, get a good deal, and don't overdo it. Its not that tough.

/and get off my lawn
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:55 AM on June 3, 2007

Whether a purchase is for pure pleasure, or to fulfill basic needs, doesn't matter too much. Instead of dwelling on "need", seek value and utility. Are you going to use these things that you want? Are you going to replace them with the latest model every year?
posted by Chuckles at 1:05 PM on June 3, 2007

I’d also like to have a bit of fun before it’s too late,

When will it be too late? When you're 30? Part of the problem here is melodrama..

and see how the other side lives.

There is no "other side", only other people - billions of them. In your life, you will be able to see a handful of different lifestyles, if that is really your goal, as many as 10 or 20..
posted by Chuckles at 1:18 PM on June 3, 2007

I try to channel all feelings and emotions toward a greater good. If my vainity is what keeps me going to the gym (i.e., healthy, less anxious, oh yeah and buff), that's fine. If my greed moves me toward working hard and having money to give to charity, pay my bills, and buy fun things, fine.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:08 PM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

In my experience people who make this claim end up buying old used crap that is actually worse for everyone concerned. There's nothing "green" or moral about driving around in a beater that burns oil because you want to stick it to the man.
I don't know about cars or appliances, but in an affluent area (a major U.S. metro area), people routinely throw away clothing and housewares in perfect condition. I should get ripped off paying full price for new items of this nature, while the discarded ones go to the landfill? Most of my clothing comes from thrift stores, and I'm talking about mall labels, not ripped and faded flannel shirts worn by grunge poseurs c. 1993.
posted by bad grammar at 6:31 PM on June 3, 2007

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