Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"
I have two very different points to make with regard to Sterling’s very interesting and thought-provoking essay: one draws on neuroscience described in the article; the other highlights the limits of the neuroscientific perspective on consumption, which is a systemic problem.
To the first point, the question is this: If the impulses to seek satisfaction and pleasure through acquisition are learned, then can they also be unlearned? Furthermore, what role does the person’s age plays in this learning-unlearning-relearning process?
Let me clarify through a personal example. I grew up in a communist Poland where consumerism was in infancy. Conspicuous display of wealth was frowned upon, and consumer goods were scarce. Our leisure time and aspirations centered on things other than acquiring stuff. At age twenty, I immigrated to the US with my family. For the first few years in the US, I was rather blind to the symbols of wealth and did not understand the concept of acquiring something I did not need. Time and again, I declined offers of nice clothes from charitable, uncomprehending ladies, stating that I had enough already. While babysitting in a large mansion, I would note the size of the rooms, the house, and the grounds but never mentally classified that family as wealthy. Over time, these quaint qualities vanished, and I became another American consumer. But not my parents, who were in their fifties at the time of the immigration. Until the end of their long lives, my parents seemed to be completely immune to advertising, to wanting more than was needed for comfortable cultured life.
To use Sterling’s terminology, my parents (and their immigrant friends of similar background) depended on “satisfaction circuits” derived from other stimuli than accumulation of stuff. This raises the following question: What does neuroscience tell about the stability, over time, of the satisfaction circuits? If it was (hypothetically) possible to bring up a generation of children and young adults who seek a wide range of pleasure-giving stimuli that are not associated with consumption, could such circuits persist through their lives, making them immune to the great advertising machinery?
My second point with regard to Sterling’s essay is to emphasize that consumption is more than an individual neurological response to advertising and immense availability of cheap goods. It is also a collective act performed in the context of cultural norms, social practices, infrastructure, employment practices, and various other constraints. My sense is that neuroscience is not likely to shed light on these mechanisms, much less provide insights on how to minimize these forces for consumption. But these are the essence of unsustainable consumption in our society. Impulsive purchases of everyday stuff (so well explained in Sterling’s essay) account for a relatively small part of an average person’s ecological footprint (less than 20%). Much bigger impacts come from eating meat, distant air travel, and the way we live: in large single-family houses which require heating, cooling, and furnishing, and which are located in low density neighborhoods that force a lot of driving in single occupancy vehicles. Drivers of this type of collectively practiced consumption make up a complex system, mostly outside of an individual’s control and out of reach of satisfaction learning circuits (eating meat being an important exception).
Take, for example, houses, the size of which has approximately doubled (on average) during the past forty years, and quadrupled in more affluent neighborhoods. This trend can be attributed to such factors as conspicuous and competitive display of wealth and power, intense advertising of “luxury” by the housing and furnishing industries, and changing conceptions of essential basic comforts to which we feel entitled. But there are also other forces at work. Good schools are usually located in more affluent neighborhoods and towns. Moving to such areas often means living in a larger house, with all the associated additional consumption of energy and materials, and adopting other lifestyle features typical for that community. For a family seeking a good education for their children, this means higher necessary income and larger ecological footprint. It is easy to imagine that when their hard-earned vacation comes along, air travel to distant lands seems appropriate.
The scenario I describe illustrates the importance of structural drivers of individual consumption, (suburban sprawl is another important factor). Other key factors that are minimally or not at all controlled by individuals and their satisfaction circuits include an array of widely accepted social practices evolving around technological innovations, and the human propensity to judge our success in life in relation to others (magnified in our fiercely competitive culture). And underpinning these drivers of consumption is the fundamental human strive for a sense of well-being. The labor market also drives consumption upward by favoring long hours and overtime pay over increasing the number of jobs.
None of the above explanations diminishes the importance of understanding how the basic functioning of the human brain, when exploited by the great advertising machinery, leads us to acquire things we do not need and which do not make us happier. At the least, Sterling’s essay should be a required reading for social activists who unsuccessfully try to convince people to consume less as a charitable act toward the ecosystem health. But we should not lose sight of the fact that, above all, consumer society is a complex system.
As to the role of public policy, I suggest that we greatly expand the agenda proposed by Peter Sterling. In addition to providing more stimuli (how exactly should it be done?), there are myriads of opportunities, including changing land development patterns, progressive taxation of homes (especially the second and third home), prohibiting advertising in public spaces, improving public education for all, and others.