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How to wreck a planet

The headlines say it all:

But how did we get in this mess in the first place?

Some of the “credit” should go to economist and marketing consultant Victor Lebow who, the Spring 1955 issue of the Journal of Retailing, laid out a prescription for the modern world:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats – his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.


These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand, Victor Lebow, 1955

I find it quietly horrifying that “spiritual satisfactions”, “ego satisfactions”, social status, social acceptance and prestige are all tied up with what we own. That “the very meaning and significance of our lives today [is] expressed in consumptive terms.”

I grew up with this bullshit and it’s hard to avoid. Our society is infused with it. In fact, it seems to be the basis of Western society.

If you’re sitting there nodding your head and muttering, “You’re right, something needs to be done,” then get off your arse and do it. Stop buying into the bullshit. Stop buying.

Twenty years ago I quit McDonald’s after reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. The corporation’s monopoly practices disgusted me and I decided I wouldn’t support them any more. And I haven’t. I have only been near a McDonald’s twice in all that time — once in Auckland, once in Bonn — both times with the same friend who was desperate for coffee. (And both times it was McDonald’s standard: mediocre.)

What difference has my non-consumption made to McDonald’s Corporation? None at all. But imagine if a thousand people took my stand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million …? Do you think The Corporation would sit up and start to listen? Of course they would!

And that’s precisely where your power lies. Stop buying into the bullshit. Next time you see an ad to “Buy, Buy, Buy!” ask yourself if what they’re selling will make a significant difference to your life. Or are they selling you “meaning and significance … expressed in consumptive terms”?

A footnote concerning my McDonald’s aversion:
It’s actually a plus. When I’m in a foreign city, avoiding the obvious makes me a little more adventurous. Murtabak in Asian countries, croque monsieur (or madame) in France, or currywurst in Germany. Or a proper kiwiburger from a takeaway in Taihape.

Image credit: Plastic pollution in Ghana, 2018 by Muntaka Chasant – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75041713

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