- There is ancient evidence of human consumption running amok.
- Modern societies have sharp status distinctions based on income and financial resources.
- Keeping up with the Joneses is associated with societies having social mobility.
As affluence grows globally, people spend more. Money spent is roughly equivalent to carbon pollution and climate change. Can the urge to splurge be brought under control? Or, is it terminal?
Is the Consumption Imperative Built Into People?
Is excessive consumption an inherent feature of human psychology, or is it the product of modern prosperity? The answer is not cut and dried. On the one hand, there is ancient evidence of human consumption running amok. On the other hand, modern conditions aggravate the urge to use more resources than is environmentally responsible. Multiple examples of reckless over-consumption are found in the remote past.
Past Human-Caused Ecological Disasters
The first examples occurred close to 2 million years ago when Homo erectus populations wiped out some prey animals as they migrated around Eurasia.
The most vulnerable species were island populations that had few natural predators. One was a species of giant turtle the size of a car. Many extinctions occurred subsequently when modern humans colonized islands. One example is the moa, a large dangerous bird, that was exterminated from islands off New Zealand as humans colonized them in the 15th century(1). These were prized prey animals. Their destruction featured significant waste because hunters focused only on the most prized portions of the carcass and discarded the rest.
The story of the Moa reminds us of the Pleistocene Overkill, where humans wiped out most of their large prey animals beginning around 40,000 years ago, using sophisticated weapons for killing from a distance.
We have little direct evidence of the rationale underlying these excesses but social competition may have been critical then as it is now.
Status Competition as a Critical Driver
Why were our distant ancestors so reckless in wiping out their key food animals? One possibility is that hunters wanted to increase their own prestige. Successful hunting increases the status of men in hunter-gatherer societies and makes them more desirable as sexual partners. So, competition over social status may have encouraged the killing of more prey animals than needed.
Some simple hunter-gatherer societies can live in harmony with the environment. However, Paleolithic societies were not simple. Some were settled and had a clear status system based on the varied quality of burial ceremonies and grave goods.(1)
Of course, modern societies have sharp status distinctions based on income and financial resources. These differences may be expressed by purchasing luxury goods and services. Early sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to represent this phenomenon.
Veblen believed that the principal means of enjoying wealth is by impressing others. Hence, the absurdly large mansions of the wealthy and their consumption of luxury goods like fine jewelry and expensive cars. Such items are beyond the means of ordinary mortals and are used to signal social superiority.
Veblen noted that poorer people strove to emulate the habits of the rich, for example in mimicking their dress styles. Whatever such fashion trends, much of the shopping impulse reflects a need to keep up with friends and acquaintances.
Keeping up with the Joneses is associated with societies having social mobility. It was less apparent in agricultural societies of the past where most people had minimal discretionary income with little scope for impulse buying. Matters are very different today, particularly in affluent countries where many people spend most of their earnings on inessentials rather than lodging, food, and clothing. Just as significant, perhaps, is the rise of consumer credit.
Free Money Is Like Free Water
Real incomes increased substantially in the past two centuries, which is partly why we spend so much.(2) Of course, worker incomes stagnated over the past few decades but spending continued to rise. The reason is that consumers have taken on more debt.
With the proliferation of credit card companies and other forms of credit, it is easier than ever to spend freely without having the money to back up those purchases. The splurge was intensified by low-interest rates, at least for the finance companies who could borrow at extremely low rates and lend at much higher ones.
When credit is so free, there is little restraint on impulse spending. Free money is like free water. If you want people to conserve water, they won't do so if the water is free.
The Good Life?
As shoppers fill their excessively large homes with products, they pursue an ideal of the good life whereby everyone may splurge to their heart's content. The frighteningly dystopian consequences are seen in extreme weather events and the destruction of planetary ecosystems.
Are we doomed to perpetuate this pattern of excessive consumption to its logical end? Will we shop until an increasingly hostile earth becomes uninhabitable? Or can we somehow short-circuit the urge to comply with social pressures that motivate much of our consumption?
1 Barber, N. (2022). The restless species: Cause and environmental consequences of human adaptive success. Portland, ME: Trudy Callaghan Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Restless-Species-Environmental-Adaptive-Success/…
2 Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the Western world since 1700. Cambridge, England: NBER/Cambridge University Press.