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The Consumption Engineer

con·sum·er·ism

Noun:

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

– Definition from Wikipedia

Consumerism wouldn’t be a problem if we had an infinitely large planet with an infinite amount of natural resources. The catch is that this is pure fantasy and in reality our planet is a fixed size. It has a bountiful larder of resources, so large that in the past it seemed more like a Narnian wardrobe than a larder… But now there are so many people, consuming at such a rate that we are starting to hit the limits of our finite Earth.

At first consumerism may of been liberating and wonderful, I don’t know as I wasn’t alive, but now it is dangerous. This paradigm is stagnating sustainability efforts and speeding us along in a terrible direction. And there is evidence to suggest it isn’t even making us happier. The New Economics Foundation (nef) theorize that after our basic needs are met, it is non-material benefits that improve our life satisfaction.

In 2013 consumerism seems natural – a state of things that organically grew out of modernity. It seems to be intrinsically linked to capitalism, democracy and the contemporary.

Last week I watched Century of the Self and found to my surprise that this is not the case. Apparently consumerism, far from growing naturally out of capitalism, was almost single-handedly designed by one man. That man was named Edward Bernays.

Bernays invented the industry of Public Relations in America in the 1920s. He had been working on propaganda during the Cold War, but decided that similar techniques could be used in peace time to improve the economy. Before this time, capitalism was well established but goods were still sold and advertised on the basis of need and function. Things that were solely for decoration were sold for their aesthetic attraction. But from this time on advertising would forget about function and focus on creating an emotional and ideological link between the item and the consumer. For example, a sofa wouldn’t be ‘comfortable and well-made’ anymore, it’d be ‘the key to a perfect family life’. Bernays used the theories of his famous uncle, Sigmund Freud along with other ideas on crowd psychology to ‘manipulate the masses’. The basic idea was that every person contains dangerous sexual and aggressive unconscious desires under a thin layer of conscious rationality. The crowd mentality was believed to be especially dangerous, as in a crowd people could somehow snap, let their dangerous desires free and get all crazy. Bernays decided that people were essentially more emotional than logical, so advertising would be more successful if it tapped into the unconscious desires of people rather than their intellect. He theorized that ‘the masses’ could be kept happy and docile with a steady flow of consumer goods that promised to make them popular, beautiful and successful. In this way there would never be a problem with over-production, the companies he worked for would get rich and the government could easily control its hordes of dangerous irrational subjects consumers.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that in contemporary psychology, Freud’s theories are very outdated. His ideas are interesting but deeply flawed, and he didn’t have much empirical evidence to back up his claims. And yet so much of our modern society is based on his work. Not just the economic model of consumerism, but also the assumption that people are irrational and need to be kept under control.  This is the justification for a democratic model that isn’t actually that democratic.

In the academic field of media studies, it is very unfashionable now to talk of ‘the masses’. It is thought that this is a patronizing and simplifying term. Instead it is understood that there is no ‘mass’, there is just a lot of individuals.

It’s very easy to point fingers of blame at this point and demonize old Edward. On the one hand, there’s no way he could of known what environmental problems would be caused by his work further down the line. On the other hand, there was in interview with him as a very old man in Century of the Self and he didn’t seem at all remorseful of his actions – he seemed proud. Perhaps he didn’t realize the full implications, who knows. Freud isn’t to blame either really, as he didn’t for the most part even know what his nephew was doing.

Rather than playing the blame game, I can see a positive side to this story. If something as huge and over-arching as consumerism can be engineered by one man, what else can be achieved? This really blows the ‘one person can’t do much’ theory out of the water. Also I see the fact that our insatiable desire for more and more useless crap is not natural but designed to be great news. As Annie Leonard says, this system didn’t just happen, it was designed.

And we can design something too.

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5 thoughts on “The Consumption Engineer

  1. Pingback: An Ethical Question | Earth Baby

  2. Very good point. Do you think that one person today can make as much change as one person did then? Bernays, remember was working for the corporations wanting to increase their profits. Today any one who tries to reduce their profits would have a very hard time breaking through that mentality.

    • That is very true. I don’t think anyone’s going to agree to ‘less profits’ in a hurry… We need a new model where profits are made by sustainable practice, and acting in an unsustainable way reduces revenue. In all honesty though, I think it will take many many people to undo the damage that he did. Not that he was working an a vacuum, of course…

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