A hundred years ago, Henry Ford had an incredible idea: the then newly invented automobile should be manufactured and sold so cheaply that it would be affordable to everyone. It is even more incredible that his idea not only worked but it opened the way toward the egalitarian, classless, overpopulated consumer society that exists today all over the world.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s classical question: Are we better off today than our great-grandparents were a century ago? There is no question that the benefits of technology are available now to regular folks through mass production. We live at a substantially higher material standard than our ancestors did. But let me modify the question: Are we happier than our great-grandparents were?
Today, the consumer society engulfs the whole world. We allow ourselves to be hypnotized into consuming products and services that we don’t need at all: stimulants and tranquilizers, energizers and sleep inducers, fatty junk food and fat reducers, uppers and downers, and so on.
We drive our automobiles even when we don’t need to, polluting the atmosphere and perishing in car accidents. We travel in airplanes like sardines. We have reached a point where transportation consumes more energy than industry! We consume university degrees without getting an education. We waste our free time staring at meaningless TV shows. We spend our vacations on cruise ships that don’t go anywhere, for the sake of consuming food and services, instead of learning something about the world. We sit alone in front of our computer screens and exchange fantasies with other nameless loners.
As Benjamin Barber wisely said: “The only thing that we can do twenty-four hours a day is to consume.” The consumer society has introduced a total uniformity of the world that no totalitarian regime would ever be able to accomplish. You no longer know whether you are in London, Hong Kong, or Phoenix: you find the same skyscrapers and fast food chains everywhere.
You try to approach service by telephone and hear an automated message: “If you wish blah-blah-blah, press nine.” You are told that your waiting time will be approximately three minutes, then you spend an hour on hold, listening to the same music, occasionally interrupted by a recorded enthusiastic voice informing you that “Your call is very important to us.” When I asked a high-level bank manager if they were concerned about losing their customers because of this senseless practice, he replied: “We are not concerned. You see, this generation no longer knows what service is.”
Unfortunately, he is right. We have been brainwashed to believe that the only important thing in life is to consume more and more. A hundred years ago, people were more modest in their expectations and, accordingly, were happier. As Dwight Eisenhower said: “We were poor but we didn’t know it.” Now nobody wants to be “poor.” This is why we can no longer live on one salary per family. As a result, the institution of the family is being destroyed, dooming society to chaos.
Consumer behavior is based on satisfaction from the purchase of products. This satisfaction decreases as the supply of products increases. Thus, economic growth creates unhappiness. Nevertheless, our politicians compete with each other in promises of more economic growth. What they really mean is the production of more and more consumer goods. They don’t seem to understand that economic growth has limits and it depends on the quality and extent of natural and human resources, i.e., on the environment and on investment and education, as opposed to consumption. They don’t seem to understand that our Earth is finite and it cannot be exploited without limits. Constant growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell!
According to the Gaia theory, the Earth has a control mechanism that ensures its equilibrium. If mankind tries to destroy this equilibrium, the Earth will destroy mankind: as more and more species become extinct, the balance will be restored by the creation of new ones in the form of deadly viruses that will eventually destroy us.
The degradation of our environment is also against the basic interests of business. Imagine what will happen to business when our forests, waters, and air become extinct. On the other hand, there are huge business opportunities in restructuring our economy.
We must rethink our goals. Do we want to continue our own destruction by consuming more and more products or survive and be happy? If common sense prevails, then we must do something to stop our journey to suicide. What can be done? Here are some modest proposals:
Recycling is not a solution: it generates additional pollution. We must plan product elimination. Our engineers should design products whose important components can easily be recovered.
Let us start rebuilding our railroads to provide fast and relaxed access to remote destinations without substantial air pollution. Remember, the highways were built on public funds. Make the creation of high-speed trains criss-crossing the country a national priority.
Investment is more important for the future of society than consumption.
Replace the income tax with a consumption tax to encourage success and penalize wasteful consumerism.
Wake up and start teaching real values to our children instead of hypnotizing them into the false belief that the American dream is to consume more than your parents did.