To “consume” means to eat. From that simple act of taking care of one of our most basic needs – to take in nutrients to literally keep body and soul together – the word was broadened to include our utilisation any resource. We talk about consuming the forests and fossil fuels, for instance. But with the expansion of the term, there was an interesting disjuncture from its original utilisation: “consuming” is no longer linked with needs. And herein lies a predicament for modern man: consumerism.
For most of our existence, man used those resources from his environment that took care of his basic needs: food, shelter and clothing. As he developed the facility and technology to increase the production of the necessary resources he obviously began to consume more. But this is not the problem that we want to identify; this is not consumerism. While eating too much food, building 100-storey skyscrapers or manufacturing polyesters might engender problems of their own, needs are still being satisfied. This is just overconsumption and while it has some overlap with consumerism, it is important to distinguish the two. The first is a problem but the second is a disease. And we are fast becoming afflicted by the latter in Guyana.
Consumerism is more of an attitude or a lifestyle rather than the simple act of consuming this or that. Today it has assumed the dimension of a religion or a creed. After all, it’s not called an ‘ism’ for nothing. In the ideological framework of consumerism, consumption becomes an end in itself and people are hungry to consume more and more regardless of their needs or their means. The essence of consumerism is that the level of consumption becomes the yardstick of an individual’s worth.
We can do worse that observe that consumerism is so deeply imbedded in our modern discourse that our quest for development is invariably measured in terms of consumption – measured always in monetary terms, of course. We are “underdeveloped” if we don’t have so many phones per household or consume so many units of electricity. The developed world is our standard. Never mind that the level of their consumption is such that it will be impossible for the entire world to achieve that with the resources ultimately available to us on planet Earth. But more insidious is that even when the availability of the new resources that may make our lives a bit easier is secured, we demand more of the same. We should not miss the irony that all we desire are now dubbed “goods”.
Since money is the medium for securing the “goods” its possession and the quantum of that possession is now the measure of worth of man. Money makes the world go around, we are assured. The problem is not with bigger cars, more clothes and costlier cellphones. As pointed out earlier, it is human to consume and to improve our quality of life. But strip human beings of their other qualities and attributes and reduce them to this single dimension of being consumers of this or that – all based on how much money you have, and you have a problem. When what we consume is no longer tied up to what we need or what we can afford, it becomes a dangerous thing
In Guyana, the People’s Progressive Party-Government’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) implicitly acknowledged and began to address the disease of consumerism. By factoring the depletion of our world’s resources and our responsibility to ensure that our utilisation is sustainable we are impelled to question our consumption patterns. Some might say that we are short-circuiting our efforts to live as those in the ‘developed” countries. But do we really want to experience the angst, anomie, alienation – call it what you may – that accompanies their consumerism gone wild?
All religions caution against the evil of consumerism. Greed is a sin and simplicity a virtue.