By the age of 20, the average westerner has seen one million commercial messages. With this kind of exposure, it is impossible to live in the modern world without being a product of consumer society. Now psychologists, like Geoffrey Miller, are saying that it is distorting the way we interact with the world and each other: “We’ve all kind of gone collectively psychotic”.
Evolutionary theory says we are indistinct from animals and so have two primary subconscious motives: survival and attracting a mate. As modern society has taken care of our survival, “we spend more time thinking about social and sexual issues than any animal has had the luxury of doing in the history of life on Earth”.
According to scientists this has led to an obsession with ‘prestige’ or our rank in society, something that inconsumer society has become synonymous with consumption. “The principal way you’re supposed to display your mental traits now is through your purchases.” Manipulating our innermost impulses, capitalism has begun to not only reflect our evolutionary tendencies but also to amplify and distort them. Creating an environment in which consumption takes the place of traditional human interaction, “consumers are neglecting to develop the crucial naturally romantic traits, saying instead, ‘I’ve got a Porsche out front’”.
Yet this capitalist system, which fits so neatly with our animalistic traits, is not making us happy. One of the great conundrums is that in an age of plenty, addictions, depression and mental health issues are becoming part of everyday conversation. The obsession with our place in society has led us to, “squander this golden age on silly anxieties.”
In the long term the individual and psychological cost of modern culture is relatively small. The environmental cost on the other hand could ultimately destroy life, as we know it. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the kind of growth rates that we are getting around the world are not sustainable”, says Tim Cooper, a professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption. Measures taken to try and mitigate the impact of modern life, such as transition towns, recycling, alternative power and enduring design are not dealing with the root cause, only attacking symptoms.
So for the moment we must endure this strange society that is making us all so unhappy. Our only hope is that it may only be a temporary illness: “I actually think runaway consumerism is a temporary historical glitch. I think we’ll grow out of it.” Exploring how human psychology has moulded the society that is slowly destroying the world and us, ‘Consumed’ takes us inside both the apocalyptic and redemptive sides of the human condition."