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Using Material Goods For Social Competition

By John Scales Avery

23 January, 2013

There is something ethically wrong with using material goods for the purpose of social competition at a time when excessive consumption is destroying our planet. Also, in our century, the world's rescources are nearing exhaustion, and roughly 40,000 children die every day from starvation or from poverty-related diseases..

The whole structure of western society seems designed to push its citizens towards ever-increasing levels of consumption. The mass media hold before us continually the ideal of a personal utopia filled with material goods. Every young man in a modern industrial society feels that he is a failure unless he fights his way to the “top”; and in recent years, women too have been drawn into this competition.

Of course not everyone can reach the top; there would not be room for everyone; but society urges all us to try, and we feel a sense of failure if we do not reach the goal. Thus, modern life has become a struggle of all against all for power and possessions.

One of the central problems in reducing consumption is that in our present economic and social theory, consumption has no upper bound; there is no definition of what is enough; there is no concept of a state where all of the real needs of a person have been satisfied. In our growth-oriented present-day economics, it is assumed that, no matter how much a person earns, he or she is always driven by a desire for more.

The phrase “conspicuous consumption” was invented by the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) in order to describe the way in which our society uses economic waste as a symbol of social status. In “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, first published in 1899, Veblen pointed out that it wrong to believe that human economic behavior is rational, or that it can be understood in terms of classical economic theory. To understand it, Veblen maintained, one might better make use of insights gained from anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history.

The sensation caused by the publication of Veblen’s book, and the fact that his phrase, “conspicuous consumption”, has become part of our language, indicate that his theory did not completely miss its mark. In fact, modern advertisers seem to be following Veblen’s advice: Realizing that much of the output of our economy will be used for the purpose of establishing the social status of consumers, advertising agencies hire psychologists to appeal to the consumer’s longing for a higher social position.

When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demand has no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the human ego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good if unlimited economic growth were desirable. But today, when further industrial growth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find new values to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement, and our admiration of excessive consumption.

Some voices from the past can help us to find the values that we need as we try to change to a more modest and sustainable way of living. Let us listen to the voice of Mahatma Gandhi: “There is enough for every man's need”, he said, “but not for every man's greed”. Gandhi deliberately adopted very simple clothing, and he reduced his possessions to an absolute minimum, in order to demonstrate that there is no link between material possessions and personal merit.

The voice of Henry David Thoreau is also a useful and wise one. “Most of the luxuries”, Thoreau wrote, “and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”

In the New Testament, we can read among the eight beatitudes, “Blessed are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. Or in Mathew 19-24, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God”. Saint Francis of Assisi was born into a rich family, but he gave away his possessions because he thought that a simple life was a better one.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was said to have been visited by Alexander the Great, who asked him, “Is there anything that I can do for you?” “Yes”, Diogenes replied, “Would you please move a little to the side, so that the sunshine will fall on me once again.”

Of course, Diogenes and the others were exaggerating a little for the sake of clarity, but the message is clear enough and true enough: There is a limit to what we really need, and beyond that, material possessions do not really make us happier.

Using material goods for the purpose of social competition is a bit like an upward-escalating arms race. No matter how much we have, we need to get more to keep up with the competition. As with the arms race, we need to break the escalating spiral before it destroys us.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm




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