My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
We have brainwashed ourselves into the superstitious belief that endless growth, endless increases in the consumption of natural resources, is actually possible. On the basis of that break from reality, consumer civilization can’t have much longer.
Even the term “consumer civilization” is an oxymoron, if the word ‘civilization’ means more than just ‘of a city’.
We love to think how clever we are – and, yes, the flush toilet, electric lights and the computer are pretty nifty inventions.
But when you think beyond the advertising and the echo chamber of marketing, the stark fact is that consumer civilization is becoming steadily less and less efficient – contemporary consumer civilization is the least efficient mode of living of them all.
Why? Because, every year we are using more and more resources to make more and more products maintained by more and more complicated systems which are not making us happier or safer. (However, we are healthier, at last for now.)
Are you any happier eating a meal today than you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents were when they sat down to breakfast or dinner together? Yet, today’s meal with ingredients from the supermarket takes about NINE calories of hydrocarbon energy for every ONE calorie of food energy we put into our mouths.
If the purpose of civilization is to fulfill human needs – food, shelter, meaning, social expression etc – then we are failing miserably. One in six people (15%) are now on food stamps in the richest country in the world (see here).
If the purpose of civilization is for people to gain knowledge, understanding, wisdom, contentment – then we are way off target. Just look at the state of the world.
If the purpose of civilization – our justification for trashing the Earth – is to bring us peace and happiness.
Then why is the world spending almost 50% more on arms and military operations than it did in 2000?
Why does America (the richest aka the happiest) nation spend more money on its military than the rest of the world combined? (A total of 54% of global military spending. (see here)
The richest nation on earth is so happy that more than 1 in 5 Americans took drugs for psychiatric or behavioral disorders in 2010 (see here).
Television, the greatest invention to uplift the human species, is increasingly being dumbed-down to serve the god of economic growth. In more and more countries, its primary purpose is to deliver consumers to advertisers – as it has always been in America.
Today’s aspirational advertising and brand marketing make no pretence to be extolling the virtues of their products but promises instead to make us what we are not: a championship athlete, beautiful and attractive, free! Aspirational marketing is a cancer on the soul of any society.
A man with no pen who wants to write does not need 100 channels of advertising in order to buy a pencil. Yet every year it takes more and more advertising to sell “stuff” to affluent consumers anywhere in the world. Every year, consumer civilization is becoming less and less efficient. Every year, our God requires greater and greater sacrifices.
This brings us, finally, to whatever object is in front of you, and which has prompted these comments about our Age of Consumerism.
I am looking at the mechanical pencil (sometimes called a propelling pencil) in my hands.
Mine is from Pentel and is made of plastic and metal. It propels a thin stick of graphite (the pencil lead) out of the “nib” when I click the button at the other end. Or at least it used to.
I’ve had this particular pencil for about one year and it’s always worked satisfactorily until a few days ago. Suddenly the machine doesn’t work any more. Yet nothing is broken. Nothing is worn out (as best I can tell). But now, when I push the button, nothing comes out.
This is not the first time. Every mechanical pencil I’ve ever owned has always suddenly quit after working perfectly for months. The problem, I suspect, is a built-up of graphite grease that eventually causes the mechanism is slip – the tiny jaws in the nib can no longer grasp the slippery graphite.
The solution is simple. Chuck it out and buy another for $1-50. But think about that:
To throw away this mechanical pencil is not only to throw away all the resources used to make it, but it is also to throw away all the time, energy and creativity that went into producing it. It’s as if, for the time they devoted to this pencil, that the people who designed, made and sold it to me never lived at all. All that energy of their lives has become meaningless.
The time and energy may be very, very tiny per person per pencil but the cumulative total of all the time and all the life effort which all of us we contribute to the “stuff” that just gets chucked is enormous.
Studies have shown that a staggering 40% of food grown in the West is thrown away – what does that say to the people who gave their time and life energy to produce it?
What meaning can people ever engender in their lives if a large portion of their energy and unique creativity is willfully being thrown away every day? More and more money seems a poor compensation for such a loss.
So that begs the question:
Just how long can a civilization survive that is build on exponential growth and profligate waste?