How Much Is Enough?

In the chaos of the Indian street, pedestrians, honking cars, bikes, auto rickshaws and buses battle for road space. In the glass-walled fortresses of “India shining”, it’s a whole different kind of chaos. Shopping malls are where India’s exploding consumerism is witnessed.

Changes are happening in India at a rapid pace since the Indian market was opened for the international trade two decades ago. One of the changes is mushrooming of shopping malls, particularly in urban India. This change is due to the influence of “American Dream”, a myth, characterised by high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification. The “American Dream” is nurtured by the American economic system that has created a culture in which people are encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their self-image and their status in society. “American Identity” has, thus, become defined by its relationship with consumer goods.

Emulating this American culture, people in India are embedded in an ever expanding consumerism. They are increasingly persuaded to focus on materialistic pursuits, to acquire “that next want” which goes far beyond a genuine need for sustenance, safety and security. Most people, especially the young, give in to the pressure to possess all the latest fashionable gadgets and consumer goods. Youth find in spending, a way of gaining autonomy and identity, and of overcoming their insecurities. Those who can afford and those who cannot, all seem to have been caught in the ever widening tentacles of consumerism.

Consumerism is economically manifested in the chronic purchasing of new material goods with little attention to their true need, durability, product origin or environmental consequences of manufacture and disposal. It is the desire, pursuit and acquisition of consumer goods. Consumerism is like the greedy man in the story of Leo Tolstoy “How Much Land Does a Man Need”:

After slowly accumulating more and more property, a greedy Russian named Pahom hears that the Bashkirs, a minority race in Russia, are practically giving their land away. He decides to visit them and they offer him as much land as he wants, provided he can walk its perimeter in one day. Pahom agrees and goes out on his trek, but when the sun starts to set, he finds he has walked too far. Running back, Pahom collapses at the starting point just as the sun disappears behind the horizon. The Bashkirs try to congratulate him, only to find him dead. In answer to the question posed in the title, the Bashkirs bury him in a hole six feet long by two feet wide.

The greedy man finds himself driven by an endless desire to acquire as much area before the sun sets and ultimately finds himself lost in his incapability to control his greed.

Similarly consumerism is an insatiable desire for things and money to buy them with little or no regard for their utility. Greed and acquisitive tendencies have grown due to unhealthy influence of consumerism along with scientific and technological development. As N. Radhakrishnan says, “Globalisation has pushed humanity to the cut-throat world of consumerism with utter disregard for human and ecological concerns. And we justify all this in the name of ‘enlightened self-interest’.” Moral principles and ethics have no place in the world of consumerism. The most corrosive impact of consumerism is on human relationships. Consumerism thrives by promoting use-and-throw culture. Attitudes formed towards things (use-and-throw) eventually get transferred to people. As things are discarded after use, people are also thrown out once they lose the capacity to participate in the cycle of consumption, because in consumeristic culture human beings themselves do not possess value. Their value and worth are measured merely on the basis of their purchasing power, thus turning human beings into commodities. The irony is, living beings find their value, worth and identity in non-living things.

The “philosophy” of consumerism is embedded in the slogans and images of the advertising agencies and display designers, who welded human physical needs, impulses and fantasies to consumer goods. Consumerism is driven by advertising, which is designed to create desire to follow trends, fantasies and value system based on acquisition of consumer goods. The advertisers bombard people with images and allurements of status, self-worth, satisfaction and happiness through acquisition. They make people captive in imagination and desires: “I can imagine it, therefore I want it. I want it, therefore I should have it. Because I should have it, I need it. Because I need it, I deserve it. Because I deserve it, I will do anything necessary to get it.” By making people slaves to their imagination and desires, the advertising industry indulges in “proliferation of unnecessary necessities”. It makes one feel insecure, since the advertising industry has turned one’s sense of self-worth into a symbolic presentation of possessions. In the world of consumerism one is captive and unaware. When the prisoner is unaware of his/her chains, then it is hopeless.

Advertising industry has invaded home and family through electronic and print media. During their free time, children and adults occupy themselves with mass media filled with advertisements of consumer goods with enticing promises of good feelings. Their purpose is to stoke further desire for more things. Television programmes and advertisements generally depict a way of life well above the norm and beyond what most people can afford. In this climate, almost everyone is vulnerable to “affluenza”, an infectious disease in which one becomes addicted to having more. Thus, there is no private retreat from the world of consumerism.

The important question, however, is whether consumerism delivers happiness and satisfaction promised by advertisers? In The High Price of Materialism American psychologist Tim Kasser investigates whether materialistic values really produce happiness and well-being. He cites and agrees with studies showing that once people have met their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, there is little benefit in accumulating more. Using statistical studies Kasser shows how those who place a high value on acquiring wealth and material goods aren’t as happy as their less materialistic counterparts. The “paradox of affluence” is that “richer is not better.” Happiness can’t be purchased in the market place, no matter how much advertising tries to convince us of it.

What’s disturbing is how we continue to shop when it doesn’t make us happier. Kasser argues that our hyper-consumerism is a response to insecurity. In the highly competitive market-driven economies the sense of insecurity has increased. Advertising industry has exploited this human malady and enticed people with false promises of security, satisfaction and self-worth through acquisition of consumer goods. However, the lack of consumption restraint may result in feelings of insecurity, guilt, anxiety, frustration and loss of control, financial hardships and domestic discord. The broader socio-economic consequences associated with unrestrained consumption include global resource depletion and increasing environmental problems.

Kasser found that “existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings…The studies document that strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders, narcissism, and antisocial behaviour.” Jane Hammerslough, a journalist, says, “Faith in material solutions has a funny way of renewing and reproducing itself. Once you sail into the mythical land of Consumer Satisfaction, Where products fulfil every desire, pretty soon you notice another ship setting sail for a place where there’s the potential for even more satisfaction. The product you own is okay, but think of how much greater the satisfaction could be with something else you can buy! It’s hard to resist the urge to hop on.”

What is ignored in this world of consumerism is the fact that the real sources of lasting human fulfilment, security and satisfaction are stable family, healthy relationships, community and self-acceptance. Our worth is determined not by what we have or don’t have, rather what we are as individuals. In an essay, “Gandhian Economy and the Way to Realise It”, J.C. Kumarappa pointed out: “Our life is something higher than material possessions and our life is also to be looked at from the possibilities of development of personality. The personality of an individual does not require for its development the satisfaction of a multiplicity of wants. In fact the simpler (the) life the more conducive it is (to) exercising the higher faculties.” True wealth lies in the scarcity of one’s wants, as opposed to the abundance of one’s possessions. Having fewer things means enjoying what we have more and actually getting to use it, thereby raising its intrinsic value. As it is said, “The less clutter that one has in their surroundings, the fewer distractions there are from the essentials such as family, friends, food, nature and study.” Self-control prevents us from falling into the black-hole of consumerism. Self-absorption, self-gratification and living for now should be overtaken by thrift, contentment and simplicity. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”


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