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The dismal science
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Consumerism is the social phenomenon of rapidly increasing consumption of products,[1] often at an economically or environmentally unsustainable rate.

Compare conspicuous consumption.

Effects of consumerism[edit]

Many people regard "consumerism" as a phenomenon unique to the industrial age and the developed world. However, consumption in unnecessary and excessive quantities is as old as civilization itself and even exists among dollar-a-day third-world inhabitants who suffer malnutrition.[2]

Consumerism in the developed world, however, gives rise to another kind of problem: credit-card debt.[3] Americans spend themselves into a stupor and then wake up the next morning with credit-card debt of $10,000 with a 23.5% interest rate, compounded at every meal. The complete lack of self-control is useful for corporations and workers in China, but the overall sustainability issue came back to bite us in 2008.

A large number of muck-raking journalists make a living from arguing that consumerism has negative effects on people living in third-world countries who are paid what first-world consumers would consider chump-change for producing the goods. This is tenuous at best, as almost everybody working in these factories is doing it to avoid starvation and subsistence farming and much prefers the work over dying in the hot sun[4][5] or turning tricks for food.[6] It would seem those worst injured by consumerism are the consumers themselves.


Many think that happiness is to be found outside ourselves in material things, but actually happiness is something that comes from within.
—The Dalai Lama

To many of those opposed to consumerism, "consumerism" is just the latest in a long line of terms used to describe what the King James Bible called "the world" — sinful, material, fleshly existence as opposed to a life lived focusing on higher spiritual matters. For these people, the fact that lots of goods are being consumed is not the primary issue. What is the primary issue varies widely; the religiously devout might consider consumerism a distraction from God, political leftists might consider it a form of false consciousness distracting from the class struggle, and the more woo-ish environmentalists might consider it a disruption of the balance of nature independent even of its non-sustainable consumption of natural resources.

Besides these, there are also mainstream efforts to soften the negative effects of consumerism, such as choice architecture,[7] which seeks to help those who are incapable of making reasonable choices on their own act a little less stupid. Also, some politicians have come to realize that maybe restricting the legal right of credit card companies to bury your house in credit card offers is a good idea.[8]

Confusion with materialism[edit]

Consumerism, which has a generally negative connotation, is often confused with the philosophical stance of materialism, which denies the existence or falsifiability of the immaterial world. Because atheists often profess to being materialists, creationists use this confusion to portray them as shallow or worshiping money.

See also[edit]


  2. "The Economic Lives of the Poor" Banerjee and Duflo, 2006. - "Provided that eating more would increase their productivity, it is unlikely that the low levels of good consumption can explained by a simple lack of self control (the poor cannot simply resist temptations to spend on other things, and don't have enough left to eat): As we noted above, they also spend surprisingly large amounts on entertainment―be it televisions, weddings, or festivals. All of these involve spending a large amount at one time, which implies some saving unless they happen to be especially credit-worthy. In other words, many poor people save money that they could have eaten today in order to spend more on entertainment in the future, which does not immediately fit the idea of their lacking self-control."
  6. "The State of the World's Children" UNICEF Report, 1997. Page 60.