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Gifts under a tree.

Photo by Kelvin Kay. From the Wikimedia Commons.

Consumerism. Wish you could escape it? Particularly at this time of the year, when hopes of holiday cheer frequently seem to disappear in a frenzy of shopping madness? Well, already over a half a century ago, famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was laying the very foundation for how to do this in his most famous book, The Art of Loving.

How does he do this? Well, in a nutshell, he achieves this by wisely noting, consumerism has come to be used as a substitute for love.

Admittedly this is not the central point of the book. (And I would highly recommend a slow and thoughtful read over this wide-ranging but short and to-the-point work). Nonetheless I believe Fromm has a firm handle on this ill of society, that quite arguably has even a stronger hold on us today. For as he insightfully states, consumerism takes many forms including “sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies…”

What is more, the products that we consume have been standardized. This is because modern capitalism needs men “whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated.” Of course, there are some variations in the products that we consume, like different initials on a handbag or sweater; however, these serve only to create a feeling of difference “when in reality there is very little left.”

These circumstances become even more concerning when combined with the radical division of labour that has led to the routinized nature of work. Placing a greater value on the production of goods over human life, modern capitalism has required the expectation that “men” be willing to “fit into the social machine without friction.” As a result, “[h]uman relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling, or action [emphasis added].”

(To drive home the point as to why this is so alarming, Fromm frighteningly reflects on how “modern man” closely reflects the picture that Huxley describes in “Brave New World.” In this book, physically well looked after, but emotionally bereft characters are bombarded with slogans like “‘When the individual feels, the community reels’” and “‘Everybody is happy nowadays.’”)

What is the alternative to all of this? Well, as Fromm repeatedly states, we can form truly loving relationships where we get to know the center of a person, or in other words achieve “central relatedness”.

By reviewing his exploration of the nature of love, one learns that achieving this will require:

  1. careful attention to the needs of other individuals,
  2. readiness to act to promote their welfare,
  3. respect for their unique individuality, and
  4. an effort to get to know them.

One also must be willing to grow in maturity to see others and oneself as we truly are (something which Fromm refers to as “objectivity”) as well as to have faith that humankind (or “mankind” as he states) including oneself can become better.

No small order of course. But Fromm at least provides us with something worthy to aim for. And in the process, maps out at least some of the course we need to follow to leave consumerism behind us.

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The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.

Thus speaks a fictional gorilla in the book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, after which the book is named. He does not communicate in a conventional manner, however, speaking mysteriously to the author through his eyes.

As he goes on to say, ten thousand years ago, humanity embarked on a similar “civilizational flight.” But our craft wasn’t designed according to any theory at all. Like the imaginary airman, we “were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. “

As for what that law is, Ishmael calls it the law of “limited competition”. This is the law whereby populations are kept in check by limited food supplies. We falsely assume that we’re exempt from this law and that we can continue expanding and growing our population forever.

When did we adopt this attitude? It was with the advent of the “agricultural revolution” by people whom Ishmael calls the “Takers”. These people embarked on the gradual task of destroying all competitors for their food. This included the “competitors twice removed” such as plants crowding out grasses that fed their “game”. To make things worse, we have a materialistic culture that is “[c]onsuming the world.” By contrast, Ishmael refers to the so-called primitive peoples that lived in greater harmony with nature the “Leavers”.

Our misinterpretation of the Biblical creation story supports this attitude, Ishmael says. This is the story whereby Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. From it, the Takers have derived the conclusion that humanity is meant to be agriculturalists and subdue or “rule” the earth.

However, as Ishmael intriguingly argues, the story was actually written by the ancestors of the Hebrews who were originally “Leavers” (i.e. pastoralists). This explains why the “gods” withheld the very knowledge humanity needed to fulfill our supposed “destiny”. It also explains why agriculture is not portrayed as a desirable choice, but rather a curse whereby food must now be wrested from the ground by our “sweat”.

Ishmael is not suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers. Even Leaver cultures, he says, sometimes practiced a degree of farming or animal husbandry. Rather, the point is about becoming stewards of the Earth and letting the other peoples (i.e. “Leavers”) and creatures of this world live.

There are two reasons we should do this, according to Ishmael. Firstly, biodiversity is valuable in how it greatly increases the likelihood of life surviving changing conditions (e.g. an evolving climate). Secondly, other species have the incredible potential of becoming capable of what we have become!

In this light, the importance of the gorilla to humanity becomes apparent. Without the gorilla (and other species), we lack a sense of purpose. And so we find ourselves just going through the motions when doing things like dealing with our waste and stopping pollution. With other species like the gorilla still in existence, we can completely rethink the role for ourselves and our vision for the world.

Thus, the book ends with the following words written on a poster of Ishmael’s:


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I’ve noticed a concerning trend in the Globe and Mail in the past week. Rather than praising consumers for curtailing their wasteful ways, articles have been coming out highlighting the impact of such behaviour on businesses. This has happened both respect to an article entitled, “Tide rising against bottled water” (April 23) and “Hit print, please, paper maker says” (April 27).

Water Bottle

Photo provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first article on bottled water talks about how industry must face not only recessionary pressures, but a grassroots movement of critics. As a result of such factors, sales for example at Nestlé Waters have fallen more than five percent annually over the past two years. The second provides room for CEO John Williams of the paper giant, Domtar, to say, “‛There is an appropriate use for paper. You should feel comfortable to use it appropriately and you shouldn’t be feeling there is some environmental negative when you use it.’”

On the one hand, some may say these articles are justified in that they appear in the Business section of the paper, which naturally wishes to give voice to matters and concerns relating to the corporate world. However, on the other hand, one is forced to question the logic of a world where consumption is held up as a problem, as thought it was a moral duty, a necessary activity to grease the wheels of industry so-to-speak.

With respect to the usage of water bottles, this is extremely concerning given that according to the Container Recycling Institute, almost eight out of ten single-serving recycling containers end up in a landfill or an incinerator. Even if the bottles are recycled, there is the issue of fuel consumption for bottle shipment and the resulting air pollution that occurs as a result. While drinking water may be beneficial for human health (a matter though that is also up for debate, given the potential for contaminants), in the broader scope of protecting environmental health which ensures a healthy environment for all, bottled water falls seriously behind.

In terms of the matter of paper consumption, while I have much to learn about the issue, something fundamentally seems amiss when we must continually harvest wood pulp from forests despite having so much paper for recycling collected already. What is more, according to a spokesperson for Greenpeace Canada who is quoted in the article on paper, Domtar and others are opening up what should be protected forests, threatening the habitat of some species.

For both issues, it seems that we should rather embrace the turning tide towards increased environmental responsibility. For business, this can be an opportunity as opposed to a detriment.

If people are concerned about the purity of municipal drinking water, perhaps cafés could start selling filtered municipal water, which customers could get by bringing in their reusable cups. If they forget to bring their cups, these cafés could “lend” out reusable water bottles for a fee that could be recompensed upon their return.

As for paper usage, pulp and paper companies should start producing more products made of recycled paper. In addition, electronics manufacturers should recognize the turning tide to make more products like the iPad available, which reduce the need for printing.

After all, with there having been much environmental hype, should we not finally start walking the walk? And recognize that no, we should not presume that we have a moral obligation to consume? Rather, as I’m sure that many people would agree, we have a responsibility to reduce the ecological “footprint” that we leave while traversing this planet. Although the growing pains to achieving this may be difficult at first, they are necessary if we are to achieve the greater goal of living in harmony with the Earth.

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