Addiction, Consumerism, Culture & Advertising

One of the great challenges identified in the doughnut is to reduce consumption, particularly in advanced economies (as well as aspirational goals in emerging economies). This is challenging when consumerism has many of the characteristics of addiction. The nature of this addiction includes not only the general public’s attraction to consumer products, but also industry’s’ attraction to built-in obsolescence, and governments’ attraction to fossil fuels as a convenient source of energy and wealth.

In my work in the addictions and psychology, stopping or reducing something is generally associated with deprivation and pain. By itself it is generally a poor strategy which is either avoided by those with the addiction or almost always results in relapse when attempted.

A more successful strategy involves promoting a range of factors that compete with the addictive behaviour. This first requires us to understand the drivers and rewards for the addictive behaviours, the facilitators and inhibitors of these drivers as well as alternative drivers and ways of being which compete with consumerism. Click here for an example I wrote in relation drug use.

Erich Fromm explores some of this in his book, “To Have or to Be”. In a nutshell, what is required is for a cultural shift where things such as enhanced relationships, improved quality around a sense of meaning, the conscious development of humanitarian core values, a better understanding of what constitutes well-being and the development of daily practices and rituals which align with these internal, inter-personal and social insights.

These shifts need to occur not only at an individual and community level, but also within the business and governmental sectors.

Of course this is a tall order - to shift our ‘To Have’ consumeristic society where success is geared to the idea of more (thing / money) is better to a ‘To Be’ society which is based on seeking fulfillment, contentment, and joy from more internal and inter-personal aspects of life including contribution to others as well as self.

However, this is already happening in some areas (for example veganism). Social Psychologists do not only rely on internal locus of control to facilitate behavioral change. They relay at least as much in structural changes to facilitate change. In the same way improved solar technology is reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, so too can town planning, apps to connect neighbours or provide meditation courses, school curriculum, and changes to taxes impact upon our consumer habits.

Advertising deserves a special mention here. Billions of dollars is spent on advertising because it works. This is why it has been targeted in the alcohol and tobacco areas. We need to take the lessons from commercial advertising in it’s many forms and initially use these to offer alternatives to consumerism. Subsequently, with the development of more governments supporting well-being economies, we may start to better regulate commercial advertising.

Apart from my work in the addictions, much of the above has arisen from my 22-year-old son who is living in this way. He has consciously developed his own core values (based on physics, evolution, and humanity) has chosen a lifestyle and daily practices that match these values. His humble life is far richer than most and one I am aspiring to emulate. He represents the promise of a new age.


Thank you Jon, you have opened my mind to a really important insight into the way we need to shift focus within Western consumerist society by use of advertising and the offer of attractive alternates as opposed to the negative notion that we simply can’t “have” any more.
If I could add that Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, helped me, as a climate change activist, to overcome feelings of hopelessness at the seemingly unstoppable growth of our fossil fuelled future.
Being a part of Extinction Rebellion has helped hugely too. As a 60 year old insurance broker I have found like minded and lovely people who share a concern for our future and who want to do something about it.
Love and rage all

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