Imagine that one day a man wakes up unusually hungry. He goes to breakfast and eats a larger portion than is his custom, but finds that he is not satisfied. Mildly confused, he goes on about his day, eagerly waiting for lunch.
Imagine that one day a man wakes up unusually hungry. He goes to breakfast and eats a larger portion than is his custom, but finds that he is not satisfied. Mildly confused, he goes on about his day, eagerly waiting for lunch. However, the same thing occurs — he eats more, but cannot become satiated. Alarmed, he goes to the doctor. There he is terrified to learn not that he is going to get fat, but instead that he is afflicted with a strange disease that requires him to eat more and more each day just to maintain his present weight and health. He will never get overweight — on the contrary, if he does not continue to increase his portions each day he will begin to waste away and will eventually starve to death. He must continue this practice for the rest of his life. This man’s affliction will be very painful to him. He will never be free of anxiety or at all secure — he is destined to an eternal glut simply as a matter of survival. Perhaps he is able to acquire his larger portions now, but someday, if he lives that long, he will require truckloads. Then, to make matters profoundly worse, he learns that it is an epidemic: this affliction has spread not only across town but across the globe. Speaking allegorically, this man represents the United States, and his affliction is the modern economy. It is taken for granted now that continuous growth in production and consumption is what our country needs in order to thrive. However, as with the man in the allegory, it seems that it is not simply a suggestion — it is requirement for survival. We require the perpetual growth, and this growth is exponential. If the economy grows at 2 percent each year, this is not the same quantity each time. Growth of 2 percent this year means that next year the growth will need to be 2 percent of “this year plus 2 percent.” This means that the graph of our consumption will not look like a steady rise, it will look like a limits curve approaching infinity —and it will look like this because it really is approaching infinity, which is inherently problematic, since we happen to live in a finite world. It follows then, under this compulsion of consumption, that the most unpatriotic thing an American can do is be content with what he owns. The most selfish behavior in which he can engage is to be self-reliant and choose to get by with less. Consumption becomes patriotism, consumerism the national religion; its Blessed Sacrament is received each year, the day after Thanksgiving; its gospel is “by bread alone, and lots of it.” Please know that I am not writing to condemn any particular shoppers, but to instead condemn a social structure that systematically turns the wants of our fathers into needs for us. To multiply needs is to manufacture dependence. Anyone who suggests thrift rather than growth is considered an eccentric or an idealist. It is explained to him that if we became content we would become “stagnant,” and stagnancy is blasphemy. This situation destroys peace and institutionalizes a mindset of insecurity. This should be just as alarming for us as it was for the man in the allegory. Like him, we can never be free and self-reliant. It paints a picture of the future colored with anxiety and perpetual desire. This destroys the independence not only of individuals but also of our country as a whole. Being unable to sustain ever-growing demand locally we will require increased imports of things like oil. We will become ever more dependent on the regions producing that oil—tied to them for sustenance like a life-support IV. The man in the allegory, since his neighbors also acquired the affliction, was destined for conflict and war. In a finite world contented men can live in harmony, but men cannot peaceably coexist whose material wants have no conceivable limit. Translating this to our economic picture, it has interesting implications for our attitude toward poorer countries. We say that we wish them to grow, to prosper, and to become, basically, more like us. Can we really wish for such a thing? America currently consumes about 25 percent of the world’s oil. If we could somehow create a half-dozen more “Americas” in the world we would instantly become a world at war, because the multiplied demand for resources would instantly be driven well beyond plausibility and into unbelievable scarcity. Our IV would be ripped from us, and we would have to kill to get it back. We do not really wish other countries to prosper like us. We cannot wish for such a thing, unless we wish for war. In an economy that seeks to maximize consumption regardless of need, Black Friday is our truest national holiday. If we are to continue to operate according to these principles, it would be logical to abolish Independence Day and to put in its place Black Friday, renaming it for what it represents: “Dependence Day.” There is no freedom in lifestyle of manufactured want; no peace in material insecurity; no contentment in maximized consumption. It is a road only to existential fear, jealousy and inevitable violence. This column is dedicated to social philosophy, religion and all other subjects that seek to keep us sane. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.