Citizen Action Monitor

What drives our insatiable consumer desire for more long after our material needs are met?

It turns out, says Tim Jackson, “that material things matter to us in non-material ways”.

No 2060 Posted by fw, September 23, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

Following up on Section 1, of Jackson’s brief introduction to Chapter 4, today’s post is a synopsis of Section 2, titled “Material abundance as a condition of flourishing.”  In this section, Jackson turns to neuroscience and the  psychological and social sciences for insights into perplexing human consumer behaviour.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.


Material abundance as a condition of flourishing, a synopsis, from Chapter 4, “The Dilemma of Growth” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Chapter 4 of Prosperity without Growth addresses the pivotal question: “Could it be that, without growth, our ability to flourish diminishes entirely?

In his introduction to Chapter 4, Tim Jackson declares that any one of three related propositions, discussed in Chapter 3, could place us on the “horns of an extremely uncomfortable dilemma”.

This synopsis zeroes in on the first of the his three propositions: that material opulence is a necessary condition for flourishing.

But first — In Chapter 3, Jackson made the case that there is no simple relationship between material consumption and flourishing:

On the one hand, it’s self-evident why material consumption would be a necessary condition of flourishing for those living in poverty stricken areas where not even basic nutritional and shelter needs are being met.

On the other hand, for those of us flourishing in rich nations, “why is it that commodities continue to be so important to us, long past the point at which our material needs are met?”

Is material abundance really a necessary condition of flourishing for the rich as well as the poor?

Or are there other explanations to account for the insatiable consumer appetites of the well-off? Is it a matter of genetic programming? Is there something about the capitalist culture that drives us to “shop ‘til we drop?” 

Jackson turns to modern neuroscience for answers.

Neuroscientist Peter Sterling traces our acquisitive behaviour to our brains, brains that “evolved in an ancestral environment of relative scarcity. … Our propensity to overconsume ‘is a relic of a time when individual survival depended upon fierce competition for scarce resources.’”

Another neuroscientist, Peter Sterling, picks up the story from there. Whenever we obtain something we desire, a pulse of dopamine is received in an area of our brain, as “a pulse of satisfaction”.

Problem is, the feeling of satisfaction soon dissipates. To trigger another jolt of satisfaction, we repeat the behaviour, and two other features of our brain ensure “relentless repetition” – habit and adaptation.

Considering habit, our survival depends on the brain’s unconscious, automatic processing of “no-brainer” decisions and tasks. To put it another way, we are consciously unaware when we respond to a habitual “pulse of satisfaction” in the brain’s circuitry.

Turning to adaptation, paradoxically, consumer capitalism limits the scope of our desires to material satisfactions. With the objects of our desire becoming increasingly fixated on material goods, our satisfaction circuit adapts, and we need more and more “fixes” to satisfy what has become an addition.

Thus, “The freedom not to consume is sometimes harder to come by than the freedom to consume,” says Jackson. “The freedom to live a materialistic life undermines our freedom to empathize with and care for others. It’s almost as though, in a capitalist society, the perfect adaptability of our brains to their ancestral environment has become a slave to the possibility of abundance.”

There’s more.

Jackson reminds us that Chapter 3 argued that “prosperity was always more than material satisfaction.” So why, then, did capitalism emerge to favour our material desires?

The answer to this enigma is to be found in our psychological structure, principally in our tendency to infuse material things with social and psychological meanings. Material things matter to us in non-material ways.

Consumer goods take on a symbolic value associated with what really matters to us, including, for example: family, personal identity, friendships, status, physical attractiveness, life’s meaning, and so forth.

Jackson shares an amusing anecdote to illustrate this point. A consumer researcher, studying the importance of desire in behaviour, asked a young male subject what fashion meant to him: he replied: “No one’s gonna spot you across a crowded room and say ‘Wow! Nice personality!’”

Jackson cites anthropologist Mary Douglas: the objective of the consumer is “to help create the social world and find a credible place in it”.

In this sense, “the material and non-material dimensions of prosperity are inextricably intertwined through the language of goods.” The link is social, not material.

We learn the “language of goods” at an early age: peer group pressure to conform is irresistible. And income level determines our social status and access to the goods that symbolically signal our social standing – not to mention repeated pulses of satisfaction.

But as the author declared in Chapter 3, “The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding material paradise has come unravelled.” Contributing to the unravelling of this ruling-class vision of prosperity, Jackson includes: climate change, loss of biodiversity, resource scarcity, failing financial markets, and inequality. 

We must move beyond this limiting, material consumption, vision of flourishing. He exits Section 2 of Chapter 4 with this thought:

A different form of social organization – a more equal society – in which social positioning is either less important or signaled differently – is a clear possibility.

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