Sir David Attenborough is probably the best known environmentalist in the world. He is 94 years old and recently made his debut on Instagram and promptly entered the Guinness Book of World Records with the fastest time to reach 1 million followers. It took this legendary broadcaster and naturalist only 4 hours and 44 minutes to surpass Jennifer Ariston’s previously held record. Since making his debut on Instagram on September 24th this year, his followers have more than quadrupled to nearly 5 million. Sir Attenborough also holds several other Guinness World Records including one for the most in demand TV documentary for his 2006 masterpiece titled Planet Earth. Recently I watched his interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show where he warned that this is the last chance for humans to change their behaviour and save the planet. When asked, what would be his one most important advice to the world, he said, “Stop wastage of any kind”.
Really? Is wastage the most important reason for our environmental catastrophe? It would not appear to be so on the surface but if one were to think about it deeply, I think it is true. It is our insatiable desire and craving for “more” that takes its toll on our planet. The wealthy nations which have been blessed with abundance are the main culprits of waste and environmental pollution. They have a systemic obsession for materialism which has become a part of their social fabric. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is an oft used idiom which accurately reflects this phenomenon of hyper consumerism.
The consumer society emerged with the dawn of the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18thcentury. The industrial revolution brought new found wealth and created a growing middle class who embraced the erstwhile unknown concepts of luxury and buying for the sake of buying rather than for necessity. Though he was a prominent figure during this period which is also known as the Age of Enlightenment, the French philosopher Denis Diderot lived his entire life in relative poverty. In 1765 his life took a turn. When Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia heard that this intellectual could not afford the dowry for his daughter’s marriage, she offered to buy his library from him for a princely sum of £1000 GBP. Suddenly Diderot had money to spare and that is when everything went wrong. The phenomenon known as the “Diderot effect” was first described in Diderot’s essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown”. In the essay Diderot describes how with his newfound wealth also came a beautiful new scarlet robe. Diderot was very pleased with his new possession but soon realized that the rest of his possessions seemed very much inferior compared to his new robe and felt the urge to buy new things to match the beauty of his new robe. He replaced his old rug with a new one from Damascus; his old chair was thrown out and an arm chair covered in expensive Moroccan leather took its place; his old desk was replaced by an expensive new writing table. His lust for more expensive things led to his financial ruin. He rued his predicament by writing, “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown but became a slave to my new one… Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances but the rich man is always under a strain”.
Consumerism really took its hold on the western society at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of mass production. Rapid manufacturing expansion led to a manifold increase in industrial output that was much more than the hitherto demand of the consumer. To overcome the problem of oversupply, the capitalist system created strategies to manipulate consumer demand through clever advertising. In America today an average person is exposed to more than 650 advertisements daily. The objective is to create a compulsive desire to spend. Campaigns like “Have a Coke and a Smile” border on malpractice. There can be nothing to smile about if you are consuming a bottle full of fizzy sugary drink which is hazardous to your health. Burberry, an icon of the fashion industry has admitted to manipulating people into buying their products by increasing prices to give a false impression of superior quality. Credit card companies also joined the bandwagon to lure unsuspecting consumers to live beyond their financial means. In my opinion, this grotesque exploitation of society forms the basis of consumerism that has eventually culminated into another Ponzi scheme. In the process of this mass exploitation, we have created a culture of unimaginable waste which is now threatening the very existence of our planet.
Let’s face it. We all fall victim to the lure of consumerism. We have all experienced the Diderot effect at some time in our life when we felt that perhaps we should not have indulged in a particular luxury. So why can we not change our way of life and our thinking? Why can we not extricate ourselves from this culture of wanton waste? Life should be about experiences not worldly possessions. It is not about affordability; it is about responsibility. Let go of wanting things. Buy what you need not necessarily what you want. If you buy a new dress, why not give away an old dress to a needy person? Keep your possessions to a bare minimum. Look around your house. I am sure that most of us will find things that we have not used for a long time. This means that we don’t really need those things. Why not give those away? Unclutter your life. Live a simpler life with lesser possessions and bigger values.
In Diderot’s words, “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedom; opulence has its obstacles.”