If consumption is your religion, then you’re worshipping at the altar of Charles Ponzi and Bernard Madoff.
Modern society is founded on the presumption that no matter how much garbage we throw at it, the planet can absorb it, and no matter how many resources we use up. there will always be more. This is why we’re now facing climate change and shocking environmental devastation, resource shortages, famine, and wars fought for oil.
David P. Barash’s excellent essay on the subject raises some very tough questions, forcing us to confront some uncomfortable truths about the way we live our lives. From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Make no mistake: Our current relationship to the world ecosystem is nothing less than a pyramid scheme, of a magnitude that dwarfs anything ever contemplated by Charles Ponzi, who, before Madoff, was the best-known practitioner of that dark art. Modern civilization’s exploitation of the natural environment is not unlike the way Madoff exploited his investors, predicated on the illusion that it will always be possible to make future payments owing to yet more exploitation down the road: more suckers, more growth, more GNP, based—as all Ponzi schemes are—on the fraud of “more and more,” with no foreseeable reckoning, and thus, the promise of no comeuppance, neither legal nor economic nor ecologic. At least in the short run.
In the long term? We’re all dead, along with the planet.
After World War II, business leaders worried how to keep the economy moving; their answer was to make consumption a fetish. “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals,” wrote the retail analyst Victor Lebow. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” And we have done just that. Even as average family size has declined in America, the average house size more than doubled from 1949 to 2006; Americans have used up as much of the earth’s mineral resources since 1940 as all previous generations combined; and in the process, in the last two centuries the country has lost half of its wetlands, 95 percent of its old-growth forests, and 99 percent of its tall-grass prairies. Nor are those trends uniquely American or simply a result of advertising-driven consumerism: Over the last three decades, to take just one example, the pace of soil loss in Africa has increased twentyfold, with topsoil disappearing 20 to 40 times more rapidly than it is being replaced. Often, our Ponzi scheme derives less from the nefarious scams of greedy malefactors than as a side effect of how we treat the planet, in a largely innocent effort to get ahead, or merely to stay alive.