Tag Archives: consumerism

Earn your creative freedom

In the previous post, we talked about how out of place the primitive human mind is in our modern world. Overeating was used as an example of a natural effect of this situation, but many other self-destructive behaviors also stem from this source. In my experience, the one and only sustainable remedy to this unfortunate situation is creative flow.

Creation is the polar opposite of destruction, making it an obvious way to stop self-destructive behaviors. I’m sure that everyone reading this has been in that blissful state of creative flow where your body secretes happiness hormones without the aid of food, alcohol, social media, retail therapy or any other form of consumption.

Unfortunately, our primitive minds keep the vast majority of the population very far away from this ideal. Since most people remain stuck in a mindset of scarcity, our society still chases happiness through consumption. This perception creates an all-too-common vicious cycle:

Reversing this cycle holds the key to eliminating behaviors that destroy ourselves (e.g. overeating and sedentary living), our communities (e.g. consuming more than we create through excessive debt) and our environment (e.g. large CO2 footprint). Specifically, the following virtuous cycle is the polar opposite of the vicious cycle above:

We need a very simple shift in ambitions: strive towards the freedom to create instead of the freedom to consume. This simple change in thinking can make all the difference.

Obviously, breaking out of the orange vicious cycle and firing up the blue virtuous cycle is much easier said than done. In most cases, the most practical approach is to save up to buy your freedom. As a slave to consumerism, you will have to save up a sizable amount of money, not for a big house or car, but for a truly inspirational job that may offer lower pay and/or less income security (at least initially).

The next couple of posts will share some more practical tips to overcome self-destructive behaviors like overeating. All of them are helpful, but they will not be sustainable as long as you work to “earn a living”. Only when you stop working and start creating can you truly evolve to the point where happiness, health and sustainability simply happen naturally.

PS: Why should you take lifestyle advice from a random guy on the internet? Good question. Take a look at the effects that these guidelines had on my life and decide for yourself.

Why we buy low quality

Firstly, I want to apologize for the very long radio silence since my last post. My responsibilities at work have escalated to unsustainable levels over the past year and I had to put this project on the sidelines in order to avoid burnout. Luckily, this issue has now been sorted out with my boss and 2014 promises to be more balanced, implying a more reliable continuation of the One in a Billion project.

So, let’s get straight back into this vitally important discussion about consumption patterns – the most direct way in which you and I can influence the world. Unfortunately, things have been going very much in the wrong direction over the past couple of decades. The video below is probably the best documentary on this very worrying topic of planned obsolescence.

As often mentioned on this blog, the environment in which we live determines our actions. It therefore becomes obvious that, if we live in an environment where our stuff breaks all the time, we automatically end up buying more stuff. Then, as we have to buy more and more new stuff and our finances become increasingly stretched, we become more price-sensitive and end up buying even lower quality stuff. This is a very dangerous vicious cycle.

An important factor in this cycle is the pricetag on the item. A lightbulb that will last for twenty years might be only three times more expensive than one that lasts for only a year or two, but we have been conditioned to ignore the vast difference in quality and only look at the purchasing price.

This culture is reinforced by the increasing popularity of massive low-price stores. See this article for example which states that the drive towards low-price-low-quality consumables is causing a rapid rise in the number of items bought per person. Apparently, the average American now buys more than one item of clothing every single week and a new TV every 2.5 years. Wow…

Other things such as consumer electronics are sold on a combination of planned and perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence is when an item is trashed because it went out of fashion and is very common for things such as cell phones. As an example, Americans keep their phones for an average of less than two years, thereby trashing more than 100 million perfectly functional phones every year.

Naturally, it is in the best interests of the producer to release a new version with a few more functions every year in order to sell more product, but the actual value added to the consumer and to society by these extra functions (most of which are scarcely used) is highly questionable. As long as consumers keep buying, however, this will continue, allowing producers to increasingly compromise on quality.

So, the first step to changing consumption patterns is therefore very simple: understand the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence. Once this is properly understood, corrective actions start flowing quite naturally. Here is another video to help drive this understanding home.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – Better instead of more

Consumption patterns: The ultimate power

OK, so now that we have laid our three cornerstones (health, personal finances and mental control), we can start building our sustainable living fortress. The first part of this fortress deals with the way in which we consume.

It is an indisputable fact that the billion wealthiest global citizens control the world by the nature of their consumption. This is no over-statement. We literally rule our world through the stuff that we buy. Our economy is geared to provide that which is most in demand, our politicians must ensure that we always have enough consumables and that we have enough money to buy them, and our scientists must constantly make our consumables more, cheaper and better.

This really is a rather awesome power that we hold in our hands. And yes, like we all know; with great power comes great responsibility. It is clear as day that the time has come for us to start acting on this responsibility. And the fastest and most direct way of doing this is by making gradual alterations to our consumption patterns.

Please note the use of the word “alteration”. You don’t need to read much of this blog to gather that I’m not very fond of consumerism, but I’m certainly not advocating that we should all immediately cease all consumption. That would be ridiculous (and instantly crash our entire economy). Instead, I’m suggesting that we start consuming more intelligently and more sustainably in ways which are better both for our planet and for us.

This fourth chapter of the One in a Billion project will therefore discuss some practical ways in which we can change our consumption patterns in a manner that will be beneficial both on an individual and societal level. It is important to remain mindful of this premise as we progress through this chapter and remember that the way in which the wealthiest billion individuals consume literally shapes our entire world.

If you want to change the world, there is literally no better place to start than to change your consumption patterns. 

Filed under: Consumption patterns

Building towards sustainability: Technology vs. lifestyle change

There are few people around today who will deny that society is on a highly unsustainable path. We therefore know that we have to make some serious changes, but just what these changes should look like remains a topic of great debate. Two general pathways are usually considered: a technology pathway where our brilliant scientists develop a wide range of new gadgets which solve all of our problems and a lifestyle change pathway where people willingly reduce their consumption.

1 and a half planets

It is a fairly safe bet that we will ultimately need both of these solutions, but it is highly likely that the lifestyle change pathway will turn out to be much more important than the technology pathway. For example, given the fact that we already consume like we had 1.5 planets and the top 10% is responsible for about 60% of total resource consumption, we would need about 9 planets to sustain our society if everyone consumed like the top 10%. The chances that technology can extract the resource equivalent of an additional 8 planets from the one planet we have is close to zero, especially if we consider that the resources that made our entire industrialized society possible, fossil fuels, are rapidly depleting and causing climate change.

Consumption distribution

It is easy for the layman to look at sensationalist headlines proclaiming revolutionary new breakthroughs in solar power, nanotechnology or 3D printing and conclude that the power of human innovation is limitless. However, the scientists and engineers responsible for developing and deploying this new technology know that such headlines are far removed from objective reality and that the actual real-world impact of many so-called breakthroughs will be much smaller than reported. I know because I am one of those scientists.

That being said, however, technology has a vital role to play in the longer term to allow us to transition from fossil energy (which currently supplies close to 90% of our total energy needs) to alternative and sustainable sources. Using current technology, no amount of lifestyle change can sustain 7+ billion people on this earth without the use of fossil fuels.

8-energy use

Fortunately, we humans are an innovative species and technology will keep on marching forward, especially as innovation becomes more and more important to secure the future of our civilization. However, decarbonizing our totally fossil fuel reliant economy while maintaining current levels of consumption will be very difficult, let alone securing the tenfold increase in total consumption required to advance the living standards of billions of developing world citizens to Western standards.

This is where lifestyle change comes in. As often mentioned on this blog, a little bit of mental control can bring great gains in health, wealth and happiness on a fraction of current consumption. In fact, developed world citizens are already decreasing their consumption (although very unwillingly). Median American wealth and income have fallen to levels last seen in the early 90s while Europe is mired in a never-ending recession with record unemployment. It is therefore clear that we can therefore either do it the easy way (mental control and lifestyle change) or the hard way (unemployment and bankruptcy).

RealMedian-Household-Income

The problem is that our consumerist society has conditioned us to unthinkingly chase happiness through consumption and ignore or deny any problems created by this paradigm. This is a very dangerous game to play and we will need to see a large scale paradigm shift fairly soon if we are to avoid a few very unpleasant surprises in the 21st century.

Filed under: Crisis analysis – Mental control

The trouble with shifting gears

rat raceIn the previous three posts, we talked about utilizing improved levels of mental control to either shift up or shift down. Shifting up implies that you use your improved mental control to develop something called a healthy obsession – a state of mind where your thoughts automatically return time and time again to some interesting idea that can add great value to society if further developed. Shifting down implies that you use your improved mental control to decouple from the materialistic rat-race, trading some amount of material consumption for the direct pursuit of health and happiness.

Both of these options are a substantial upgrade from the sad nine-to-five treadmill of unfulfilling labor on which the majority of developed world citizens are still chasing the fundamental impossibility of happiness-through-consumption. But there is a good reason why the majority of the rich world remains stuck in the pointless rat-race: it has simply become the norm within our modern society. And breaking out of the perceived safety of conformity offered by this norm can be very difficult.

USA_happiness_vs_GDP

This practical difficulty is the subject of this particular post and can be summarized in one simple phrase: the fear of decreasing consumption.

The historically very brief age of cheap fossil fuels we live in today has facilitated a 500% increase in population and an 800% increase in per capita consumption in only 150 years. This brief period of rapid growth has led to a widespread expectation of perpetually increasing consumption rates and, by simple extension, has also created a strong aversion to any potential decrease in consumption.

Historical_GDP_and_GDP_growth_rate

Meanwhile, the bottom half of the global population survives on an average of two dollars per day, while the average American consumes two dollars roughly every 30 minutes. Yet, despite consuming 50 times more than someone in the bottom half of the population, we always want more, regardless of the escalating sustainability crisis and the flat-lining of health and happiness.

Consumption distribution

Shifting up and shifting down both require that you overcome your fear of decreasing consumption, simply because making these fundamental lifestyle changes will often require at least a temporary reduction in income. Shifting up implies that you start doing work that you love instead of work that simply pays well. Shifting down implies that you cut down on your working hours (and your paycheck) in order to focus on lasting health and happiness.

Taking these steps will require substantial bravery in the face of our universal fear of decreasing consumption. Even though all the evidence shows that the perpetual rat-race towards happiness-through-consumption leads absolutely nowhere, the consumerist paradigm has been drilled very deeply into our psyches.

The fact is, however, that the average developed for citizen can halve his/her consumption and still consume significantly more than 10 times the amount consumed by someone in the bottom half of the global population. This level of consumption is more than enough to guarantee the fundamental requirements of happiness: vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression.

LIfe_expectancy_vs_healthcare_expenditures

So, take the plunge. Break free. Shift gears.

Filed under: Mental control – Intermediate control

Mythical utopia manipulation: Shifting down

shifting-gearsFor those who have not seen the two preceding posts, here is the story behind the weird heading: In an earlier post, we saw that the brain naturally blows up the potential pain or pleasure that can come from any given future event, something I like to call “mythical utopias” or “artificial hells”. This primitive human drive towards instant pleasure and away from instant pain has a profound (and often destructive) influence on our actions and, as discussed in another post, our aim here is to harness this power for good.

We also saw in the introduction to the mental control category that the amazing power available to anyone taking more complete control over his/her body/mind can be applied in two ways: shifting up or shifting down. Shifting up, as was discussed in the previous two posts, implies that you use your greatly increased productivity to increase your productive outputs, thereby making great contributions to society. Shifting down, as will be discussed in this post, implies that you decouple from the materialistic rat-race to decrease your working hours (and your consumption) and devote more time and energy to ensuring the lasting health and happiness of yourself and your loved ones.

Happiness comes primarily from three sources: vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression. Shifting down is nothing other than a direct pursuit of these proven sources of happiness and a direct denouncement of the erroneous consumerist cult of chasing happiness-through-consumption (which is a complete waste of time and money).

downshiftingShifting down implies that you work less, earn less and therefore consume less, devoting your new-found free time to heath, personal relationships and creative expression. This really is the perfect combo because healthy habits are often cheaper than unhealthy habits, good friendships don’t have to cost a thing and creative expression within your natural field of interest can even lead to an extra income stream. In total, shifting down brings great gains in health and happiness without resulting in any material lack.

Shifting down will require you to cut down on your expenditures, perhaps even moving to a smaller home or selling one of your cars. This is the little detail that most people cannot get past: consuming less is equated to downgrading quality of life. This is of course complete BS, but unfortunately it has been drilled into our minds through decades of advertising and living within our consumerist western society.

rat raceShifting down does not have to mean that you leave your city life behind to go and stay in a cottage in the woods, on some tropical island in the middle of nowhere or in a Buddhist monastery. You can still live very comfortably within our affluent modern society on a reduced budget. All that is required is that you shift your focus from the perpetual rat-race towards the fundamental impossibility of happiness-through-consumption to the pursuit of true sustainable happiness through vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression. Once this shift is made, further progress will become completely automatic. 

As was the case with shifting up, however, making this transition can be very challenging. The next post will discuss these challenges in a bit more detail.

Filed under: Mental control – Intermediate control.

Explaining the causes of happiness – Part III

The first part of this post looked at the amazing human ability to synthesize happiness while the second part explored how we can make the most of this amazing ability by ensuring that we live in an environment where happiness comes naturally. Briefly summarized, this environment consists of vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression.

This post will explore why excessive consumption does not bring happiness. This is important because the entire global paradigm of perpetual exponential economic growth at almost any cost is based on the premise that consistent GDP growth will grant long and happy lives to more and more people. As we have seen before, however, this is true only up to a point – a point long since crossed by most developed world citizens.

Happiness vs wealth II

Clear material lack is obviously not very conducive to happiness. Under conditions of malnourishment and constant exposure to the elements even the most positive mind will struggle to synthesize much happiness. Surprisingly, however, this is possible to a certain extent. A country like El Salvador, for example, registers greater happiness than Qatar with per capita consumption close to 20 times smaller.

happy-poor-kidsIndeed, as discussed before, relative consumption has a greater influence on happiness than absolute consumption. A person living in poverty will therefore be much more content if his entire town is just as poor as him than if he lives in a squatter camp just outside a shimmering city filled with fancy homes and luxury cars.

This is the same reason why quadriplegics are just as happy as lotto winners. Quadriplegics know that they cannot regain the use of their arms and legs and this allows their brains to adjust to this new reality and synthesize happiness even in their objectively terrible circumstances. Someone who lives in relative poverty (but at least is not malnourished or homeless) will therefore be quite content if he lives in a poor country and accepts this as his reality.

The same applies in rich countries. Even people who are richer than 90% of the global population can experience substantial unhappiness due to their perceived lack of material possessions relative to their peers. And yes, this is exactly the problem with chasing happiness through consumption: more consumption does not bring any lasting happiness, but a perceived lack of consumption relative to your peers can bring lasting unhappiness.

This is why one of the well-established relationships between money and happiness listed in a previous post is that people who are very concerned about money are unhappier than those who are not. It is therefore quite clear that any mind that spends a good deal of time comparing status symbols is capable of synthesizing substantial quantities of unhappiness. 

Filed under: Mental control – Happiness