How does consumerism (the purchasing of goods and services) lead to the sad state of health in America? The link between our spending habits and our health is not at all obvious at first. It’s natural to be skeptical of the claim that consumerism is in fact the driving force for the rise of chronic disease in America and abroad. Below, I hope to make a strong case for this claim. There’s 4 reasons:
1. Modern day employment is a health hazard and mindless consumerism is the reason we are dependent on our employers.
Overconsumption ties us down to hazardous modern working conditions. Such work is predominantly characterized by long sedentary hours often in front of a computer. It may also involve rush hour traffic to and from work. Worse yet, it may involve working at home with no clear delineation between work and free time. We live this way for decades on end. It is compounded by minimal attention to our diet on account of our busy lifestyle. Americans have little time to prepare real nourishing food and often rely on food on the run or prepackaged foods. And all this stress impacts our sleep as well. You don’t need a medical degree to understand that compromising on healthy food, being sedentary, sleeping poorly and stress are going to impact our health.
2. Through mindless consumption, we’ve largely engineered out the need to use our legs to ambulate
Overconsumption leads to the purchasing of conveniences whereby we have engineered out the need for exercise in our daily living. The garage for example necessitates the existence of roads to every single household. We have unfortunately engineered out the need for meaningful use of our legs for ambulation. In contrast, in places where longevity is common, healthy living is simply built into daily life. For example, such places often lacked paved roads around their houses. Thus, people simply have no other choice than to use rely on their legs by walking or cycling to get around.
3. Consumerism changes our environment: its increasing artificial and unhealthy
Overconsumption leads to environmental degradation which impacts affect health in a number of ways. Climate change is only one part of that story. Overconsumption is also the cause of species extinction (both due to and independent of climate change). The loss of biodiversity appears to favor the emergence and spread of pathogens (conceivably including COVID-19). It introduces endocrine disruptors like micro-plastics which are suspected to impair our endocrine and reproductive systems. It also leads to increasingly artificial environments that replace the natural environments best suited for our bodies. Whereas our ancestors pre-industrial revolution spent the large majority of their days outdoors in natural environments, we spend 90% of our time indoors. As you might imagine, this does wonders to both our physical and mental health.
4. Mindless consumption changes the reason for work – we work for money instead of for the product of service we care about
Because consumers are also workers, overconsuming transforms workers from aiming to provide a benefit to their customers (and enjoying money as a side effect) to seeking to maximize profits. Today, most people, out of necessity, work for money. The product or service they offer is instead the side effect. The result is the likes of all the re-engineered and highly addicting foods that compromise the health of their customers while maximizing profit. Since capitalism rewards increased sales with profits, predictably food gets changed in a way that maximizes allure and taste often at the expense of health. In contrast, a mindful consumer is likely to become financially independent of their employer and usually opts to work because of the passion they have for their product or service. They have less of an incentive to create foods that are highly addictive.
Think of the implications for this with regards to our health. Today, modern meat production entails crowding thousands of farm animals in close confinement (itself a risk factor for the emergence of animal-to-human pathogens). If workers were financially independent of their employers, then who would work in such conditions? Moreover if workers additionally also fail to see value in the work their doing they would almost certainly quit. The result would be a drop in meat production.
Yes, employers would have a hard time finding workers to work in the meat industry. Yes, that does mean less meat is produced. Consuming a heavy meat diet as we have become accustomed to is not healthy. We know that the healthiest living populations consume significantly less meat. A reduction in meat consumption would bring both health and environmental benefits.
Solution: Mindful consumption leads to both health and financial benefits
The good news is that the diagnosis is the hard part, the prescription for this is simple. By becoming mindful consumers and investing the saved income most people are likely to become financially independent of their employer for their necessary expenses. Not only are they likely to be healthier but they are also likely to be wealthier. That is an easy sell for most. While it is not a guarantee of good health, once financially free, individuals gain the leverage to choose working conditions. They are likely to work in a manner more suitable to a healthier lifestyle and are less likely to compromise their integrity for profit.
Politicians prescribe the opposite solution – to encourage more mindless consumerism
Our politicians prescribe the exact opposite. Politicians on both the left and the right, focused on the overarching goal of increasing GDP growth encourage us to spend ever more. The prevailing wisdom is that by spending more, we’ll innovate more. Eventually, that will enable us to cure many of the chronic diseases we cannot even contain in today’s world. They believe that innovation will lead us to become healthy.
They are mistaken and have conflated productivity with well-being and happiness. We aim not to become ever more productive but to become happier. The prescription for living given by our politicians has not delivered according to data from the World Happiness Report:
True, we may well one day cure many of today’s chronic diseases by following the current path, but that does not mean we will become healthy. Our sense of well-being requires no future discovery or scientific breakthrough. On the contrary, it’s a losing battle to try to eradicate various chronic diseases in order to enable us to become ever more sedentary in the name of increasing productivity.
Let’s opt out of endless GDP growth and toxic consumption impacting our health
The pillars of healthy living—natural food, exercise, spending time outdoors, and sleep—are already perfect for us given how our bodies have evolved over millennia. Any technological advancement can only create suboptimal substitutes. It’s not technological innovation and greater productivity that we need in this case, its recognition that consumerism is the underlying pathology that is compromising our well-being and then opting out of chasing endless GDP growth (as a society) and the toxic consumption habits (as individuals) corrupting our health.
BOTTOM LINE: THERE IS A BETTER WAY!
- As John Maynard Keynes said a century ago, people of our time ought to be largely independent of our employers for our income – unfortunately, due to “mindless consumerism”, we are not.
- Mindless consumerism is the underlying reason leading to the rise of chronic disease for 3 major reasons:
- It ties us to dependence on our employers and modern day employment is a health hazard for most (in part due to the sedentary nature of most jobs).
- It has led to environmental changes toxic to our wellbeing:
- (a). We evolved in and are best suited to natural environments and instead we live in increasingly artificial environments.
- (b). Overconsumption has lead us to engineer out the need for meaningful use of our legs for ambulation.
- Finally, it transforms workers to work with blinders on – instead of working for the product or service and receiving money as a side effect, workers focus on making money and the product or service is instead the side effect. The results (with respect to health) is that “food” is no longer food but changed to maximize pleasure and extract profit in spite of the toxicity to our health.
- Based on the science of wellbeing one can derive the philosophy that once basic needs are met, “The best things in life are free” therefore —>
- Most people can live far below their means without sacrificing happiness AND by investing the rest, they can become financially independent of their employers enabling them to be —>
- Happier. Healthier. Wealthier. More engaged. Simply better.