How to break free from consumerism

The richer you are, the bigger your environmental footprint. The other bad news is that the rich lifestyle of the West is what people in other countries are dreaming of. Buying more stuff is a problem, also in a circular economy with hyper-efficiency. The real answer is breaking free from consumerism. That is not a

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Frank Holleman | 08-07-2019

Consuming is a practical and necessary part of life. It is very useful to buy food and clothes and not make everything yourself. But in most cases you don’t need what you buy, you just want it. Still, it feels like you need the new iPhone. That’s because we also have social needs and those are shaped by our culture.

James K.A. Smith wrote a brilliant book about how our hidden desires shape our life:

“How do we learn to be consumerists? Not because someone comes along and offers an argument for why stuff will make me happy. I don’t think my way into consumerism. Rather, I’m covertly conscripted into a way of life because I have been formed by cultural practices […].” – ‘You are what you love’

The keyword is ‘cultural practices’. If it’s expected to carry the latest tech and sneakers then these things feel like a real need.

Consumerism is more than the practical fulfilment of your basic needs. It also mixes in your identity. It maximises consumption with the promise of making you feel like a better version of yourself.

It works because humans are not as rational as we like to think. As Smith says, we are ‘moved more than we are convinced’. And the nobody’s better than moving us than Coca Cola and Nike.

A classic quote from the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry illustrates this perfectly:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Right now most ads, Insta accounts and movies are teaching us to long for the lifestyle of comfort and luxury that turns you into one of the flabby sacks in Wall-E.

But ‘cultural practices‘ also means something else. And this is where it gets interesting. Smith says that small acts reinforce those needs, pushing us deeper into the trap of consumerism. Every time we buy something we attach more and more of our heartstrings to material values outside of us. And these connections get stronger each time, like a muscle being strengthened through the work-out of buying stuff. Or in the case of those Wall-E people, they slowly forgot how to use their real muscles.

This means buying a hamburger at McDonald’s is an action that makes a mini transformation of being a consumerist. The values of buying a hamburger are getting pleasure by spending some money on food that is engineered to be addicting without any regard for health or waste. Buying one hamburger is not bad. But buying enough hamburgers trains your heart (not mind) to exchange money for pleasure at the cost of your own health and environment.


Smith calls this ‘worship’. We worship the lifestyle that we have learned through Instagram, movies and commercials. In ‘the best commencement speech ever’, David Foster Wallace makes the same point:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship […] is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things […] then you will never have enough. […] Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. […] Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

Ads are like an invisible snake, infecting everyone and blinding us to reality. The point is not that companies are evil masterminds. Most companies have good intentions but are stuck in their habits. And unfortunately, most companies are definitely not masterminds. The point is that we’re keeping this snake alive together with our habits and dreams. Every act of consumerism adds more life points to the monster, increasing its strength to keep you in its grip.

Nobody will discourage you from worshipping money, sex or power since that is how many companies make money. Deciding not to be a victim to advertising doesn’t work. The only solution is proactively worshipping something better.

You can’t decide to ignore ads because your mind needs an end purpose. Your heart needs to worship something. It needs a master plan for how your life should look like. And you can’t just change that plan because you grow very attached to it. In fact, you could argue that this master plan for your good life is you. So you have to train and practice your desires.

We could name this plan ‘The Good Life’. Right now The Good Life is drinking cocktails on an inflatable flamingo in a swimming pool and posting a picture of it with your perfect ass to get 300 likes.

If we want to beat the consumerism monster we need a compelling alternative. So what can we say about The Good Life? It is something even Socrates already wondered about and who I am to tell you what The Good Life is? Yet, I want to suggest two guiding principles:

1 Choosing the right struggles

Most days I don’t like getting out of bed. It can feel like a monumental mental fight to lift the blanket off and get up. But there are other days. When the alarm goes off at 5:45, and I pack my things for a long hike in the mountains. Sweaty and tired I arrive on a mountain top, only to go back down and come back with hurting feet. It’s hard, it hurts, and there is nothing that compares.

Why do we climb mountains, solve Sudokus, or learn a new language? Turning on Netflix is not what gets people jumping out of bed in the morning. It’s the struggles we embrace and the reward for enduring them.

These struggles can be small or big. It can be about going to the gym or choosing a career that solves an issue you care about.

It’s ironic to use an ad after all I said, but this example shows that companies and advertising have a role as well.

2 Living in harmony with our environment

A key insight that should guide our discussions about vacation plans, city-planning or school curriculum is that we are not separate from nature. We are nature. Living in connection to nature makes us happier.

It’s such an obvious insight with an important practical consequence. A seemingly meaningless action could be taking a walk in the park after lunch instead of checking your Instagram.

Both of these principles promote true happiness. Both come down to this: being more human.

So, what now?

Maybe you wonder what the point is of this rather philosophical post. As the small minority who actually reads this, you believe that 90% of the population is too dumb to understand this anyway. But I think this whole process of shaping our desires through our habits is intuitive. It naturally happens for everyone and putting it into words is what makes it complicated. I hope writing about it motivates us to promote the simple acts that bring transformation.

As my theology professor Johan Tredoux once said: “We need to act our way to a new way of thinking, rather than think our way to a new way of acting.”

So let’s work out our muscles of desire until they become strong enough to break free from the chains of consumerism.

There are two big questions left in this article series. First, how can my small acts make a difference in the big picture? And then the practical conclusion: what exactly are those small acts that can bring change?