In the land of opportunity, anyone can go from having nothing to everything. That idea — that legend — lies at the heart of the American dream. All it requires is some grit, determination, and hard work, and you can make it. Those who succeed in living the dream become rich beyond their wildest dreams and live in lavish opulence. The only thing is that the dream is a myth. In reality, the dream is closer to a dystopian nightmare of the Orwellian kind than a paradise where wealth brings bliss and contentment.
The reason why is that the American dream centres on a culture of consumption. Consumer culture is one where people are driven by the pursuit of money and material possessions to gain image, status, and happiness. Your identity, your very being, is defined by the stuff that you own. The more you own, the happier you’ll be.
For those chasing the dream, everyone is judging one another based on their material wealth. The aim is not about having enough but having more than others.
In the culture of consumption, people measure success based on how their pile of money and possessions compares with that of others. Whether that be friends and those you interact with in the real world, or the pseudo realities of television and movies.
The American dream has gone global
Today though, the American dream has gone global. Everyone aspires to live the dream because, from a young age, people are taught that a desire for material wealth will lead to a good life.
Advertisements and marketing play a powerful role in encouraging people to live a life centred on consumption. And because a culture of consumption has become normalised, people, on the whole, conform to it.
What took the dream into overdrive is that marketing now transcends borders. Through mass access to the internet and smartphones, marketing campaigns can be seen by anyone around the world—all in the comfort of the palm of someone’s hand.
In a globalised world, the aim is to get everyone to buy into the American dream. The more people that centre their lives around consumption, the more people will be driven to buy the stuff that multinational corporations make, helping them increase profits.
Desirable economic behaviour
But the American dream is a powerful myth, driven into people, so they behave how the economy needs them to behave.
For the economy to continuously grow (which is the goal of all economies), it requires the production and purchase of ever-increasing amounts of goods.
The brilliance of the dream is that you can always have more stuff, more money, more wealth. If your whole identity and feelings of self-worth are arranged around having more stuff than others, then enough is never enough. Your thirst for more is unquenchable.
If everyone were satisfied with enough, companies wouldn’t be able to sell more and more stuff. To use an example, outside of the consumer culture we live in, why would someone replace a perfectly good smartphone with the latest model over and over again?
The reason is that the smartphone is more than a phone. It becomes a status symbol where people want to have the latest model to show others that they can afford it. The implicit assumption is that having the phone makes them feel successful and makes others believe they are successful.
If people were not convinced that buying stuff is the root of all happiness, the economy would soon ground to a halt because consumption is the fuel that feeds growth.
And so, from an economic perspective, those chasing the dream are ideal citizens exhibiting desirable economic behaviour because they are never satisfied with enough.
Destructive social consequences
The tragedy behind the myth is that material wealth doesn’t make people happier; if anything, it has a corrosive impact on individuals and society — not to mention a destructive impact on the environment.
People who focus on materialism tend to have lower self-esteem and greater narcissistic tendencies. And even when someone does achieve the dream, it does little to make them happier because that stuff fills a bottomless void.
It leads to people having everything and feeling like they have nothing. Surrounded by stuff but feeling empty inside. And no matter how much stuff you try and fill that void with, the materials won’t make the person feel better about themselves because their unhappiness is not based on not having as big a pile as someone else’s. It goes far deeper than that and is linked to how they think and feel about themselves.
A consequence of those who get lost in the culture of consumption is that the stuff you own ends up owning them. They become controlled by their possessions and lose sight of what’s important in life because you base success on things that have no meaning.
As well as not making people happier about themselves, a culture of consumption has a corrosive impact on the social fabric. It makes everyone see everyone else as competition. Rather than solidarity between people, it leads everyone to make comparisons based on what they own. And if others have more than you, it leads to jealously and envy. Hardly positive character traits.
Destroying the environment
The destructive environmental impact of the culture of consumption is the most worrying thing of all. The culture of consumption is destroying the fabric of the natural world that we need to maintain a culture of consumption. It’s the ultimate paradox.
The problem is that a culture of consumption requires the continual input of resources from the natural world. And the life cycle of products tends to be linear. We take stuff from the natural world. We then need energy to convert that natural wealth into usable goods and services.
Once the material wealth is converted into usable goods, we need more energy to transport the goods around the world. And as soon as a company has convinced you to buy their product over someone else’s, they want you to replace it with an upgrade. Each phase requires massive inputs of energy, the majority of which comes from fossil fuels that are making the climate crisis worse.
And the problem is about to get a whole lot worse because the global middle class is set to reach 5.3 billion people by 2030. As more and more people join the global middle class, more people want to lead a lifestyle driven by consumption. But as the culture of consumption is highly energy-intensive, it means global energy demands are set to double by 2050.
At the end of the product’s journey, once a company has convinced you to replace the item you bought with a brand spanking new version, it gets thrown away and ends up in landfills for the natural world to deal with. But often, we convert the natural world into materials, like plastics, that nature can’t break down.
The result of the culture of consumption is enormous amounts of waste.
The world produces 381 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly — 50% of this is single-use plastic. We know single-use plastic has destructive environmental consequences, yet plastic waste is set to double by 2034.
Plastic in the oceans kills 100,00 marine creatures, as well as 1 million birds.
Overall, we produce over two billion tonnes of waste. As the global middle class grows and more and more people consume, the waste problem is set to get worse. By 2050, global waste is set to reach 3.4 billion tonnes per year.
That waste not only kills wildlife and destroys habitats, but it also releases 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide — 5 per cent of global carbon emissions.
This can not continue indefinitely without having disastrous consequences. The longer waste is a direct outcome of our economy, the more pressure we place on the natural world, and the more likely it is that the conditions that have allowed us to flourish will change.
The American nightmare
One example of how a culture of consumption is changing the natural world is the climate crisis. Creating those goods, and transporting them around the world, requires huge amounts of energy. The majority of which comes from fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide when burnt.
And so, the climate crisis is not a problem in and of itself. It is an unintended consequence of human behaviour, driven by a culture of consumption that demands that people continually buy stuff.
Today we find ourselves at a crossroads. The culture of consumption is responsible for the ecological crisis that could result in the collapse of the environmental conditions we depend on to sustain civilisation. At the same time, a culture of consumption is necessary for the health of the economy. If people stop buying stuff, the economy would soon ground to a halt because consumption is the fuel that feeds growth.
We have two choices. We either choose to continue with a culture of consumption which could lead to runaway climate change and the end of life as we know it. Or, we acknowledge that it is that very culture that must be changed if we hope to deal with the climate crisis.
The reality we live in is that multinational corporations and the wealthy elite have become so powerful, rich and influential because of the culture of consumption. It is that culture that allows them to maintain their position of power and influence in the world, so what incentive do they have in inspiring a social and cultural transformation? They are the very ones who would lose out if the culture of consumption ends. Unfortunately, if the culture of consumption continues, the future could well exceed any dystopian nightmare thought up by Orwell.