Posted by: Skeptical Moose | December 28, 2009

The Simple Life vs The Life with Loads of Really Cool Stuff

Two publications that I enjoy a skim through: Breathe and Springwise. Polar opposites in almost every regard, but nonetheless both fascinating: one concerned with living a simple, anti-consumer life; the other focused on the latest fads, gadgets and entrepreneurialism.

Can one legitimately appreciate both, or am I horribly hypocritical and/or bi-polar?

In the same way that I criticise religion for propagating and utilising fear (here’s just one example of a regular rant of mine), the ‘Corporate Industrial Complex’, primarily via the advertising sector, does exactly the same. There is a place for marketing, naturally, in terms of product introduction and information, but we all know that businesses dedicate themselves to forcing purchases upon us. One of my favourite (horribly paraphrased) quotes:

“Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.” Peter Drucker

That may sound dramatic, but how else would they deliver increased returns every year? A great little intro into how modern marketing methods developed (in post-war America) is found in the indispensable The Story of Stuff1.

Keynes was the first to point out that ‘absolute wants’ are limited and finite; it is our ‘relative wants’ (those felt in comparison to others) that are insatiable and “it is these relative wants that keep the wheels of our growth machine spinning merrily away.” Only now are we realising that ‘growth’ doesn’t just mean more money, but that’s a whole other topic …

As Franny Armstrong, creator of The Age of Stupid, said, “I’m one of the MTV generation who got told that the point of your life is to go shopping, play computer games and die.”

Hold on, Franny is the same age as me and, come to think of it, way more people watched Wall Street than that documentary on CFCs.

For most of the past 60 years or so, we have been dealing with an irresistible force: a pressure on us to crave more and more produce that is extremely tough to resist.

Perhaps the greatest living commentator on the issues discussed herein is Noam Chomsky: linguist, anarchist and intellectual dissident (which basically means that those in power will not benefit from listening to what he has to say). His magnificent Manufacturing Consent first introduced many to the concept of subtle, non-violent control of the masses:

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

The complex of designers, advertisers and retail consultants – very delicately: ssshhhh, keep it quiet – create an endless stream of new wants and turn them into needs. Ergo, in the UK today, we have 120 mobiles per 100 people and 700 million credit cards in circulation. Damn, those guys are good!

Not everything is a deep web of propaganda, but how do we know when we are being fed utter drivel? How do we know to trust what we read or watch; when the major commercial media networks are so utterly on the hook to their sponsors (remember: the big money comes from them, not the customer!)?

As for the companies themselves, I read Shell’s The Race to Capture the Carbon Pound on the same day that I was first informed about their utter destruction of the Niger River Delta through intentional oil spillages!! It’s tough to know what to believe; unless it’s Shell, Monsanto or Primark, in which case you can pretty much guarantee it’s all lies …2

Stay skeptical, readers!

I like Max Weber’s analogy of the Protestant work ethic – ‘I work so I might go to heaven’ – now morphing into the Developed World’s version: ‘I work to have money to buy more things’. Pretty much sums it up!

I always want to ask my female friends, “what is it you think ‘retail therapy’ will achieve”, but am acutely aware that this will result in a kick in the nuts.

The once-feared 21st Century totalitarianism did not arrive in facist jackboots or communist uniform, but with a smile on its face and a badge that says, ‘I’m Sandy, here to help.’ The most frightening thing is that we really are just at the beginning. Search engines, marketers, food scientists et al are on a learning curve and are only going to improve. Read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and be on your guard at all times!

We live in a society with pressure to have more, to buy more and to want more. We are expected to conform, to be fashionable, to follow the norm. All of us feel this to a greater or lesser extent and likewise, we all suffer from a touch of Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman syndrome. This goes a long way to explaining our obsession with celebrity, fame and tabloid culture. Sadly, it also helps elucidate the increase in binge-drinking, teenage pregnancy and self-harm. The ‘American Dream’ still gets promoted, even as it, and social mobility, disappears faster than ever.

Meanwhile the African village feels none of this burden, but that’s because they don’t have the choice, which, on the face of it, can’t really be a good thing (other than for fanatical environmentalists). China happily adopts the cynical ‘what they don’t know can’t hurt them’ approach, though not quite for the altruistic reasons noted here. And the day we start taking advice from China …

Havind said all that, now that we’ve had a taste, it’s tough to turn back. Maybe the best bet is the option to procure all those lovely goodies, but not the pressure? Is that even feasible, or am I living in a dream-world? If anyone knows of a country where this is the case, please let me know …

It isn’t wrong to aspire to greater wealth or personal improvement; to want more for you and yours. And there’s nothing wrong with treating ourselves to something special (though it helps to know the real cost of the purchase and, dare I say, what ‘wealth’ actually means).

In conclusion, I haven’t got a clue. I’m just throwing a few brain-stormers out there and hope that we might all of us give it some consideration. Think about what you truly need in life, what you want to be and how you think you can do that … ideally by being true to yourself and not Heat magazine!

Call me paranoid, but I wouldn’t trust anyone if I was you!

If I were really trying to ham this up I’d include the ‘Choose Life’ quote in Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting. But I’m not, so I won’t!3

As for me, I’m going back to Breathe and Springwise. Now, which to read first….

1 And any of George Monbiot’s investigate journalism regarding corporate power is worthy of a read

2 will tell you about many more such firms. If you have a heart, please don’t buy from Nestle, Coca Cola or Gap again (to name but three)!!

3 For those that enjoy porcine carpaccio ?



  1. Great post, and a great collection of quotes i haven’t come across before, from Chomsky, Weber and the Arthur Miller. I’ll be getting hold of a copy of Manufacturing Consent shortly!

    • Cheers for the comment and keep up the great work at Conservation Economy.

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