Grab, grab, grab may cost us dear
December 31, 2004
Consumerism may not make us happy. Quite the opposite, in fact, writes
There have been two news events in Melbourne in the past week - one
small and curious, the other slightly disturbing - that hint at a
larger issue at play in our community.
One event saw a crowd of hungry bargain-hunters stagger and trip as
Myer opened its doors for the Boxing Day sales, averting what could
have been a stampede. The other saw volunteers inundating city
charities at Christmas to offer a helping hand.
Neither event is particularly history-changing, but both reflect a
tension between, on the one hand, luxury fever, the all-consuming force
of consumption, and, in parallel, a niggling sense that this
consumption is not only meaningless but unsustainable - both personally
Australians love to consume and we do it with abandon, as demonstrated
by Myer's sale. The unprecedented affluence the large part of our
community enjoys is reflected in our preoccupation with house prices,
interest rates, iPods, debt, renovations, fame and tax cuts.
The figures speak clearly of our consuming passions. Total monthly
retail sales are nearing $17 billion, compared with $12 billion four
years ago. Household debt is reaching $700 billion, a massive increase
compared with the $180 billion of a decade ago.
What is more difficult to quantify and comprehend is the toll this cult
of consumption is taking on our lives, both personal and communal. Like
those Christmas charity volunteers, we are menaced by a sense that
while we are most certainly richer, we do not necessarily have richer
A growing number of researchers are putting a lack of happiness down to
consumerism. Survey after survey demonstrates that the desire for
material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income,
is a happiness suppressant, with diseases of affluence ranging from
obesity to depression.
A Newspoll survey in 2003 showed that 62 per cent of Australians
believed they could not afford to buy everything they really needed,
despite being richer than ever. Ironically, when asked whether
Australian society today was too materialistic, with too much emphasis
on money and not enough on the things that really matter, 83 per cent
Aside from the personal consequences of consumption, there is also a
massive communal toll. The State of the World 2004 report found we are
using up goods and services at such a fast rate there will be serious
consequences for the wellbeing of the human race and the planet. The
World Wildlife Fund's latest global report shows humans consume 20 per
cent more natural resources than the Earth can produce.
Local research, too, shows we are running up an ecological debt that we
won't be able to pay off unless the Government restores the balance
between our consumption of natural resources and the earth's ability to
renew them. From the dying Murray River to our increasing rubbish
levels, from Victoria's contribution to global warming to our growing
appetite for cars, it is clear our levels of consumption are
What is becoming clear is that infinite economic growth is at odds with
personal and social growth. Markets, of course, have contributed to
making our lives more comfortable and secure, but taken to
unsustainable levels they can erode fundamental values, clashing with
personal and communal wellbeing.
Australian researcher Richard Eckersley argues that we should choose to
redirect economic activity into creating a fairer, cleaner and safer
world, thinking of health, not wealth, quality not quantity, as the
bottom line of progress and the measurement for our way of life. And
Clive Hamilton, director of the Australia Institute, questions whether
the whole growth project has failed: has the pursuit of riches required
the sacrifice of those things that do contribute to more contented and
fulfilled lives, such as the depth of our relationships and the quality
of our natural environment?
These are issues worthy of contemplation as we pack away our Christmas
booty for another year, as we settle into a new year and its
accompanying resolutions, as we fight our way through silly season
sales and as some of us contemplate the needs of others.
Marcus Godinho is the executive director of Environment Victoria.
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