How and why have ecologists criticised materialism and consumerism?

Ecologists criticise materialism and consumption because they provide the cultural basis for environmental degradation.

Materialism and consumerism emphasise the importance of satisfying material needs, thereby establishing a link between people’s pleasure and their level of material consumption. Higher levels of material consumption therefore generate higher levels of human satisfaction. This tends to be measured using GDP or GNP data for a country.

Ecologists criticise materialism and consumption because they provide the cultural basis for environmental degradation. The ‘consumer society’ encourages people to put short-term economic interests ahead of longer-term ecological concerns. Therefore, nature is considered to be nothing more than a commodity to be exploited. This obsession with economic growth takes priority over the environment and thus leads to environmental degradation such as pollution through non-renewable sources of energy because people aren’t interested in sacrificing short-term profit to invest in green technology.

Materialism and consumerism are also seen by ecologists as undermining, rather than enhancing, psychological and emotional well-being. Modern advertising creates ever-greater desires that leaves consumers in a constant state of dissatisfaction because however much they acquire and consume, they always want more. Thus, consumerism and materialism works through, not the satisfaction of desires, but the generation of new desires. This keeps people in an unending state of neediness, want and aspiration. Such beliefs are upheld by so-called ‘happiness economics’, which argue that once citizens enjoy fairly comfortable living standards (an annual household income of $20,000) more income brings little, if any, additional happiness.

This view of materialism and consumerism has led to ecologists, mainly deep ecologists, eco-feminists and eco-anarchists, taking up a ‘postmaterialist’ view. This emphasises the importance of quality of life issues and thus divorces happiness from a simple link to material acquisition. This leads to ecologists contrasting the notions of ‘having’ and ‘being’. Having is the disposition to seek fulfilment in acquisition and control, whereas ‘being’ is where satisfaction is derived from experience and sharing leading to personal growth and even spiritual awareness. Therefore, ‘being’ seeks to transcend the self, or individual ego, with each person being intrinsically linked to other living things. For Arne, Naess, self-realisation is attained through a broader and deeper ‘identification with others’. Such positions has led to links being made between ecologism and eastern religions such as Buddhism, which advocates that the idea of the individual is a myth and a delusion, and instead people must ‘recognise the oneness of life’.

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