Build or burn?


Is going shopping morally bad?  Many seem to think so.  Anti-consumerism is an unpleasant blend of right-on academic snobbery and a conservative’s natural suspicion of change.

Lefties believe that buying things is worse than making things, conjuring demons such as finite resources being used up, and people taking empty fulfilment from superficial pleasures, leading ultimately to dissatisfaction and fractured communities.  Conservatives complain ‘they don’t make things like they used to’.  Their demons are ever-changing fashions creating frivolous demand for rapidly obsolete products, leading ultimately to society losing such virtues as resilience, patience and thrift.  Both world views betray a shocking disdain for people.

Anti-consumerism is everywhere.  In politics, economics, philosophy and the arts.  It’s naive, unobservant and, worst of all, condescending.  Fundamentally, it doesn’t trust people.

There’s a long intellectual tradition of not trusting people that runs from philosophers hating the chaos of democracy in ancient Athens, through Victorian landowners’ resistance to extending the franchise, right up to the present day concerns about social media and populism.  Not trusting people is everywhere.  Every generation seems not to trust the choices of the next, even while each new generation is smarter and achieves more because of those that came before.  The great struggle global warming scientists have is that their cause is taken up most enthusiastically by the champions of anti-consumerism.  People don’t respond well to being judged.

Anyone who’s against consumerism should recall the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  A pair of Levi 501 jeans could be sold for a small fortune.  I’m sure there were jeans available to Russians and Poles, just as I’m sure they are to North Koreans today.  Yet demand for frivolous, Western, fashionable products was huge.

During the seventies I wore flares.  During the eighties, after Top Gun, I wore aviator sunglasses.  In each case, these fashions later came to define their eras and became uncool, until bell-cut jeans came into fashion for a while, as aviator sunglasses are again.  If you tried keeping these products for thirty years, waiting for them to come back into fashion, it wouldn’t work.  The accumulation of lots of tiny changes, many imperceptible at the time, means that your old jeans and sunglasses would still look exactly that: old.

Consumerism is just capitalism, which is just evolution: constantly trying out new things, keeping what works and building on it, throwing away what doesn’t work and learning from it.  How could you be against that?

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