Waking Up From The Consumer Nightmare

Often I feel like I’m waking up from a long, horrible dream in which I’ve been participating in the destruction of everything I love. My heart is still thumping with fear and self-revulsion at where I’ve just been. The cold sweat still clings to my skin. As the cobwebs clear from my eyes I find myself looking around to see a few others in various stages of awakening from similar dreams. Our eyes meet in shock and relief, grateful to be awake, still a little blurry about what just happened. But as I continue looking around I realise that most of the population is still asleep, twitching and groaning in the grip of the nightmare.

What is this nightmare? I call it ‘normality’.

It’s becoming clearer with every passing day: business-as-usual is destroying our planet. Consumer culture is currently the everyday normality for billions of people across the globe, and the aspiration of billions more. But it is 12 years away—by the conservative estimates of the latest international climate report—from tipping the whole planet over a critical threshold into near-term global catastrophe. And yet the high-streets and shopping malls of the world still throng with shoppers pursuing their version of consumer paradise.

It’s deeply perplexing.

Global ecosystems are being destroyed at shocking rates. Already each day 200 species go extinct. Recent reports tell us that over 60% of the Earth’s animals have disappeared since 1970 and 75% of our insects have been lost over the past few decades. The oceans are literally dying, their marine life decimated. Bird populations are crashing horrendously. In the human realm, indigenous cultures continue to vanish, their colourful diversity almost wiped from the scarred face of the Earth.

Each year we use up increasingly more of the Earth’s resources than can replenish themselves. Each year we pump more and more carbon into the atmosphere, warming the planet to dangerous levels. 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have been since 2000. Each year the effects of this warming get more pronounced: more extreme weather, more flooding, more droughts, more wildfires, more soil erosion, more melting glaciers and disappearing sea ice… 

These tragic losses and increasingly serious climatic events are directly caused by the consumer nightmare. And this nightmare isn’t something that’s happening somewhere far away, in the boardrooms of multinational corporations. It’s happening in our homes and workplaces, our villages and towns and cities. It’s happening in our everyday lives, all day long. The factories pumping their emissions and effluents into the rivers and the air, power stations doing likewise, the mining, the oil pipelines, the deforestation, industrial agriculture… these all operate to fulfil our demands for the conveniences and luxuries we have come to consider intrinsic to our very sense of normality: our fridges and smartphones, chocolate and cheep flights. We are all participating in the game of perpetual economic growth. We are all creating the nightmare.

But unfortunately the nightmare we have created cares as little about us than it does about any other species on the planet. It has no interests other than its own perpetuation. It has spread over almost the entire world, and sometime very soon (if it hasn’t already) it will have devastated so much of the Earth’s land, sky and oceans as to have irreparably destabilised the entire biosphere and made the planet largely uninhabitable. At that point we’ll realise that there’s no-where left to wake up to.

Who is going to save the Earth from this dread assault on its community of life? 

Our governments are refusing to act. The corporations have bought them, corrupting democracy and the political process almost entirely. Academia and the sciences are yoked and choked by vested interests through their dependence on corporate funding. Organised religions pursue their own agendas, unwilling to alienate their followers by challenging the toxic ‘normality’ in which they operate.

Our institutions are failing us. If we wait for them to rescue us from the devouring nightmare we will wait in vain. The window of opportunity we have in which to avert the worst of the impending climate catastrophe will have closed.

Are we going to save ourselves? It’s still possible, though increasingly unlikely. Daily, hourly, we sustain the world-destroying nightmare with almost every action we perform and every choice we make, and yet we seem compelled to live in tenuous denial of the fact. Every part of our daily lives burns oil, destroys ecosystems, drives other species to extinction, depletes the planet’s resources and contributes to continuing climate change. It’s truly shocking how much systemic evil our lives are embedded in and our choices are perpetuating. Yet only a minority are even aware that our actions and choices are in any way problematic. For most, the modern lifestyle of luxury convenience and frivolous consumption is unquestioned and unquestionable. Any suggestion that big changes are needed are met with contempt. Consider the suggestion that we should all turn vegan. Who would dare to publicly advocate legislating for that? Or imagine trying to introduce a tight petrol ration.

There is a pervasive belief in our society’s fundamental entitlement to levels of material luxury and consumer riches which our whole line of ancestors until a mere five generations ago would have considered the purview of the gods. Today, these levels of material luxury are promoted as the very baseline of normality and accepted as our sacred rights. That they are killing our planet is an inconvenient truth which it seems few are psychologically prepared to face and even fewer are morally equipped to act on.

More disturbing is that even those who are aware of how horrendously damaging modern lifestyles are continue to move through their days and nights consuming all manner of essentially unnecessary things on top of what they do really need. There is a deep cognitive dissonance at play here. The large and bourgeoning market in ‘eco-consumables’ testifies at once to the rise in ecological awareness and to the failure to act appropriately upon this awareness. The glossy pages of online eco-superstores are brimming over with ‘organic’ consumables, ‘handcrafted’ superfluities, ‘wildcrafted’ luxuries, all ready to be flown and driven to our doorsteps at unspeakable ecological and social cost.

But we allow ourselves to feel OK and even sparklingly positive about such purchases, greenwashed as they are to appear ecologically and socially neutral or even benign. They are not. They are as much a part of the consumer nightmare’s ravening madness as are its guns and private jets. In many ways, psychologically, they are worse, for they inscribe us into a fairytale reality in which we can consume our way to health and wellbeing both personal and planetary. Eco-fashion, ethical jewellery, handwoven toilet-seat covers, a whole library of organic teas from around the world, baffling arrays of ‘natural beauty’ products and shelves of supplements manufactured in the name of wellbeing… what is being greenwashed here is not a product or a company but needless consumption itself. Who are we that we think our wellbeing depends on this kind of organic micro-pampering, rather than on grappling head-on with the dark and dreadful consumer nightmare?

The urgent point here is that our whole world is in the grip of the nightmare. Our entire range of lifestyle choices are nestled within it. From top to bottom and throughout the whole spectrum of our everyday possibilities we are contributing to the destruction of our planet. But people don’t want to hear this. We don’t want to yield an ounce of our sense of entitlement to the fairytale lifestyles of our consumer paradise.

To see what a truly ‘sustainable’ lifestyle looks like we need to turn not to the purveyors of organic superfoods, electric cars, natural paint and eco-yoga-mats, but to the aboriginal, native cultures of the Earth. These are cultures rooted in ways of being that are not fundamentally at odds with planetary wellbeing. They know how to live within the carrying capacity of the Earth. They know how to live in abundance without compromising their environment. They know humility in the face of the inexorable limitations to growth that come with being one member in the great community of life, and enjoy the dignity and belonging that comes with accepting those limitations. Compared to them we are in many ways spoilt children. Our really quite trivial efforts at ecologically responsible behaviour such as recycling our horrendous consumer waste, buying energy-efficient lightbulbs to illuminate our lives cut off from natural rhythms and cycles, using electric cars to enable our disconnected and dislocated society to continue in its fragmented form, are pitiful.

Sadly, the hope that we can convert the current fossil-fuel hungry consumer lifestyle into a clean, green, alternative-energy version of the same is part of the gruesome fairytale. The attempt to make the nightmare more ‘sustainable’ is fundamentally flawed. For one thing, alternative energy technologies will not emerge at scale quickly enough to fully replace the old dirty energy technologies in time to carry us through the small window of possibility we have available to us. But more importantly the whole world that the nightmare has created is not conducive to life well lived. Technologically mediated existence cut off from the living Earth is a shadow of life, a perverse simulacrum of what it truly is to be a human being at home here amidst the elemental and spiritual exigencies of Earth.

To stand any chance of surviving the next few decades, of creating a truly sustainable human culture, of evolving into what our prophets and visionaries have always seen to be our human potential, we must rouse ourselves from the unreality that has for so long had us in its grip. We must rapidly learn to curtail our power to extract and exploit the Earth’s precious resources. Indeed, we must grow-up beyond even seeing them as resources and move into a deep appreciation of the intrinsic value of every being on the planet for its own sake. We must resolutely accept the inconveniences and limitations that attend our living considerately within the bounds of the community of life, and humbly embrace our place of belonging within that community. We must wake up from the consumer nightmare and the fairytale of disembodied ‘normality’, returning into intimate relationship with the Earth, quickly, while there is still a habitable Earth to return to.