When I was in my 20s, working hard to save the world from seemingly imminent ecological doom, I began to wonder: “Who assigned this task to me?”
There were plenty of other people wandering about—billions, in fact—but they seemed preoccupied with other things.
In time, I realized plenty of people wanted to save the world, only in different ways. Each crusader for each cause saw something wrong in the world. Each of us felt we were virtually alone in fully sensing the threat. Each of us decided we must act, even sacrificing our own lives, to help protect the whole.
Many of those causes seemed to be at odds. I fought to save Mother Earth, while others fought to liberate women, preserve freedom, promote choice, prevent abortion, champion gay rights, protect family values, guard against domination by big corporations, protect free enterprise, promote democracy or restrain the power of big government.
I have come to believe that each of these causes, from left to right, shares a common underlying core. Each represents, in part, a crusade to restore what I would call the qualities of the feminine—an appreciation for connection, community, spirit and love—to a system which has become increasingly sterile, industrial, materialistic and purposeless.
Saving Mother Earth
Growing up in the 1960s, at the start of the backlash against post-war consumerism, I sensed a fatal flaw in the industrial system of mass consumption. The linear “open loop system” was an extension of a primitive hunting-and-gathering economy, but on a massive global scale. Once, human tribes had moved from place to place, gathering resources until the local supply was spent, then moving on to the next abundant source.
Now, we had carried that sensibility to an extreme. We were extracting huge volumes of “found” materials—prefabricated fossil fuels and other minerals, which we extracted for processing. We ground up and sorted those materials, concentrating the parts we wanted, and throwing off the rest as waste. We mixed and heated and shaped and assembled the good stuff into products and packages, used them for a minute or a year, then dumped or burned them and went back for more.
Industrial-scale consumerism was facilitated by a few core principles.
The first principle was massive throughput: process a huge amount of material, because that leads to abundant consumer products and increasing material wealth. Uniformity helps the throughput happen efficiently: identical products made in identical factors with identical workers doing the exact same tasks, repeatedly. Simplicity helps eliminate the local differences that constrain the fast flow of identical products to identical people. Centralization allows for the economies of scale that keep costs-per-unit low. Consumerism cultivates a population that exercises its hunting-and-gathering impulses, without much question. Materialism—the belief that everything real is material, and that all else is illusion—wraps society in a belief system that vales the rational above the emotional, head above heart, masculine above feminine, and consumption over innovation.
On a policy scale, economic rules that measure prosperity according to consumption, forgetting innovation, art, emotion, and externalities, helped drive the industrial machine faster, keeping social or environmental effects to the side, out of the way. Keynesian economics allowed the left and right to abandon the idea of innovation and value creation as a driver of growth. Instead, pure consumption became the formula. People ceased to be creators, and became purely consumers. Most men and women did not need to contribute their minds or hearts to the productive process—only their time and muscles.
Consumption delivered enormous benefits.
It put food on the table and books on the shelves. As Brink Lindsey writes in The Age of Abundance, “In all prior civilizations and social orders, the vast bulk of humanity had been preoccupied with responding to basic material needs. Postwar America, however, was different. An extensive and highly complex division of labor unleashed immense productive powers far beyond anything in prior human experience. As a result, the age-old bonds of scarcity were broken. Concern with physical survival and scarcity was now banished to the periphery of social life.”
Industrial mass production liberated Americans from most physical want. But there was a catch. The system that supported it had become dependent on cultivating our underlying perception of scarcity—a perception based on reality for much of our existence as a species. We just kept on consuming, at ever-greater rates.
Those of us with liberal instincts reflexively scan the country for evidence that some of us need more stuff, so we can argue for equity. But on a physical level, even if the distribution of stuff is wildly divergent, the vast majority of Americans have all the stuff we need. Psychically, however, the drive remains. Something is missing, and we need to get it, or poverty and insecurity will overwhelm us. We still grab and consume fast—so we don’t run out.
The problem is that consumption alone doesn’t create value.
Nor does it fill that final sense of lacking. It does allow individuals to accumulate wealth and buy well-being, and that is a good thing. But it does not tap, or even recognize that creative part of us, the part that is unique, and contributes special value all on its own.
Consumption is not wrong—we all do it. It’s just not enough. It fills, but does not fulfill.
Consumerism feels good to our mammal brains, where our impulses live. But our neocortex is not so impressed. The role of that big brain at the top and front of our heads is to be the executive-in-charge of the impulses flowing from the back brain. The neocortex tells most of us that unbridled consumerism, while valuable, has its limits. To find what’s lacking now, we need to change where we are looking.
But change takes thought. And thought requires that we pause. And when we pause, we stop consuming so much. And the industrial system is biased against thought. It favors action. So we are all barraged, from morning to night, with pokes and proddings to which we respond impulsively. Consumerism is an ocean that we swim through each day.
By embracing the qualities of the feminine, we can restore the world to a harmonious balance.
Bill Shireman is President and CEO of Future 500, which brings together major corporate and civil society leaders to find common ground.
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Ed: Wendy Keslick & Brianna Bemel