In anthropology, there is a definition of culture that describes it as both abstract concepts and the physical tools by which human society adapts to nature and nature to human society (“Culture,” pars. 5-6). Whether these physical tools aid in the gathering of resources or provide a barrier between humans and the elements, these physical tools—these material objects—serve a vital function for civilization. As such, some form of materialism is necessary for human societies to thrive.
Furthermore, materialism as a system of thought can be traced back to the 4th century B.C.E and the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus. This belief system holds that “the nature of the world [is] entirely dependent upon matter, [which is] the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought”(“Materialism,” par. 1). This definition, though extreme, coincides with the reality that human society depends upon, and thus defines itself by, material goods to some degree. More currently, however, the word materialism refers to the importance of material goods in society, implying that the concern that materialistic people have for material objects is excessive (Goldsmith, par. 2). This negative connotation is not without basis. Materialism has evolved in modern society into over-consumerism, the consumption of material goods disproportionately in excess of the resources available to the consumer to acquire goods and beyond what is strictly necessary to live (par. 3). So, despite its necessity in society as a whole, in practice materialism has resulted in several negative consequences that plague modern society and not only damage society in the short term but are also not sustainable in the long term.
In recent decades, there have been many studies that suggest that the acquisition of material objects is an important part of individual happiness (Goldsmith, par. 3). This also seems to be the general assumption by the population as a whole. Material goods are developed and produced in order to ease the burdens of the consumer. So, it should follow that with the burden of labor eased by technology the consumer should feel happiness. However, materialism does not only provide consumers with labor-saving technology, but unfortunately, it also provokes status-conscious desires (par. 1). This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Jones’s.” Material objects are used as “symbolic representations of the images consumers have of themselves that they want to express to surrounding others” (par. 5). In this way, the status and self-esteem of the consumer becomes dependent upon the material objects he or she consumes. This is a delicate balance that is hard to maintain and that has led to many individuals to amassing debt in the effort to consume. Indeed, empirical research has indicated that there is a correlation between materialism and high levels of anxiety and depression in individuals (par. 3). Though this does not indicate that over-consumption is the sole cause of the high levels of depression and anxiety, the research implies that it is a factor. It is also suggests that the reduction of materialistic values in consumers allows for the consumers self-esteem to be independent from their consumption (par. 1).
Over-consumption of material goods is inevitably accompanied by the depletion of natural resources (Wilby 12). With increasing demand for material goods, the demand from businesses for basic materials also increases. This does not just apply to petroleum, but to other natural non-renewable resources as well, such the metals copper and lithium (Hayes 15; Kiani, par. 1-2). Petroleum products – i.e. gas and plastic – and natural metals are the primary components to all modern technology, even technology that aims to reduce reliance upon non-renewable resources. With moderate production and judicious recycling, this might not be as much of a problem. However, materialism, and copious amounts of advertising, urges consumers to always have not only the best, but also the newest technology. This especially applies to energy saving products with the implication that the newer product “will be more energy-efficient than the old one” (Wilby 12). This mentality leads to the current trend of goods being quickly disposed of or replaced either as soon as it breaks down or, with the increasing durability of technology, as soon as a more elaborate product comes along. The rise in demand and production of these products thus leads to an escalating depletion of basic natural resources (12). As many natural resources are non-renewable, without mitigation of the rise in production or more vigorous recycling programs, these resources will eventually be depleted. And there is no coming back from that.
With ever increasing levels of consumption also comes ever increasing levels of waste. Though a majority of waste is produced by businesses, individuals are not blameless in this escalating problem (Wilby 12). It is the individual consumers’ continued purchasing of material goods that makes the increase in production profitable for businesses. Though advertising and pressure to conform to social norms contributes to the increase in production, this only highlights wasteful consumerism. The best methods available to mitigate waste are to reduce consumption and to recycle. In fact, many countries do have recycling regulations and policies. However, in the wake of over-consumerism, the amount consumed by the population and thus also the waste produced has increased to such a degree that these policies have only had minimal impact. Additionally, many of these policies have not been enforced fully on those who produce the most waste: businesses. The world’s capacity to dispose of waste is limited, and should the increase in the production of waste continue, that capacity will be exceeded (12).
Material goods are a part of humanity’s adaptation to nature that makes human society separate and distinct from all other species of life. Because of this, getting rid of all reliance on material goods is not a feasible option. However, the current over-indulgence in material goods heedless of the consequences is not a sustainable course of action either. Balance, equilibrium between nature and society, is needed. Individual consumers need to be conscious of the decisions they are making every day, weighing want against need when it comes to status-conscious purchases and new technology. Businesses need to be aware of their production of waste and seize opportunities to recycle. Most of all, materialism cannot be allowed to blind the population to the fact that that we only have one planet and, with it, there will not be a second chance.
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