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Is Consumerism Bad?

What is consumerism, and is it really as “bad” as people make it out to be?

We need to consume in order to live

First of all, consuming isn’t bad. We must consume food, water and resources in order to live.

On gluttony

Generally speaking, to consume “too much” (gluttony) is seen as a sin. What is “gluttony”?

I generally think the notion of gluttony comes from the notion that you’re taking away resources from another who might need it. For example if you’re stuffing yourself with sausage while the person next to you is dying of hunger.

I think generally to be a glutton is to eat more than you “need”.

But who is to tell us how much is too much, and how much is “enough”, and how much is “excessive”?

Also why does modern society tell us that consumerism is a moral evil or form of moral degeneracy?

It is all subjective

What is “necessary” seems subjective.

In terms of what is necessary — we only “need” water to survive, but we still enjoy drinking coffee.

We might only “need” to eat beans for survival, but we eat meat.

Almost everything we do which is beyond mere survival (almost everything) is “excessive” and “luxurious”. But it makes life better, and it makes us stronger.

Luxury is good

Even though I don’t “need” to lift weights for survival, I choose to because I enjoy it, and it also makes me stronger, more confident, and helps me build a superior physique. Making art (photos and beyond) isn’t necessary to survival, but makes my life 10000x more meaningful and interesting.

Music is luxury, art is luxury, aesthetics are luxury. Almost everything is luxury and “unnecessary”!

Back to consumerism

Back to consumerism and capitalism:

We will always desire better goods, and higher quality tools and equipment.

I don’t know anyone who prefers their old beige PC to their modern MacBook Pro or iPhone Pro.

Other consumerist goods I love:

  1. Merino wool: Legitimately superior to cotton for everything. 5x the price, but totally worth it.
  2. GoreTex: Really does keep you dry. Far preferable to the cheaper rain repellant attire.
  3. Modern digital cameras: RICOH GR III as the best camera invented thus far. Far prefer it over any film Ricoh GR-series for performance, quality, and technology.

Just don’t get suckered

I think consumerism is fine. My simple suggestion:

Don’t get suckered into buying stuff that isn’t really going to improve or benefit your life.

Nassim Taleb says it well in his book “Skin in the Game”: often rich people get their tastes dictated by a system designed to milk them.

What stuff will actually improve your life?

Audiophile coffee shop. Singapore
Audiophile coffee shop. Singapore

Now this is the tricky thing:

What consumer goods actually improve our lives?

Also, what does “improving our life” actually mean?

iPhone X advertisement Singapore

What does it mean to improve our lives?

My tiny apartment studio. Providence, Rhode Island
My tiny apartment studio. Providence, Rhode Island

I think when we say that we want to “improve” our lives we mean to say:

  1. To make our daily life less stressful
  2. To make our lives more convenient
  3. To make our lives more fun and less boring

We seem to want novelty, new things, things to excite us, and to be less bored.

But do consumer goods actually do that for us? Some do— but some don’t. For example:

1. In praise of good in-ear monitors

My custom in ear monitor headphones
My custom in ear monitor headphones

I have some good in-ear monitor headphones I got custom made in Saigon, which cost me around $100 which is worth every penny. Super small and compact, seals up my ears, and great bass response and audio quality. Sounds 10x better than the Apple AirPods. The AirPods are more convenient, but when I really want to “get in the zone” of my music, I love the in ear monitor headphones.

So to find good headphones for music — this is a good investment.

Perhaps the danger comes from trying to always “over-optimize” and seek marginal 2-3% gains, for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for better equipment.

2. Are marginal gains or improvements worth it?

I think this is the interring debate on consumerism:

Is a 5% gain or improvement “worth it”?

For example, owning a car is useful. Generally owning a car will make your life more convenient and “better” than not owning a car.

But will upgrading your Toyota Camry to a Lexus (same company) truly “improve” your life? Probably not.

Even with electric cars — I don’t think having an electric car will really “improve” your life compared to a gas car. But having autopilot or self-driving capabilities will.

3. Cameras and photography

RICOH GR II— Sapa, Vietnam
RICOH GR II— Sapa, Vietnam

Photography is tricky. For example, sometimes the upgrade is worth it, sometimes not. And sometimes the older technology or tools are actually better.

For example, the RICOH GR II has an integrated flash, which in some ways makes it superior to the newer RICOH GR III, which doesn’t have an integrated flash. But the new GR III has better high ISO performance, far superior high contrast monochrome jpeg settings, autofocus, speed, etc.

Consumerism is bad if it breeds insecurity

If you’ve ever doubted your clothes, car, home, tools, equipment, etc by thinking:

What I have isn’t good enough. I wonder if I had a better [x] whether my life would be so much better?

Then consumerism is bad— it breeds insecurity in yourself.

What gets us to buy?

  1. Sometimes we want to buy status totems to “flex” our riches, power, and wealth — to feel SUPERIOR to others.
  2. Sometimes we buy stuff because we feel that by not having the newest iPhone or whatever, we are missing out, or at a serious DISADVANTAGE in life.
Singapore Cindy project

Consumerism is bad if it traps us to a job or profession or lifestyle we hate

If you hate your job, but it pays well, and if you got a mortgage, car payment, and lots of bills, you’re a bit trapped. If you feel you “need” your luxury car, luxury stuff, and luxury lifestyle, but your job is absolutely hateful to you (but you need the job for the money), then consumerism is bad.

Golden handcuffs are always bad— no matter how expensive the watch is.

NEXT

The next essay I’ll write about will discuss:

  1. What goods or services or lifestyle choices do truly “improve” our lives?
  2. Why do we want to improve our lives? What is our notion of a “better” life?
  3. Whats our ultimate life goal anyways?

ERIC

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher