There is a popular meme in the new spirituality movement according to which we are destroying the planet due to an unspiritual desire for more and more goods, often driven by an ego need for status. If we were to live more simply, the argument goes, we wouldn’t have all these problems. So shift consciousness in this direction and there you have your solution.
I need to blow a few holes in this beguilingly appealing theory. It may well of course be true in the aggregate that we are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate, as it certainly is true that we in the developed countries are incentivising people who are not yet consuming resources at this unsustainable rate (and there are fewer and fewer of them) to start doing so in order to create markets for our stuff (in other words, to get hold of their stuff in order that we can have even more stuff, because otherwise they would have no money with which to pay us).
Nevertheless I do not think this has much to do with status, it is essentially driven by a desire to enjoy life. Holidays, good food, comfortable accommodation, education, transport, culture, nightlife and similar major expenditure items in the budgets of households in developed countries dwarf the contribution of goods like personal electronics and discretionary luxury spending on cars and clothing. The idea that the demand for any of this first class of consumables, which is dominated by spending on services, is to any appreciable extent motivated by a desire simply to impress others I personally find extremely strange and at best highly anachronistic. For items like healthcare and related services such a hypothesis is even more outlandish.
So no, there is no excessive ego component in the demand function for most discretionary expenditure in developed countries and my hypothesis is that spiritual growth is going to have little to no impact on the demand side of the macroeconomy. It might be that some people adopt a radically different lifestyle which really impacts macrodemand, but most people are simply going to consume differently, or the mechanism of reduction in macrodemand is going to be a consequence of decisions which impact earnings thereby strengthening budget constraints, rather than any enlightened attitude to consumption. But the capitalist system will find its workers; as mechanization plays an ever greater role it does not need many of them and it will not struggle to seduce those it does. Changing attitudes to consumption will affect the structure of demand, as we already see, but not its overall level.
By castigating consumer behavior, we are really missing the target; we are failing to think in systems terms. What we really need is political action on inequality; we need to catalyse innovation and empower people rather than reducing vast masses of the population to this peculiarly post-modern form of serfdom in which the product of their labor is not even really needed, but simply exacted in order to obtain acquiescence to a political and economic order which serves the interests of a small elite which is no longer constrained even by the need to create social value. In this way, it can be obtained that the dominated classes pay ever more to obtain ever less, thereby maintaining and extenuating disparities and reconciling the system to its increasing inability to produce net wealth. By imagining the problem to be ourselves, and more specifically our own consumer behavior, we merely disempower ourselves by generating guilt. This discourse does not undermine the capitalist order as it presently functions, but concords with it.
In other words, we will not be free as long as the system is in place and there remain persons unscrupulous enough, or simply unenlightened enough, to operate it. Nothing will happen unless we take power into our own hands.
Luckily, in democratic countries, we still have some reasonable prospect of doing so even if the odds may be stacked against it. We need to seize this opportunity through social and political engagement, cultivating righteous anger and not merely organic cabbage. We need economic growth, even if we may need to define, frame and measure it differently, because it is synonymous with the liberation of creative energies that are today enslaved. The call to live within our means becomes too easily a call to acquiescence in the present disastrous order of things in which it matters little what people think or say, because money is in charge, not us.
I do not dispute that there is great spiritual value in cultivating simplicity and in doing our part to send the right price signals to the economy by buying what has intrinsic value rather than what does not. Nevertheless, our very ability to buy anything at all depends on a system which is not only inherently unjust but also tremendously inefficient. Under the paradigm of austerity, reducing personal consumption has become an accommodation to this system, in most cases involuntary: not a revolutionary act against it.