Hooray for Materialism

Primed by inspirational speakers and self-congratulatory messages, it’s difficult to go through graduation without feeling the need to save the world from its mounting problems—global warming, conflict in the Middle East, et cetera. But before charging off full of hubris and missionary zeal, it seems appropriate to take stock and bask in mankind’s flourishing success: We live in an era of unprecedented human well-being.

Of course, this isn’t a call to be complacent or callous—too many people still live at the mercy of inept, autocratic governments, or suffer from diseases long vanquished in the West. Nevertheless, humans worldwide are more prosperous, more educated, and more free to pursue individual happiness than ever before. We produce better products using fewer resources (thanks to the dematerialization of consumer goods); the environment is generally healthier (major air pollutants like sulfur and carbon monoxide have declined by 15 to 75 percent since 1970); and society is more tolerant (going from the Stonewall Riots to Queer Eye).

Yet most people are deeply pessimistic—even in the midst of the ’90s economic boom, two-thirds of Americans thought that “the lot of the average person is getting worse.” On the left, Utne-reading Luddites condemn materialism and consumerism, longing for a squalid, pre-industrial past. On the right, conservative nativists fear immigration and social change—god forbid we lose the WASP culture that made this country great. And elites across the spectrum bemoan the base popularization of high culture.

So why the doom and gloom? Part of this Chicken Little complex can be explained by rose-tinted nostalgia, but such pessimism also reflects deep-rooted self-doubt, a certain suspicion of man’s ability to handle his promethean powers. Caution transforms suffering into virtue and material progress into sin; this psychology of self-denial suggests that we are sowing the seeds of our future destruction with our present prolificacy. If this sentiment merely led individuals to forswear their own possessions, it would be rather harmless for society. But unfortunately, the modern ascetic impulse informs a wide range of misguided policy proposals, each promising mankind salvation through self-denial.

The most striking example of this pathological perspective is the supposed “great crisis” of our age: environmental destruction. With cultish zeal, many greens bemoan the West’s—especially the U.S.’s—resource-guzzling prosperity, and even relatively moderate environmentalists like Al Gore think that we need to undergo “sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society.” The alleged need for this self-flagellation stems from the fact that the U.S. makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, but Americans consume roughly 25 percent of the world’s resources. As the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary, “Affluenza,” states, “Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them […] The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican […] and 30 times as much as the average person in India.” The horror! The horror!

PBS’s moralizing, however, misses the fact that U.S. also produces much more than the rest of the world. In fact, the U.S. generates about a quarter of the world’s goods and services—a number roughly in line with our proportional resource consumption. Moreover, I doubt we really want Americans to have the same standard of living as wonderfully resource-efficient (read: desperately poor) Indians.

Similar fears about development have sparked protests and paranoia about genetic meddling, Frankenfoods, and the evil Monsanto Corporation. The possibility of genetically engineering our environment and children has provoked grave ruminations from the likes of William E. McKibben ’82 (author of “End of Nature”), Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, and others who fear of such brazen defiance of Mother Nature.

But why should reverence for the state of nature—in our case, a collection of traits established by the unguided processes of evolution to suit small, hunter-gatherer societies—limit our progress today? Just because something is natural doesn’t make it more or less moral—Huntington’s disease is natural—and if we let such fears dictate our actions we’d be little better off than cavemen. Nature doesn’t provide us with an objective standard for evaluating what a human should be like, other than individuals’ personal criteria for healthiness and happiness. Using genes as malleable puzzle pieces, to be arranged as we like, is no different in intent than nature’s dictate through the use of antibiotics or dental braces—is only a more effective means of reaching the same end.

A variant of this ascetic self-denying perspective also lurks behind the prohibition impulse. Make no mistake: The war on drugs is about controlling people, not crime. Drugs have largely been defined by their links to vice and bacchanalia—from Homer’s lotus eaters (rescued from Lethe and lethargy) to modern pill-popping clubbers—which sets off a hand-wringing moral panic rather than rational thought. Perhaps the social externalities of drug use exceed the costs of prohibition, but the war on drugs usually isn’t justified by such cost-benefit analysis.

After all, the effects of caffeine and alcohol consumption are similarly chemically-induced (albeit state-sanctioned). Parents who would be horrified at the thought of legalizing speed happily give Adderall, an amphetamine, to children. The only difference is that prescribed drugs “fix” a problem, supposedly making you more normal (happier if you are depressed, calmer if you are agitated, etc.), whereas illegal drugs—which can have the same physiological effects—make you “high,” or abnormal.

Nevertheless, despite such lingering, misguided policies—and problems still unaddressed, like global warming—we’ve made more progress in the last century than in the previous two million years. Until the 1700s, mortality rates were static, population growth was slow, and unmitigated poverty was the norm, but since then, we’ve enjoyed a spectacular improvement in humanity’s general well-being. Worldwide life expectancy has spiked from 31 to over 67 since 1990, while global average annual income has tripled since 1950, and the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 400 million—more than a quarter—since 1981, despite rapid population growth in the developing world.

The scale and pace of this transformation is neatly illustrated by the marvelous “Goodbye Lenin” story of Jan Grzebski, who woke up from a 19-year coma four days ago. When the former Polish railway worker suffered his horrific accident in 1988, millions of people languished behind the Iron Curtain, Americans practiced nuclear shelter drills, and students had to navigate the Dewey decimal system—a life unimaginable today. In Jan’s words, “When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere. Now I see people on the streets with cell phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin.”

So don’t believe the reactionary “nattering nabobs of negativism,” who demand self-sacrifice for deliverance from impending doom. The challenges of our age will not be solved by self-righteous prating and an overblown guilt complex, but by practical, self-confident innovation, and a recognition that capitalist consumerism has brought clear-cut benefits for the vast majority of mankind.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ‘07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. He was a Crimson associate editorial chair in 2006.