Dying of consumption

The more we consume, the happier we will be. Or so we like to believe. But for the planet, it's disastrous

George Monbiot
Thursday December 28, 2000

The modern industrial economy works like this: resources are dug from a hole in the ground on one side of the planet, used for a few weeks, then dumped in a hole on the other side of the planet. This is known as the "creation of value". The creation of value improves our quality of life. Improvements in our quality of life make us happier. The more we transfer from hole to hole, the happier we become.

Unfortunately, we are not yet transferring enough. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we have used more goods and services since 1950 than in all the rest of human history. But we still don't seem to be happy. Indeed, over the same period, 25-year-olds in Britain have become 10 times more likely to be afflicted by depression.

One in four British adults now suffers from a chronic lack of sleep, and one fifth of schoolchildren have psychological problems. Over the past 13 years, mental health insurance claims have risen by 36%. American studies suggest that between 40% and 60% of the population suffers from mental illness in any one year. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2010 depression will become the second commonest disease in the developed world. Unless we start consuming in earnest, we'll never experience real joy.

At this time of year the rate of consumption rises dramatically. To make ourselves happier, we move resources from one hole to another as quickly as possible. My local authority reports that the amount of rubbish people take to the dump increases by 12% in December and January. Curiously, however, the incidence of depression also seems to rise. Calls to the Samaritans increase by 8% between Christmas and New Year's Day. But the figures are misleading. The more depressed we are, the more we spend on antidepressants and alcohol. The more we spend, as any economist will explain to you, the happier we become.

A few Christmases ago, I was given a kettle, which now leaks. I could mend it, but one of the screws has a star-shaped slot with a spike in the middle, which is designed to prevent repairs, as no available tool will fit it. My kettle was for Christmas, not just for life. So I will throw it away, and help to build an earthly paradise by buying a new one.

From the dumps and incinerators in which our broken presents, our uncomposted Christmas trees and unrecyclable packaging are deposited, goodwill spreads inexorably. Among other benefits, the disposal of rubbish supports the medical profession. Babies born within three kilometres of toxic landfill sites, according to research published in the Lancet, are more likely to suffer from abnormalities than babies born elsewhere. Incinerators release dioxins and heavy metals, which cause cancer, birth defects and endometriosis. This creates jobs and increases the flow of money in the economy, adding to the sum of human happiness.

Though the UN's figures seek to suggest otherwise, British people are surely happier than people in poorer lands, because more of our needs are met. Indeed, advertisers help us to answer needs we never knew we had, by revealing that our lives are less satisfactory than we thought. When I was 18, male face creams came on to the market. Until that point, we boys had no idea that our skin was ageing prematurely. Since then, men have been introduced to many of the improvements that women have enjoyed for so long. We have discovered that we are uglier, spottier, fatter and more inadequate than we could ever have imagined. And, by moving more resources between holes in the ground, we can do something about it.

The consumer society serves the poor better than anyone else, as it both exposes the grottiness of their lives and kindly provides the means with which they can escape from it. In some cases, as a report by the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux revealed earlier this month, the interest on their happiness rises to as much as 1,800% a year, spreading good cheer among the many thousands of people the loan recovery business employs. As the banks and manufacturers, shops and economists remind us, our quest for happiness is boundless.

As always, and particularly at this time of year, someone tries to spoil the fun. And, predictably enough, the greens are moaning that the planet is dying of consumption. People, they say, are being pushed off their lands by the digging of holes, the felling of forests and the growing of cash crops; eco-systems are being poisoned and resources exhausted; the Earth is overheating, because so much energy is required to move its components from one hole to another. But I would ask them this: isn't the death of the planet a price worth paying for the happiness we now enjoy?