There's a rule of science we normally overlook. That rule? Challenge your assumptions. See what you can derive from a new point of view. Buck the normal. Today, it is normal to hate consumerism. It's normal to loathe what consumerism has done to us...and what it has done to the planet. So as good scientists, let's go anti-conventional. Let's sing an ode in praise of consumerism. Let's see if reversing the normal point of view will produce any surprises.
In praise of consumerism? I know what you're thinking; this is a great subject for the brain-dead or folks who utterly lack a moral compass, like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton. But it’s certainly not a good subject for you and me.
You’re not consumerists, and neither am I, right? We’re idealists aiming at high spiritual and intellectual goals. We scrimp and we save to gain the freedom to think and to pursue higher meanings in nearly everything we do.
Or are we?
You and I didn’t call the toll-free 800 number on our TV screen and lay out $600 for Sharper Image’s Ionic Breeze air purifier. We didn’t whip out our cellphones when the boob tube tempted us to commit to a lifetime of easy $20 payments for the Bowflex exercise machine, no matter how scrumptious that infomercial’s hyper-tanned and hyper-toned 50-year-old grandmother was in her black bikini.
I don’t know about you, but I even passed on $19.95 for the instant-heating soldering iron you can carry in your pocket to your grandmother’s house, then use on the spot to rewire the place.
During the last hundred and fifty years, ever since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Carl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, two books written at pretty much the same time, the question brought up by my material possessions and by yours has been this: who exactly owns whom? Do I own my things or do my things own me?
The answer has traditionally been that my things, and the folks who made them, are manipulating me like puppetmasters. In the old days, as recently as before you started reading this article, the goal would have been to send you out with your heads drooping in shame, convinced that we’ve got to toss out all of our stuff and escape the tyranny of things.
But yesterday’s cliche should always be up for review. And today we’re going to review it heavily. Why? Because, for one thing, doing what I do for thrills and delight, trying to open minds and uplift spirits, is a strange business. The spirit and the mind depend on massive heaps of exactly what we’re supposed to loathe and toss away - material possessions, consumer goods, and gadgets marketed by multinational companies. Feeding curiosity and opening new insights takes credit cards and cash.
Does this mean that the dichotomy between materialism and spiritualism are false? Does it mean that the body and the spirit are not boxers in opposite corners of the ring? Does it mean that we climb toward the heavens of intellect and of enlightenment on a ladder of material possessions? Yes, I’m afraid it does. The long and short of it is this: The human spirit dances on higher and higher stages every generation. And each of those stages is held aloft by material things.
If I’m so right about materialism, why have so many generations of philosophers far brighter than I am gotten it wrong? Why did Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, and Mahatma Gandhi insist on a Spartan way of life?
To answer the question, let’s get specific and put just one great thinker under the microscope - Henry David Thoreau, author of "Walden Pond" and of "On Civil Disobedience". In roughly 1842, why was Thoreau so easily able to insistent on chucking the material way of life, going off to Walden Pond, and living in utter simplicity for roughly two years? Why was he able to toss aside technology and wealth so he could see more in a walk around Concord than the rich kids of his day saw on their steamship trips to Europe? Why was he able to say, “"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
Here are a few of the answers:
Answer number one: Thoreau had the gift of wonder. He could see more in a leaf than most men and women can see in a cathedral. But guess what a cathedral and a leaf have in common? They’re both material things. And guess what else they have in common? They’re both consumer goods. One is an item we humans use to show off. It’s a status symbol. That’s the cathedral. The other is the ultimate throwaway and pawn in a plant’s competitive game. It’s nature’s version of litter, the disposable solar panel, the leaf.
There’s another thing the leaf and the cathedral have in common: They’re both material platforms from which the spirit can draw epiphanies. Providing platforms for epiphany is precisely what the material realm is all about, at least it is if you keep your eyes wide open. If you look with wonder and ingenuity. And if you don’t have epiphanies, Evolution surely will.
More on that in the next installment. First, back to Thoreau and to our question: Why was Henry David Thoreau able to chuck the material way of life, go off to Walden Pond, and live in utter simplicity, shedding technology and wealth so he could see more in a walk around Concord than the rich kids of his day saw on their steamship trips to Europe?
Here comes answer number two. Henry David Thoreau was a rich kid. And not just any old rich kid. He was the ultimate beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution. Thoreau’s dad owned a pencil factory. Which meant that Thoreau’s privileged position came from a boom of literacy, a boom in the use of writing tools, a boom in the growth of offices, and a boom in the new way of making things, a boom in mass production.
Alexander Hamilton wrote a prophetic position paper approximately fifty years before Thoreau abandoned everything and lived with nature. In 1792 Hamilton wrote “A Report On The Subject Of Manufactures”, a radically futuristic essay about a whole new kind of utopia.
Hamilton’s words glowed as he wrote breathlessly about a new way of organizing machinery and human energy, a new system invented in England that would set American farm women and farm children free from the gloom, the boredom, and the hunger that winter forced upon them. This new machine-plus-human combo would make old forms of drudgery so easy-on-the-muscles that women and kids could make money during the dreariest months of the year.
The new system would free even children to earn spare change. How? By tending to the levers and cogs in the workplaces of Hamilton’s brave new future - in the next-tech churches of inexpensive goods and of mass production - factories. Alexander Hamilton’s vision was on the money. It was so smack on target that fifty years after Hamilton penned his prophecies, the profits of a pencil-making factory gave Henry David Thoreau the leisure time for philosophy.
Another 50 years after Walden Pond, we’d reinterpret Alexander Hamilton’s utopia - and the source of Thoreau’s freedom. Hamilton had foreseen the liberation of farm kids from a winter of hunger, cold, and poverty, liberation into jobs that would keep them warm, feed their families, and fill their pockets with spending money. We now call that new freedom “child labor.” So Thoreau was free to write “Go confidentally in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” Wonderful words and I believe in most of them. But they were the fruits of child labor.
Here’s answer number three to the question of why Thoreau could shuck material goods and technology and go with mother nature, at least for a few winters: Thoreau never chucked technology at all. He pretended it didn’t exist. The winter in which Thoreau made most of his notes for Walden Pond was icy as could be. It was so icy that industrial workers showed up regularly to saw the three-foot-thick crust of ice from Walden Pond’s surface and take it to insulated warehouses where it could be kept frozen and sold in summer to refrigerate the food of rich folks from the city.
In that winter freeze, did Thoreau really escape technology? You be the judge. Mother nature didn’t build the cabin in which Thoreau lived. 125,000 generations of human ingenuity made the axes, saws, and mills that allowed men to fell trees and to slice their trunks into boards inexpensively. A thousand generations of even more techno-lust and techno-innovation went into inventing the wall, the floor, the roof, and the frame of beams and joists that holds a cabin upright.
Mother Nature didn’t weave the clothes that Thoreau wore to keep from freezing to death. In fact, by 1842, when Thoreau went off to commune with nature, the cotton he wore was raised on what we’d call industrial agricultural farms - plantations. That cotton carried tthe ingenuity of 500 generations of farmers and of genetic tinkerers who had turned a wild plant that made fuzz to carry its seeds into a tame plant, one genetically tweaked to concentrate its energies on churning out the fiber that was valued by human beings.
Thoreau’s clothes were made by mechanical looms invented just 90 years before he went off to ponder by the pond side. Those mechanical looms were powered either by water-driven mills or by steam engines; power hook-ups developed just seventeen years before Thoreeau was born.
Thoreau’s clothes were laundered using soap whose chemical manufacture had been worked out by two French chemists. In 1791 Nicholas Leblanc patented a process for making soda ash - one key soap ingredient - from mere salt. Twenty years later, Michel Eugene Chevreul figured out the answer to a mystery; exactly what kind of fats make soap. That insight led to soap’s mass manufacture. Then came the first and maybe greatest consumer marketing blitz in history.
Folks had lived for 35,000 years in clothes they seldom changed. Why? Clothes were so expensive that in Arabia, desert tribes raided and killed each other just to get a few armfuls of other people’s robes. The clothes of the pre-Industrial Age were based on animal fiber - wool and felt. They housed thousands of insects that lived off your skin and blood, sapping your energy every day. And you didn’t want to bathe. Getting wet could mean that the merest draft could give you a cold. And a cold in those good old days often led to something worse, pneumonia, an illness that could kill you.
Once the new machinery of Thoreau’s day made plant-based clothing, cotton clothing, cheap, the new soap industry put on one of the first major advertising and marketing blitzes. That blitz laid the foundation for what we now call consumerism - selling us mass-produced goods by using anoother human invention, mass media.
That pioneering advertising tide produced a perception-shift in the Western mind. It convinced the West that new forms of personal hygiene were not just desirable but mandatory. It convinced the average European and American that, “You can measure a civilization by the number of times it washes a day.” In my not-quite-finished book, "The Rise of the Cup and Saucer: A Radical Reperception of Western Civilization OR Reinventing Capitalism: Put," I call the results 'The Soap and Cotton Revolution.'
The Soap and Cotton Revolution gave Henry David Thoreau the luxury of spending his winter by Walden Pond without fearing for his health at every turn. It did something even more important for the readers Thoreau was writing for. It extended the average human lifespan by 20 years!!!
Meanwhile a boom of affordable housing gave Thoreau the elbow-room to say, “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.” To make a statement like that you have to take the conquest of one of humankind’s toughest challenges for granted; the need for a roof (or at least a cave) over your head.
And here’s another thing to ponder. What’s the relationship between the new Industrial Revolution’s flood of ready-made shirts, pants, jackets, and cravats and the casual assumptions that allowed Thoreau to say, “It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.”
But, again, back to Thoreau’s attempt to escape the complications of technology. Here’s a blunt fact to ponder. Thoreau was writing his notes with a published book in mind. When he penned his famous phrase, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he took it for granted that some of those desperate men would spend their days in printing plants tending the machines that mass-produced the ultimate elevators of the spirit, a consumer item called books.
Add to all of that a fact that frequently slips out of our sight. Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond was the product of the ultimate Industrial Era luxury - spare time. Not that there hadn't been idle moments in the past, there had been. But they’d been reserved for a thin crust of landed aristocrats, not for the middle class, not for the sons of entrepreneurs, not for the sons of tradesmen, and not for the sons of manufacturers like Thoreau.
Only a man who is certain he’ll have food, clothing, and shelter every day can say, “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. “
So Henry David Thoreau wrote meditations on the human spirit, on nature, on Civil Disobedience - a term he coined - and on new, mass-produced, mass-media-dependent forms of protest against government injustices. He said nasty things about Industrial mankind, things like “Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth!”
In other words, he wrote some of the key documents in the evolution of the anti-consumerist, pro-nature sentiments we see today. With his books, he lifted my spirits high when I was sixteen years old and gave me new conceptual tools with which to crusade for meaning, meaning for my world and for yours.
He gave me a part of my sense of mission. He probably did the same for you, which means that Henry David Thoreau’s spiritual contributions were enormous. But they were all based on new material goods, new forms of producing them, and new ways of marketing them.
Henry David Thoreau’s meditations on the human spirit were built on a solid base of material overflow, they were built on a base of consumerism.
To wrap up this segment I will leave you with these two thoughts. Consumerism is the way that nature expresses herself in men and women. Yes, you heard me right. Consumerism is natural. More importantly, consumerism evolved long, long before there were Industrial machines. Consumerism evolved billions of years before there were human beings. Consumerism isn’t the creation of mankind. It’s a strategy deployed by mother nature.
And that's why we should continue to do it today. In moderation but with gusto. In our next segment we're going to talk more about why.