“Consumerism” came up in my recent interview with Elle Griffin of The Post. Here’s what I had to say (off the cuff):
I have to admit, I’ve never 100% understood what “consumerism” is, or what it’s supposed to be. I have the general sense of what people are gesturing at, but it feels like a fake term to me. We’ve always been consumers, every living organism is a consumer. Humans, just like all animals, have always been consumers. It’s just that, the way it used to be, we didn’t consume very much. Now we’re more productive, we produce more, we consume more, we’re just doing the same thing, only more and better….
The term consumerism gets used as if consumption is something bad. I can understand that, people can get too caught up in things in consumption that doesn’t really matter. But I feel like that’s such a tiny portion. If you want to tell the story of the last 100, 200 years, people getting wrapped up in consumption that doesn’t really matter is such a tiny fraction of the story…. Compared to all of the consumption that really does matter and made people’s lives so much better. I’m hesitant to even acknowledge or use the term. I’m a little skeptical of any use of the concept of consumerism….
Any consumption that actually buys us something that we care about, even convenience, or saving small amounts of time, is not a waste. It’s used to generate value that is not wasted. It is spent on making our lives better. Are some of those things frivolous? Certainly, but what’s the matter with frivolous uses? Tiny conveniences add up. They accumulate over time to be something that is actually really substantial. When you accumulate little 1% and 0.5% improvements and time savings, before you know it you’ve you’ve saved half of your time. You’ve doubled the amount of resources that you now have as an individual to go for the things that you really want and care about.
Can you steelman “consumerism” for me?
The way the term 'consumerism' is used in your quote in the first bit does not seem to be the usual usage, so it feels a lot like equivocation to me. Consumerism is not consumption. Consumerism is not even just buying stuff that serves no purpose other than to make your life better. Consumerism is specifically buying frivolous stuff. Because of that, the first two paragraphs seems like useless window-dressing to me. No one is arguing that consumption is bad, I just ate lunch and it was delicious, now let's move on from that strawman.
With regards to frivolous consumption, there is a problem with regards to the definition of frivolous. I think the best way to think about this is to recognise that human wants and desires are quite malleable. Because of this, things that don't actually materially improve your life (eg. give you a good chance of living longer, free up significant portions of time, etc.) and instead are purchased primarily because buying the item gives a burst of pleasure, are fundamentally useless. Sure, having this item makes you happier, but so does just about any action that you can convince yourself is valuable. An example of such an item might be a fancy branded mechanical keyboard with just the right switches. There is no fundamental reason why such a keyboard would make me happier than, say, spending some quality time with my family, even though personally I do desire such items. The assumption in your quote is that frivolous purchases still provide conveniences, but I would argue many items really really don't! Buying a new iPhone every time your contract expires does not provide any new convenience over, say, a battery swap. You might be able to have fun playing with new games, or features, but I had way more fun playing PS2 games with my friends decades ago than I have on any modern phone game; it really doesn't matter. Neither do mechanical keyboards; if anything, the longer travel distance might worsen RSIs.
It is also important to recognise that due to the hedonic treadmill, you don't derive long-term enjoyment from buying things. After a while you get used to it; losing the item would bring you sadness, but the continued existence of the item no longer brings joy. Because of that, buying a durable item (eg. fancy keyboard) is actually far more similar to activities that bring transient enjoyment (hanging out with people) than one might imagine.
Now, if there are no negative externalities, none of this would matter. After all, the universe is cold and uncaring, why not have some fun, etc. However, there are. I mean, there's basically the whole climate thing going on, and the whole microplastics things, and producing more stuff has costs to society as a whole. However, even if we ignore that, if we zoom out a bit, there are costs. Society as a whole as some maximum level of productivity given by our total amount of technology, labour and human capital, land, and actual capital (eg. accumulated machinery, etc.). The more of this productivity is directed towards producing useless shit, the less we can direct towards actually making the world better, advancing technology, helping people, etc. Because of this, I strongly believe that if there is any consumption that provides utility that can be equivalently substituted by non-consumption, that consumption is a net negative for society. This is not to say I am a magical person of magical will-power. I buy shit that's useless. However, I recognise that I bought a thing that brings be less joy and wonder than a walk through the park after a spring shower, and maybe I should remind myself to do that more often.
I agree with your comment, but I think the definitional problem is core to the debate rather than something that can simply be discarded. Consumerism is not consumption, but it used to mean consumer protection and empowerment (obviously there is a spectrum there about what constitutes adequate information and the appropriate regulations/interventions to ensure that)...in support of their consumption, which was assumed to be valuable for them. Consumerism has taken on a second, more prominent meaning that itself is a spectrum: sometimes demanding the pricing/regulation of externality-generating production (not all that different in nature from economics, but unique in the externalities that are identified, oftentimes private costs that consumers simply don't attend to), sometimes all the way to value judgments about certain kinds of consumption.
It's such a loaded term I find it best instead to talk about what I actually mean rather than use the term consumerism. Do I want to talk about negative aspects of consumption? Do I want to talk about the consumer information movement? Which one am I about to get into when I say "I'd like to talk about consumerism"?
I also want to add to your bolded comment on substitution, which seems like a really good rule of thumb. But a lot of things cannot be substituted easily because they are timing- or situation-dependent. If I have 15 minutes to kill, it's not obvious that just sitting there with my thoughts is particularly desirable (for some people, sure!), so I'll seek to consume something (not non-consumption) - if the park is 2.5 minutes away, I can consume a 10 minute walk at the park, which might dominate my crappy phone game. If the park is 7.5 minutes away, I can consume a walk to the park, but given that menu of options, maybe my phone game is fine. It also provides optionality for when I'm looking for a low-transportation mode of entertainment in a waiting room. But it can shift from working in these initial use cases to being a prioritized activity in itself - maybe when I have 30 minutes, I'll "default" to that instead of actually evaluating my options. In that case, regret would be a sign that something has gone wrong in my decision-making. It just reinforces the need to use that rule of thumb - be conscious about what you're consuming and the options that are before you!
The dictionary definition of consumerism is: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consumerism
1: the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable
also : a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods
2 : the promotion of the consumer's interests
This is also definition 2.1 from wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism):
Previously, from context, I believe it's quite clear that we're talking about definition 1 b (merriam webster) and 2.1 (wikipedia). The original post talks about how consumption is good even if frivolous, according to the OP; I believe this makes that quite clear. This is why the definitional issue of consumerism isn't quite relevant, and the definitional issue that is relevant is regarding what's frivolous. I see this a lot in internet discussion, where discussion revolves around a concept that is encapsulated by a word with multiple meanings, and a different-but-related meaning of the word keeps being brought up. It muddies the conversation. The discussion is about the concept, not the word; words are but the medium.
Regarding your more on-point criticism, I generally agree. I think the key, so to speak, is two-fold:
Sometimes, the critique of "consumerism" is about criticizing the unpriced negative externalities of consumption (factory farms, climate change). It can be about inefficiencies (unused panini presses). It can also be the idea that consumption is a lazy/passive alternative to some more intrinsically valuable activity (watching Netflix instead of connecting with your spouse).
All of these can be bad, but in some sense, they're all fixable. Inefficient consumption isn't even necessarily bad as a rule - each purchase is a bet on utility, and sometimes, the bet just doesn't pan out.
The type of consumerism that bothers me the most is that which stems from collective action problems. Here are some examples. For each, it's key that most or all participants brlieve that there's a better available alternative, and what holds them back is a collective action problem/bad equilibrium.
It's a recognition that our consumption choices are frequently influenced by undesirable social pressures and prisoners' game dilemmas, or where the only way to coordinate valuable forms of social contact is to attach them to a business-friendly format that is notably worse than the obvious best solution.
Your argument about the benefits of 1% efficiencies also applies in reverse. An accumulation of small social pressures to consume unnecessarily or harmfully making you 1% worse at a time can collectively create enormous inefficiencies. Some of the inefficiencies above can, on their own, destroy enormous amounts of value.
This problem is in addition to inefficient but individually-driven consumption choices, such as the unused gym membership or panini press. It's hard to distinguish these from "positive EV bets that didn't work out." But the social pressure and bad equilibrium examples above are examples of prisoner's game dilemmas, and I'm more comfortable giving them a negative label like "consumerism" and saying they're just straightforwaredly bad.
Of course, just because some important consumption patterns are PDGs doesn't mean all of them are, and that's the motte and bailey of a soldier-mindset attack on consumerism.
Here's one argument:
Consumption is great when you get something in return that improves your life in some way. Convenience, saving time, and things that you use are all great.
However, there's a ton of consumption in terms of buying things that don't add utility, at least not at a reasonable return. People buy exercise bikes that they don't use, books that they don't read, panini presses that just sit on the counter, and lives become more cluttered and less enjoyable.
One reason for this is the hedonic treadmill, that our happiness reverts to a mean over time, so pleasure from an item doesn't last. Another is that people envision the good outcomes for buying something -- I'll use that gym membership 3 times a week! -- but are bad at estimating the range of outcomes and so overestimate what they get for many purchases.
It turns out for many purchases (though probably a minority of them), you would be better off in terms of happiness if you bought nothing instead. High happiness ROI spending seems to be events rather than items, giving gifts, meaningful charity, and saving yourself time.
New cars, trendy clothes, the latest gadgets, and other hallmarks of modern consumerism, have a low return on spending, and pushing back against that may help people overall.
An analogy: food is delicious and necessary, but certain common patterns in how people eat are bad, even by the poor eater's own values and preferences. That seems bad in a similar way, and opposing trends that increase such bad patterns seems sensible.
Intruiging question - this reminds me of the very thought-provoking essay by Sarah Constanin defending individualism. I am not entirely sure what you mean by 'steelman consumerism' as it could refer to defending the concept's usefulness or defending a more object-level claim about the harmfulness of over-consumption or certain types of consumption (or it could mean something I have not thought of)? I'll try to address the first two briefly to the best of my ability.
As a descriptive concept, 'consumerism' serves a useful historical function in describing a change in the way people engaged in their consumptive habits around the 18th century. I think the core essence of this change is in two parts: (I) the scale of consumption and character of the things consumed; (1I) the relationship of identity to material consumer goods. The first relates to the undeniable fact that in some parts of the world, (eg, the developed west), a large proportion of the population has been able to engage in luxury spending. That is, buying things which do not contribute to basic living functions. Afaik, scholars do not suggest this is a change in human nature, but an observation that material plenty has enabled greater spending on luxury goods. In turn, this has led to consumption taking on a greater role in the economy and in the culture of society (eg, shopping mall becoming a centre of community planning). This leads to (II). Historians also suggest that around the 18th century to 'consume' took on a different role. Instead of being seen primarily in a negative light (eg, to extinguish, and as a part of the deadly sins), it took on a positive connotation of productivity and creativity. It became socially acceptable - and even advantageous - for large portions of the population to pursue consumption openly (conspicuous consumption) and with no other justification than fulfilling desires. In turn, this has led to a culture where consumption is encouraged in all parts of life; there are few moral limits on what you spend your money on; and people increasingly identify themselves, and their status, with their consumptive purchases. This is substantially different from the pre-18th century environment of highly moralised and restrictive consumption. Whether you think (I) and (II) are true - and potentially interesting - will shape your view on the usefulness of 'consumerism' as a general concept.
In terms of the object-level criticism of 'consumerism', several (not necessarily compatible) arguments can be made. Note that many of these involve positing a kind of lexical ordering of goods/life-pursuits which you may disagree with, and hence will find unpersuasive.
These are a few arguments, I've tried to focus on the ones I find most persuasive. Although I would like to reduce many of these to empirically testable propositions, I fear, in fact, the crux of the debate may hinge on how 'elitest' you are willing to be about ways of leading a fulfilling life.
(There are also political arguments along the lines of 'it is bad for the environment', or 'it prevents a worker revolution by instilling fascination for trinkets etc', but I feel they do not get to the heart of consumerism insofar as they are defined by their consequences, rather than the intrinsic ills of consuming as a primary end.)
This is actually a good thing, primarily because such a mechanism is almost certainly key to how we avoid wireheading. In particular, it avoids the problem of RL agents inevitably learning to hack the reward, by always bringing it down to a set point of happiness and avoiding runaway happiness leading to wireheading.
“Consumerism” means consumption that one disapproves of. Especially other people’s.
There are various different experiences that people have that they consider valuable.
I can read or consume a LessWrong post and consider that experience valuable. On the other hand, I might also write or produce a LessWrong post and consider that experience valuable.
For every person, you can look at what percentage of their experiences that they value are consumption and what percentage of their experiences involve production. There are also other experiences like having a conversation with a friend, that are neither consumption nor production.
One way to define the term consumerism would be to say that if most experiences that people value are consumption experiences that's consumerism.
The issue with a lot of consumerist experiences is that while they are nice, they don't feel deeply meaningful. It mostly feels more meaningful to write a LessWrong post than to read one, yet it's easier to read than to write. If you look at metrics such as the number of close friends that the average American has, they seem to be going down.
When fewer people find the experience of tinkering and building new things intrinsically valuable and spent a lot of time with them, that's in turn bad for innovation overall in society.
As an aside, the interview discusses David Graeber's bullshit job thesis. David Graeber defines a bullshit job as a job where the person doing the job thinks it's bullshit. When I hear about environmental impact assessments taking years, I would expect that it's easy for the person writing the assessment to think it's bullshit.
I have a friend who does some number crunching for creating ESG numbers for a bank and who sees his work as bullshit work. There are a lot of bureaucratic rules that create bullshit work, and for the progress movement it's important to reduce that bullshit work that rules like NEPA produce.
From a progress perspective, David Graeber was much better than your average person on the left. If you haven't seen it the debate where David Graeber and Peter Thiel agree on most things about the Great Stagnation is good.
When people use consumerism is a derogatory way, they don't mean the idea of any consumption at all, they mean having no ideals of interests beyond consumption.
I'm sympathetic to the idea that "Consumerism" might be too often used. But - with the risk of overlap with qjh's detailed answer:
Consumerism = (e.g.) when we consume stuff with very negligible benefit to ourselves, maybe even stuff we could ourselves easily admit is kind of pure nonsense if we thought a second about it, maybe driven by myopic short-term desire we'd ourselves not want to prioritize at all in hindsight. Consumption that nevertheless creates pollution or other harm to people, uses up resources that could otherwise contribute towards more important aims, resources we could have used to help poorer persons so easily. Things along such lines. And I have the impression such types of consumption are not rare - and they remain as sad a part of society after this post as ever before, no?
So I struggle to see what to learn from this post.