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16th February 2016

Have we reached peak ‘stuff’?

With the decline of materialism is our spending moving towards other services that makes us happy?

Whilst the global consumption of resources continues to increase, we in the UK have reached ‘peak stuff’, say Ikea. The businesses of the world have milked our desire for the material dry. The immunity to advertisement continues too. Modern-late capitalism has been fantastic at providing the developed world with disposable items of instant gratification or utility. But now, some are suggesting that one of its many limitations is its failure to move on from that material gold rush.

The expanded version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good place to start. The bottom two rungs have been fulfilled by our economic system to varying degrees. The first, ‘physiological’, includes breathing, water, food, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. All of those have been incorporated into the economic system of demand and supply, to varying extents. Some, such as sleep, are subtler or—the ‘bed industry’ and sleeping pills might be examples of profitmaking for sleep. Once a society has created adequate conditions for survival for the majority, it moves on to the second rung: security of body, morality, employment, resources, health, property, and the family. Property, employment, and family are perhaps the strongest driving forces for individuals and couples in developed economies.

However, there are some gaps when we come to the third rung. Friendships do not come with success. One may not aspire to anything out of the ordinary but yet still have a large network of friends to share good times with. In contrast, success may drive away true friendships and instead create a network of colleagues—people like oneself. Family and sexual intimacy, too, show the same patterns. But how many businesses offer services that benefit a society or an individual in these parameters? As it turns out, counselling and ‘talking therapies’ are on the rise: 1 in 5 Britons has utilised these services for a variety of reasons.

Up until the third rung of the pyramid, there is a consistent capitalisation of human needs by businesses. What some are now suggesting is that the economy as a whole needs to move further in this direction. These services might include mental healthcare, counselling, or education about how to care for one’s mind in an increasingly hectic and urban modern human condition in much of the developing world. At this point I would like to recognise that this issue is one almost entirely focused on the developed world. Some may interpret this, too, as an issue of the urban middle classes of these societies.

With regards to why business has not already done this on a large scale, it may be stigmas around issues such as emotion and mental health. Long-standing notions of masculinity, or the new ‘masculine’ femininity that is the result of the progress of females into the previously male-dominated workplace contribute to this. It may be the lack of incentive to join the market. Many see the NHS and the state as the rightful provider of these services, and indeed it does saturate the lower and middle end of the market somewhat. It might be the alleged ‘British’ stiff upper lip and the widespread resistance to vile, ‘American-style’ self-improvement.

The state provision of these services has helped accessibility for those without higher levels of disposable income, and should be extended if possible to prevent this issue becoming locked up in the previously mentioned urban middle classes. However, whilst it may be to the detriment of social equality, there is money to be made in the private sector here. One of the assumptions is that people won’t be able to afford these services if they were to be provided by business. However, what some suggest is that at out stage of ‘peak stuff’, we in the developed world will reduce the volume of our material consumption, and further shift spending towards these new kinds of services.

In Paris in 2006, academics came together to form around an idea that had been itching to burst into popular discussion: degrowth. The case made was that planned and steady reductions in GDP might be useful for ecological and climatic sustainability, and that the new economics would have to exist along side greater socio-political engagement. There is a mass of opinion that denounces the idea as a destruction of the privileges of our modern society for the goal of a Marxist utopia. But factor in the steep rise in the environmental movement in recent years, the new increasing focus on grassroots and local politics, and now the expected decline in material consumption, and perhaps the idea starts to seem feasible for some point in the future.

So here is a new challenge for out capitalist system: Not just in reform for the ideals of equality, financial sensibility, and environmental sustainability, but to provide the services that will make us happier without the assistance of the material. If we look towards the possibility of a future that begins to incorporate the ideas of degrowth, it may be that these services have a crucial role to play in the reaching out for improved happiness and socio-political engagement. Government, businesses, and individuals need to learn (and slowly they are) to be happy without the head-spinning consumerism of what is but a blip in human history. This is not ‘going back in time’ to some kind of dark age—if anything, this is learning to be more sophisticated humans.

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