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Born to Shop?

John Naish

1st January, 2001

Ever since the 1970s we have lived with the growing awareness that our ecosystem is fragile and the perpetual exploitation of our natural resources impossible. By the late 1980s, even The Sun newspaper had its own green correspondent. Everything we buy, use and throw away has an impact somewhere on the ecological continuum, and nowadays the most bullish Western consumers’ consciences are regularly punctured by shards of eco-worry. We also increasingly realise that working ever harder for more possessions, more options, more stuff, doesn’t tend to make us more content.

Instead it can cause anxiety, stress and depression. Lifestyle pundits blame ‘society’ or the Government. Some say it’s a sickness. But still our culture strives to produce and consume more. The question is ‘why?’

Breakthroughs in brain-scanning science and evolutionary psychology suggest the real culprit is us – or rather the way we play fast and loose with our primitive, instinctive brains. Our basic evolutionary wiring got us down from the trees and across the world, through Ice Ages, plagues, famines and disasters, right into our age of bounty. This unprecedented success was built upon a voracious strategy of ‘get more of everything, whenever possible’.

Now, however, that strategy is set to dump us on the cosmic ash-heap. In the rich world we have gone from millennia of scarcity to unprecedented abundance. Materially, we have everything we need to be content. Except for a stop-button. An ‘enough’ button.

According to evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, of Rutgers University, New Jersey, US: ‘We’ve evolved to be maximising machines. There isn’t necessarily a mechanism in us that says “relax”.’

Worse, we have created a modern culture that constantly and powerfully prods our acquisitive instincts, stranding us on a carousel of unfulfilable desire, while our planet’s natural resources become depleted and its ecology collapses. The only way to change course is to evolve beyond the mindset of ‘never-enough’.

The desire-driven architecture of our lower, primitive brains evolved during the late Pleistocene era, between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago. It was moulded by the behaviour of groups of half-starved hunter-gatherers who turned into farmers, fretfully watching their crops fail. Those who gave up fell by the wayside; the ones who kept going, who colonised the Earth in only 60,000 years, gave us their genes. Our survivors’ brains configure us to keep driving onwards – to operate as perpetual dissatisfaction machines. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2007 revealed our minds seem built with fewer mechanisms for feeling pleasure than suffering pangs of desire. The Michigan University testers found the sensations of wanting and liking are run by two separate ‘hedonic hotspots’ deep in the brain. The circuit for wanting seems to have around a third more influence on our behaviour than that for liking.

Hard-wired to want more

That hard-wiring could wreak considerable environmental impact in itself, but on top of that we evolved as a uniquely acquisitive species, driven to possess things in a way no other creature does. Consider the artefacts found at Neolithic cave sites: hand-axes. Millions of them. Far more than any tool-wielding hominid would have needed. Anthropologists believe that they were not only prized for slicing bison, but also as show-off exemplars of design technology, jagged precursors of Philippe Starck lemon-squeezers. Being able to perform or own fine craftsmanship showed what a high-status, reproductively worthwhile hominid you were.

Nowadays, that instinct has been craftily subverted: we are led to believe we can acquire chunks of mate-pulling mojo by waving credit cards at mass-produced branded items. It’s a shame the mojo seems to wear off so fast, but that’s what keeps our wasteful system whirring – there’s always a more impressive hand-axe substitute ready to come off the production line.

In effect, our acquisitive minds are wired for wasteful buying. Brain scans by scientists at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, show how the neurotransmitter dopamine, one of our brain’s powerful reward chemicals, is released in waves as shoppers ponder buying a product. But dopamine is about the hunt, not the trophy; only anticipation stimulates its release. After the deal is sealed, the chemical high flattens in minutes, often leaving a regret known as ‘buyer’s remorse’.

But there’s always a new next thing to want. Marketing departments have refined an endlessly enticing strategy of constant special offers, latest models and limited editions with added extras. This plants in our famine-sensitive, Stone Age brains the worrying illusion of scarcity, despite the abundance surrounding us. It’s the kind of ‘First World angst’ that gets affluent women ripping off each other’s limbs in the sales to get this season’s must-have frocks.

Still more enticing to our Stone Age instincts is the fact that all the new products appear to be owned by beautiful people, whether Liz Hurley in ecstasies over some cosmetics or Daniel Craig manfully tapping on a product-placed laptop while pretending to be James Bond. Our minds tend to over-identify with celebrities because we evolved in small tribal groups. If you knew someone, they knew you. Our minds still work this way – and give us the idea that the celebs we see so much are our acquaintances.

Humans are also born imitators. This talent underlies much of our species’ success – it enabled us to adapt to changing environments far quicker than our competitors could via biological evolution alone. What gets us far ahead of other primates is our attention to detail. A chimp can watch another poking a stick into an ant-hill and mimic the basic idea, but only humans can replicate a technique exactly. We need to choose with great care who we copy, so we have evolved to emulate the habits, idiosyncrasies and clothes of the most successful people we see, hoping imitation will elevate us to their rank. This helps explain why many of us feel compelled to try to keep up materially with celebrities, the mythical alphas in our global village.

There is a dark side to the celeb effect, though. We’ve grown to despise being out of the in-crowd. Scans by the National Institute of Mental Health, in Maryland, US, show that when we feel socially inferior two brain regions become more active: the insula and the ventral striatum. The former is linked with the gutsinking sensation you get when someone makes you look just ‘that big’, the latter with motivation and reward. To stave off the pain of feeling secondrate, we get compelled to barricade ourselves behind social acquisitions. That mechanism would have kept our ancestors competitively stretching for the next rung of social evolution (‘Oh my gods, darling, look: the Proto-Joneses have entered the Bronze Age’), but in the 21st-century it has locked us into a Pyrrhic battle – because the folks next door can also just-about afford all the latest status symbols.

We also mistake designer brands for friends. Our ancient brain circuits are configured to relate primarily to other people and animals, but this way of relating often gets attached to inanimate objects. We habitually anthropomorphise, which is why so many of us call our cars ‘she’.

A report in the Journal of Advertising Research in 2000 says we do the same with brands. The branded products we buy are painstakingly created to encourage us to identify with them, to believe they share the same kind of human values we do. We can even believe brands have attitudes towards us, and so develop tight ‘primary’ relationships as we would with friends. In effect, we subconsciously think we are hanging out with impressive tribe-mates.

Some of our acquisitiveness can be blamed on a mass spiritual crisis, on trying to buy purpose in a deity-free cosmos. Easter eggs and Christmas pressies aside, secular life has little use for religious co-branding. Many in the West believe the old omnipotent God is dead and that no-one watches over us. Our only shot at immortality is to achieve acclaim in this material world by piling up stuff. It’s a form of existential dummy-sucking. How, indeed, would millions define their sense of purpose if there weren’t shopping?

This links in to a fascinating theory that shopping isn’t just ‘retail therapy’, but a way of buttressing our shaky mental universe. In a 1992 paper entitled ‘Why Do People Need Self-esteem?’, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American psychologist Thomas Pyszcynski developed the ‘terror-management theory’. Retail-supported self esteem is, he argues, ‘a shield designed to control the potential for terror that results from awareness of the horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay’. To mask this possibility, we have created a society that proffers us clothes to transform us into fashion gods, and kitchen utensils to make us domestic deities. Pyszcynski adds that we may have no more significance in the universe than ‘any individual pineapple or porcupine’ – except have you ever seen a porcupine damage the ecosystem with its retail forays?

Shopping till we drop?

So here we are, a species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things. Perhaps we should resign ourselves to riding the consumptive spiral until we hit eco-geddon. Hell no, argues Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize-winning writer and former Soviet dissident. He reckons the only way to revive our sense of human purpose is by not shopping – by reining in our jackdaw urges. Despite his objections to the old Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn has an equally baleful view of Western consumerist culture. He believes we need to cultivate a sense of unselfish spirituality and politely decline our unprecedented opportunity to use up the planet’s resources all at once: ‘There can be only one true progress: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals. Selflimitation is the fundamental and wisest step of a man who has obtained freedom. It is also the surest path towards its attainment.’

That idea might provoke lemon-sucking faces down at the mega-mall, but there seems little alternative environmentally. We have to stop over-revving our never-satisfied primitive instincts and cultivate a society that cools them in favour of more nourishing, non-destructive pathways to satisfaction. We have some evolving to do – and quickly. We need to develop a sense of enough. We must challenge society’s overriding message, that we do not yet have all we need to be satisfied.

In the West, we have created everything we need as a base for finding contentment. But we’re stuck in acquisition mode, rushing past the point beyond which getting more makes life worse rather than better. We have to learn to live ‘post-more’.

This presents difficult challenges. We have never before been environmentally compelled to invent our own constraints – instead we have deep instincts that kick against environmental limits. And our brains find it hard to comprehend the scale and breadth of the problem because they haven’t kept pace with the rapid growth of our economic world. Stone Age people had only a few hundred tradeable products – in modern cities there may be 10 billion. The system that produces and sells them appeared in the past 250 years – too sudden for our mental hardware.

Meanwhile, consumerism helpfully tries to blind us to our problems. Modern life is so padded with minor preoccupations about fashion, style, personal growth – the self-obsessed stuff that constantly primps our primitive egotism – that it’s hard to recognise the eco-threat as sufficiently monstrous to make our culture do more than gesture at it.

To have any impact, the argument must be framed for our current preoccupations. It must address the personal, rather than anything huge, distant, amorphous or (thanks to our cynicism about politics and media) cornily altruistic. We have to appeal to the overstimulated primitive ego-brain. An answer may lie in not talking about global warming and sustainability, but in personal warming and personal sustainability.

Because amid the global warming we are seeing more personal warming: more anxiety and depression; more melting of our circuits; more diseases of excess such as obesity and drug dependency. People complain their lives are too harried and stressed: they are unsustainable. Enoughness is about a personal ecology, about finding our own optimum sustainable balance. It's about saying, 'That's enough for me.'

Returning to an elegant sufficiency

The idea is an ancient one. It reaches back to an older, wiser, form of self-fulfilment. Before it was marginalised by consumerism, the art of finding one’s point of enoughness had been debated by sages since Aristotle. Constant consumption may feel normal and natural, but it is a relatively recent fad. In 18th-century Europe, frugal-cool was a lifestyle choice. Outside royal courts, luxury goods were often spurned, thanks to ‘worldly asceticism’, a Calvinist idea offering the hope of salvation through diligent use of God’s gifts (aka planet Earth). Puritans and Quakers promoted the ideal of ‘Christianity writ plain’, where it was considered good to produce and bad to consume more than necessity required. Those living luxuriously were criticised for squandering resources that might support others.

And if we want to make our minds content then brain-scanning science shows there are far more nourishing and sustainable alternatives to spending one’s life getting and consuming. Research shows that practising gratitude for the bounties surrounding us is an effective way of bolstering our morale (though it requires us to reject our ‘been there, done that, it’s soooo yesterday’ culture). And although modern media encourage us to fear our neighbours and to compete with each other, brain research increasingly shows that social co-operation, real face-to-face networking and acting generously towards each other can fill our heads with reward chemicals more effectively than the next pair of new shoes ever could.

To turn such things into our mainstream priorities would require a huge evolution in social behaviour. But we can’t even stop there: most of all, declaring ‘enough’ demands that we all challenge our own internal propaganda, the messages that get supercharged by our consumerist get-more, be-more culture. Yes, our brains feel immortal. Yes, they whisper that (in the poet Walt Whitman’s words) we can contain multitudes. Yes, our minds tell us that we can have it all and do everything. But in fact, no, our brains aren’t immortal, and we can’t have it all. Those are simply convictions our heads evolved to persuade our bodies out of bed on cold mornings.

We are human and limited, and have to live within our lives’ realistic limits. We can hit personal bests, but there will be many things we’ll never own, or see, or be or do. Enoughism requires us to accept that the carrot of infinite promise will always dangle just beyond our noses. Embracing this is a path towards contentment and away from eco-geddon. The alternative is for us to wind up as a species that failed to make its next evolutionary step, and condemned itself to remain whining, stressed and angry primitives, greedily grasping for more until the day came when there was simply nothing left to grasp.

John Naish is a journalist and author of Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007

 

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