Materialism motivates trajectory towards global collapse, inhibits change towards viability
Materialism conveys a value-system and a world view that puts material values and the means to attain them above everything, and ignores everything else: the limitation of our planetary resources, the countless constituents and dependencies emerging the fabric of our world, the sensitivity of our ecosphere as life support system, and the vital importance of moral values and spiritual skills for the integrity and operability of society and humanity overall. Materialism is the globally dominating culture that permeates and dominates every other culture, conviction, and people, no matter what geographic, ethnic or historic origin they have. Materialism is the main force driving human beings to consume and destroy the physical world, our basis for existence and development, and the main motivator for ongoing disunity and fragmentation among the peoples of the world, rendering humankind increasingly weak and unable to survive and thrive as a species. Materialism considers material resources and experiences an end in itself, denies the vital need for integrity and oneness as a universal concept, and denies that our material life is only the foundation but not the destiny for our progression as human individuals and humankind.
“Materialism drives us to consume and destroy our world, while rendering humanity increasingly fragmented and weak”
The value and attraction of material resources is directly derived from their intrinsic feature to be limited. To attain something limited leads inevitably to the necessity to compete against others who desire the same limited resources. This has profound consequences to a society’s culture – its objectives, values, strategies, and behaviors.
Due to this limitation of material resources, throughout human history individuals and societies have primarily been concerned with their physical survival – which first depends on their ability to attain and command material resources and services, as well as the possession and consumption of material resources and services themselves – in short material values. Since this condition has dominated human societies for ages, material values have been at the top of their value systems. On the other hand – for the last centuries, most societies have managed to satisfy their material needs on a continuous basis. Still, there has been no transcendence beyond material values. The opposite has happened – the for every individual justified objective “secure your material means” has become “maximize your material wealth”, and as such the possession and consumption of material values has not only remained the dominating value, but has become an end in itself.
Systemic Assessment: dynamics and trajectories promoted by materialism
As any human culture, also materialistic culture is a body of values, rules, and behaviors, that are characteristic to the way human society interacts amongst itself and with its societal and natural environment. To understand its impact on our world, we need to make a systemic assessment of its features, what they promote, what they inhibit, and what overall development materialism motivates in our world.
“Our world is a fabric of dependencies – our world is one”
What is that societal and natural environment? Our familiar approach is to distinguish – that is to differentiate components in terms of gestalt: we refer to the earth, to elements and raw materials, to continents and oceans, to animals and plants – and to human beings building all kinds of groups, societies, and nations around the world. But when we look beyond gestalt, we see that all these countless components are connected through dependencies and relationships, immediately and mediately, together constituting an overall system of interrelated parts, our one world. This one world not only is a fully integrated structure, it is also permeated by dynamics turning over materials and energies, some dynamics emerging order and stability, other dynamics causing disorder and disintegration. Since our world is inhabited with life forms constituting a biosphere, these dynamics are not solely incidental, subject to the elements and to elementary forces. The biosphere overall is a system capable of maintaining itself in an everchanging environment. Life forms process energy and material compounds in order to maintain the individual self where possible, and to adapt, when necessary to maintain the collective kind. Paramount is a biosphere’s ability to establish with part of its planetary environment the ecosphere, a system in which the flow of energies nd materials is organized and balanced in a network of circular pathways – such that life can be supported. This overall life support system is indispensable for all of its constituents. No one life form dominates this life support system: every life form at the same time benefits and serves as part of the continuous cycle, thus contributing to its stability. Any life form developing towards dominance brings imbalance, destroys its support system, and perishes. The more diverse the constituents of life are, the more nurturing relationships exist, the more stable is the overall system, the higher its resilience and buffer capacity against adverse events and processes.
“Materialism ignores the need for integrity and oneness”
Such is the natural and societal environment – the systemic context – in which hour materialistic culture has been cultivated – and amplified within the last 200 years of industrialization. When observing our world, we can identify the following features, dynamics, and tendencies inherent with materialistic culture:
Materialism is characterized by its main feature – the master-rule “maximize your material wealth”. This rule dominates all other rules, there is neither limitation nor moderation. Whenever there is a conflict with other rules, there is a tendency to prioritize the master-rule.
This leads immediately to the second main feature, the means to maximize one’s material wealth – that is anything that helps attain and wield power. The spectrum of means to attain power is very wide and diverse – beginning with an individual’s titles, status and position, over a group of people joining for their common interest, to an organization’s ability to emerge as a monopoly, or to a nation’s armed forces. More subtly, power in service of predatory competition motivates every narrative that justifies to discriminate, exclude, and suppress people and groups of people – nowadays prominently visible with the superiority / inferiority narratives maintained to discriminate against genders, ethnicity, skin color, societeal strata, and cultural heritage – the multiple variations of racism.
“Materialism promotes racisms”
Wealth and power come together in a mutually amplifying loop, the primary loop of materialism: the more wealth, the more power can be attained – the more power, the more wealth can be accumulated. This self-enforcing feedback loop is operating in a context of limited resources, and consequently leads to predatory competition, however subtly or visibly evolving. Its impact is not only a widening gap between a disenfranchised majority and a privileged minority. It promotes its principles and dynamics to all layers and dimensions of society: the principle of competition, while inhibiting collaboration and synergy. The principle of progressing aggregation, while inhibiting moderation and contentment. The primary loop of materialism leads to progressing aggregation and inequality.
“Materialism promotes aggregation and inequality – without limit”
Materialism as a culture shapes the objectives, values, and behaviors of society: engaging in the maximization of material wealth, as well as in aggregating and wielding power, is approved, success with that engagement is applauded and rewarded. Failure with that engagement is pitied, lack of that engagement is perceived with suspicion, and opposition to that engagement is refused and outcast. The attributes of a successful life, respectively a failed life, are defined and promoted accordingly. Since everybody wants to be a respected part of society, the majority engages in that game. When someone does not apply the rules, because he is unable or refuses to do so, he is not at the center of societal respect but at the fringes of society. Thus, attributes like dominance and assertiveness are valued, attributes like mercilessness and ruthlessness are deemed necessary. Virtues like empathy and compassion are denounced weaknesses, and the whole body of moral values is considered alien wherever we strive to improve our position against competition. Accordingly, moral values only have a place in personal spaces like family and domestic partnerships.
Our materialistic culture promotes reductionist and short-term perception and thinking. As consumers we see the utility and joy a product brings us, but care little where a product comes from and where it goes after we have disposed of it. As producers we see numbers representing revenue, costs, and profit, but care little what impact our business activities have for the world beyond these numbers. We care very much about our immediate involvement and benefit, but have greatest difficulties to see side effects and foresee long-term consequences, resulting in costs to society and environment. Since this reductionist perception takes place in a world that actually is a complex system of countless interrelated components, we are literally blind to dependencies, consequences, and long-term dynamics altering and potentially destabilizing our world.
Lacking perception and consideration are the basis for lacking emotional engagement: we cannot feel empathy and compassion for something we neither see nor understand. Without that, we do not care – and act accordingly: operating with incomplete perception, consideration, and emotion we create damage and deteriorate conditions: no matter if mediately to some remote ecological environment or society, or immediately to physical and societal conditions of a local people.
Here we have another prominent self-amplifying loop, the secondary loop of materialism: damage and deterioration motivate responding with aggression, desperation, enmity, and retaliation – leading to an escalating cycle with progressive discrimination, fragmentation, and disintegration of society, as well as destruction of the physical and ecological environment. The secondary loop of materialism is progressing destruction and disintegration.
“Materialism promotes destruction and disintegration – without limit”
When we consider how human culture in general operates, how in a circular relationship culture emerges from society, and at the same time culture shapes society, and when we observe how materialist culture specifically operates as outlined in this article, we can conclude that materialistic culture has a very pronounced self-preserving dynamic – enhancing and promoting whatever serves its objectives and strategies, inhibiting and suppressing whatever attempts to derail its circular and self-enhancing dynamic.
Free Trade Markets as a Regulating Force
Inseparably related to materialism is the free market theory on which all current societies are more or less based. According to this theory the one regulating force in human society should be the relationship between demand and supply for tradable values in a free market in pursuit of one’s material wealth. Anything for which demand exists is supplied, while anything for which no demand exists is not supplied. Demand comes from human need and therefore is an expression of what is useful and good for human beings. For things considered useless or harmful demand does not come up respectively ceases to exist – and such things are not supplied, respectively disappear from the market. Value derives from the difference between demand and supply. The higher the relation between demand and supply for something, the higher its scarcity, and therefore the higher competition and price. When demand is higher than supply, the resulting price attracts more suppliers who appear on the market to provide what people demand for. When conditions allow it, supply increases until it completely balances and satisfies demand. When conditions do not allow it, scarcity remains high, and correspondingly competition and price. For these processes and forces to result in optimal results the market must be free.
Free Trade Markets as Dominant Regulating Force exclude Viability
Proponents of market economy claim that the positive relationship between utility and demand results in a regulating force that promotes the useful and inhibits the harmful. Anything for which demand exists is supplied, while anything for which no demand exists is not supplied. Anything that proves to be useful generates demand, is consequently provided, and therefore its existence is promoted. For anything that proves to be harmful demand ceases, provision consequently ends, and therefore its existence is inhibited.
This claim suffers from two fallacies. The first one is the assumption that everything necessary and useful is a tradeable. The viability of humankind, the oneness of humanity, the individual and collective progression of human beings to intellectual and spiritual maturity, and many other vital concepts, are all not tradable and therefore are all irrelevant in market economies. The second fallacy is, that market economy promotes all useful skills and virtues. Fact is that market economy promotes exactly those skills that enable people to successfully realize the master rule “maximize your material wealth”. All objectives, moral values, skills, and insights that are required for viability are actively inhibited, every reference to and every proof of the destruction coming from unregulated economical activities is ignored and forcefully repressed – since they all moderate the master rule, and oppose the relentless pursuit of material wealth at any cost.
“We need to prioritize humankind and life over the maximization of individuals’ material wealth”
We live in a decade where our existential crisis has been acknowledged by the majority of people. Awareness and literacy regarding details vary, but at least on an emotional level the majority feels that we need to fundamentally change our life-style, the way we produce and consume. What we are going to change depends predominantly on our perception and thinking – which has been conditioned by a history of materialist culture. Besides the uncertainty that our ecosphere may already be on an irreversible path to disaster – our ability to come up with the needed changes will determine our fate. Without awareness of dependency between our thinking and materialist culture, we will unwillingly only come up with more of the same – as we can observe right now: the discussions and proposed solutions that get the most attention are within the space of business opportunities, technologies, and products. However clever they may be – anything in that space consumes resources, creates impact on the environment, and is conceived in a way that does not sufficiently consider all relevant dependencies and resulting impact on our world – simply because that kind of product development – that kind of thinking – does not yet exist. For humanity to prevail, we need to develop our awareness for the role materialistic culture plays, need to develop and embrace what is beyond our material life, and establish a new culture – a culture that prioritizes humankind and life over the maximization of individuals’ material wealth.