Materialism conveys a value-system and a world view that puts material values and the means to attain them above every other concern: the limitation of our planetary resources, the countless constituents, our dependencies on the fabric of our world, our ecosphere, and the vital importance of moral values and spiritual skills for the integrity and operability of society.
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. Its practice renders humankind increasingly weak and unable to survive and thrive as a species.
“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 society.
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 but with no corresponding 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 is a body of values, rules, and behaviors and dictates how society interacts amongst itself and within its societal and natural environment. To understand its impact on our world, we need to make a systemic assessment of its features what promotes or inhibits materialism.
“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 differentiatecomponents 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 ruled by dynamics, some merging order and stability, others 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 and materials is organized. This is a network of circular pathways – such that life can be supported. This life support system is indispensable for 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.
“Materialistic culture 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”. In humans, this rule dominates all other rules, defying limitation or moderation.
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 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 underscores every narrative that justifies to discriminate, exclude, and suppress people and groups of people - prominently visible with the treatment of women and people of color.
“Materialistic culture promotes racism”
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 result is a widening gap between a disenfranchised majority and a privileged minority.
“Materialism promotes aggregation and inequality – without limit”
A culture of materialism shapes the objectives, values, and behaviors of society: the maximization of material wealth, as well as in aggregating and wielding power, is condoned and outward success is applauded and rewarded. Failure is pitied and perceived with suspicion. The attributes of a successful life, respectively a failed life, are defined and promoted accordingly.
Since it is human nature to want to be a respected part of society, the majority of us engage in that game. When someone does not apply the rules, whether he is unable or refuses to do so, he or she is not at the center of societal respect but at the fringes of society.
And the ugly loop continues. Attributes like dominance and assertiveness are valued; attributes like being self-centered and ruthlessness are deemed essential. Virtues like empathy and compassion are identified as weaknesses and any relevant body of moral values are considered detrimental in any situation calling for competition. Moral values are relegated to interpersonal settings such as family and domestic partnerships.
The complaints are endless – and a desire for impactful positive change is what the majority of society is crying for, like air for lungs or light for our eyes.
This needs changing: this materialistic culture of reductionist and short-term thinking. We must see beyond our consumercentric world which sees utility and joy in a product but care little where it comes from and where it goes after its use.
As producers we care about revenue, costs and profit but not the negative impact our business activities have on this world. Wehave the greatest difficulty in seeing the side effects and ignored long-term costs to society and environment. As our world numbers countless and delicate interrelated components, this blindness to dependencies, consequences, and long-term dynamics is already altering and destabilizing our planet.
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 to imperil our future.
Here we have another prominent self-amplifying loop, the secondary loop of materialism: damage and deterioration motivate response 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 only conclude that materialistic culture puts us in grave danger.
“We need to prioritize humankind and our common good
over the maximization of individuals’ material wealth”
Besides the certainty that our ecosphere may already be on an irreversible path to disaster – our ability to rethink our actions and our assumptions to come up with needed changes will determine our fate.
For humanity to prevail, we need to promote 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 any one individual or group’s material wealth.
Originally published on viablemankind.org, March 1, 2021