By the time this year’s China Environmental Sociology Symposium ended, I was desperate for a break. The event took place in northwestern China’s city of Xi’an, so I decided to unwind by taking a walk along the city’s ancient walls — among the country’s best preserved. As I stood atop the battlement on a chilly October day, I tried to forget, if only for a moment, the bleak fact that our environment is a ticking time bomb. When I popped into a nearby souvenir shop, I almost talked myself into spending 100 yuan ($14) on a souvenir tote bag to take my mind off things.
It’s ironic, really. I was in Xi’an to attend yet another academic conference on the many ways overconsumption is ravaging our environment, but after two days of doom and gloom, I was so overwhelmed that I just wanted to escape back into the warm embrace of consumerism. Many of my sociologist colleagues suffer from the same affliction: We spend our days reading academic articles about Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism,” then meet up after work to compare bargains we’ve scored or show off our new phones.
Sometimes, it seems as though consumer culture has lobotomized us. It’s as though China’s middle class is increasingly besieged, weighed down by financial pressures and familial obligations, even as the communities that once existed to help us through tough times erode. The act of buying things offers us a break — a precious relief from our lonely lives, our crippling debts, and a world verging on ecological collapse — even as each purchase brings us one step closer to the brink of financial and environmental ruin.
Consumption has become a psychological crutch. Unfortunately, this means we must tread softly when trying to tackle the problem. Any solution that begins by blaming shoppers or condemning them for not caring enough about the environment will fall on deaf ears. Worse, it might compound the problem, stressing listeners out to the point that they’ll instinctively reach for their wallets, just like I did in Xi’an.
For decades prior to the reform and opening-up period that began in the late ’70s, China didn’t really have a consumer culture. Our ability to buy and own what we wanted was tightly controlled by the state. When it lifted these controls, the act of buying naturally became associated with freedom. Suddenly, to consume was to be liberated. Four decades on, however, we’re realizing that we’ve simply exchanged one master for another.
Prior to opening-up, we were called upon to work for the country; today we’re constantly pressured — by the media, by our peers, and by the government — to spend for it. Somehow, it’s become our civic duty to boost China’s economy with meaningless purchases, all in the name of helping the country navigate its bumpy transition from a manufacturing-based economy to one centered around consumption. This pressure is no more omnipresent than in early November, when seemingly everyone is counting down the days until Nov. 11 — China’s largest online shopping day.
It’s not hard to see why “Double Eleven,” as the day has been branded in China, has captivated the public. If shopping offers us a brief respite, then Double Eleven is a daylong escapist carnival, one that enables us to give free rein to our most excessive consumerist fantasies. This year, Chinese shoppers spent more than $30 billion in one day on the e-commerce site TMall alone. But the comfort provided by consumption extends beyond the temporary high of clicking “buy.” It’s become a way to fill the void left by the collapse of China’s traditional social and familial networks.
Since the beginning of the reform and opening-up period, China’s villages have gradually been hollowed out as rural residents migrate to the country’s cities in search of economic opportunity — often leaving their parents and children behind. Salaries and quality of life have improved, but it seems difficult to recapture the sense of community and camaraderie we once shared. In its absence, we’ve tried to buy replacements. When we feel lonely or disconnected, we purchase a membership to a gym or a hair salon. When we crave our peers’ approval, we order the latest gadget and create excuses to show it off. When we’re desperate for intimacy, we call strangers and pay them to lull us to sleep over the phone. Even faith isn’t sacred: Many religious sites have been stripped of their original spiritual significance and turned into tacky theme parks.
The sheer pervasiveness of this consumerist mindset nullifies appeals to morality. Telling people that they’re destroying the planet by bargain-hunting on Double Eleven or by buying things they don’t really need won’t make them any less psychologically dependent on consumerism — not when it’s one of the few things that brings them unconditional joy. And even if they were motivated to stop shopping: What next? Finding meaning in life is hard when we’re discouraged from most beliefs ending in “-ism” — except, of course, consumerism.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I believe it’s possible to develop new, more ethical consumption models. Some people are already trying: China’s alternative food networks encourage shoppers to purchase ethically grown, locally sourced produce, for example. This year, the organizers of the Beijing Farmers’ Market called on consumers to buy refurbished and recycled goods instead of contributing to the madness that is Double Eleven. These markets and other, similar organizations double as fresh and less materialistic communities in which people can find self-actualization or support in less environmentally destructive ways.
Anthropologist Daniel Miller writes, “Things make us just as much as we make things.” In China, our fixation with “things” — whether driven by our own materialistic desires or by external social or state pressure — has turned us into a generation of shopaholics. Consumerism itself is too complex, and the impulse to buy too entrenched in our collective psyche, to be vanquished through haughty lectures about its environmental cost. Even when we know our consumption patterns are wasteful, superficial, and ethically indefensible, we still can’t help ourselves.
I could lecture people about the consequences of their actions — as a sociologist, I have the credentials to do so — but I know I’m no exception. After another exhausting day at work, there are times when I’d rather pour myself a drink and browse discount handbags online than worry about how humankind is destroying the planet, or whether I’ll ever be able to save up enough for retirement. The simple truth is: Until we find a way to lift people’s spirits, help them regain a sense of community, and offer them avenues of self-expression and relief beyond crass consumerism, China’s shopping addiction will be a hard one to kick.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: A worker at a logistics company catches a quick nap in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Nov. 11, 2018. Mi Ni/VCG)