It is self-evident that mass consumption is a main driver of relentless economic growth, the utopian goal of capitalism, and this has obvious ecological implications as we over-consume the Earth. But why do we feel compelled to consume far beyond what we truly need?
In a provocative new essay on the Great Transition Initiative website, neuroscientist Peter Sterling explores “Why We Consume: Neural Design and Sustainability.” It is an evolutionary scientist’s argument for how human beings are neurologically wired and what we might do about it. What is the biological substrate for our behaviors as homo economicus and as social cooperators? Why do we (over)consume?
Sterling points to such obvious social factors such as our desire for social status and a good self-image, all of it fueled by advertising. But while these feelings of satisfaction invariably wane, they invariably surge forward again and again: “Something at our neural core continually stimulates acquisitive behavior,” he writes, adding that “we urgently need to identify and manage it.”
Sterling notes that we all have neurological circuits that are periodically bathed in dopamine as a reward for satisfying behaviors. More than a “pleasure center,” these neural responses serve as a reward for human learning and adaptation in a highly varied environment. It is the decline of our highly varied environment that may be responsible for our consumerist obsessions.