Consumed: inside the belly of the beast

Finally found the time yesterday to watch the film Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast. I think it’s well worth an hour of anyone’s time – well-argued, works cinematographically, and – unlike quite a few similar resources which seem to think that nothing exists beyond the boundaries of the USA, sufficiently generic to make sense across the world! It’s rather more temperate in tone than the trailer suggests, so don’t let that put you off.

The aim of the film is to look at consumerism from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and with this starting point, you can see how we’ve reached where we have. Humans evolved with certain basic goals: survival, finding a mate, and gaining social status with respect to our peers (prestige). And we naturally seek stimulation and growth. We’ve been rather too successful at the last.

Consumerism has thus emerged as something which both fills the gap but fuels the same trends. Survival in the developing world is a solved problem, we’ve lost connections to each other and the physical world, and a lot of the ways we used to measure social standing. We express many of our needs in economic terms, what we consume has taken over, and brands form our social network. Unfortunately, this simultaneously underfills and overfills our needs. We become addicted to overstimulation but it fails to give us real meaning.

A particularly helpful observation is that social status is a zero-sum game.

A good analysis of our human nature. As has been noted elsewhere, the last section, where the various experts think about solutions, is a bit short and weaker. There’s a rather glib dismissal of many ideas including Transition Towns – that at least does seem to try to take account of human nature and redirect our social needs in more helpful manners.

Maybe if consumerism is deeply embedded in our human nature there’s no hope. Ideas include: a need to get round our very short-term mindset (but how?), that we’ll just grow out of it (possible true on an evolutionary timeframe, but a bit late!) Alastair McIntosh’s take is perhaps most interesting. He sees where we are as an inevitable stage of evolution, one we will – presumably – burn through. He doesn’t go on to explore the consequences of these, but this is the line taken by the Dark Mountain Project which he’s involved with. They are already looking ahead to what post-collapse civilisation might look like. But the challenge to it from this film is that if humans don’t change, presumably we are just going to go round the same cycle again in the future?

Things to ponder. The filmmaker at least seems to think there’s hope and a future, closing things off with his toddler son taking pleasure in just dancing around. The question is whether he will grow up to be as consumed by stuff in twenty years’ time as we are today, or we find a new direction.

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