Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"

David Korten

Why do we consume? If that is the question, the answer is simple. We are living beings and living beings must consume to live.

The question more relevant to the Great Transition and our search for a system frame for an Earth and people friendly new economy is “Why did human’s turn from consuming to live to living to consume?” This is the question Peter Sterling’s article helps us answer.

Displays of excess by an imperial ruling class have been a prominent feature of human societies for some 5,000 years. Superior consumption was, and is, a symbol and demonstration of superior power—an essential trapping of imperial rule.

We also have a long history of peoples who choose to consume below their means. The Puritan ethic of early New England settlements in North America, the contemporary voluntary simplicity movement, and the potlatch ceremonies practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest come immediately to mind.

The mass consumer culture/society that is the subject of Sterling’s article is a recent invention of the corporate interests it serves, as documented by William Leach in Land of Desire and the BBC video series Century of the Self. It began near the end of the nineteenth century and involved a planned, well-funded intervention to manipulate the framing cultural story of American society.

We humans are creatures of the stories by which we know ourselves and our place in creation. An authentic cultural story arises out of the experience and interactions of the people who share it. In more modern societies, shared cultural stories are subject to manipulation by those who control the institutions of cultural regeneration, including media, education, politics, and religion. The fabricated consumer culture is but one example.

So why did we humans—presumably the most intelligent of living beings—buy into a deception? Peter Sterling’s insights from neuroscience are an important contribution to the answer.

Life as we know it can exist only in a community that self-organizes to create and maintain the conditions essential to its own existence. This requires continuous learning as circumstances change and new opportunities arise. The learning, in turn, drives life’s continuing evolution.

Among Earth’s many species, we humans have a distinctive capacity for learning. We are also dependent on strong and diverse communities for our health and well-being. This is most obvious in the self-evident truth that it is impossible for a single human female to care for her own needs and those of a child without the cooperative support of other humans committed to the well-being of both mother and child. And no human individual or group can survive without the nutrients, water, and oxygen provided by Earth’s community of life.

If our brains had not evolved to learn and to engage cooperatively with other humans and the rest of nature, our species would have expired long ago.

Here is what I see as the distinctive contribution of Peter Sterling’s article. Sterling makes periodic references to learning and community and correctly notes that when we humans lived in community in nature, our sources of satisfaction were rich, varied, and consistent with our needs and a right relationship with other humans and the living Earth. Our neural circuits evolved to support learning and life in a living community.

The contrast that Sterling draws between our experience of daily life as participants in Earth’s community of life and our experience of daily existence in the sterile, manufactured, mechanistic, regimented, money-driven setting of consumer society is foundational to a fuller explanation of why we accepted the cultural manipulation and economic restructuring that now threaten our existence.

Not only are we subject to sophisticated, intentional cultural manipulation, but we are also subject to an economic model that disrupts the rich and complex living exchange relationships grounded in love and caring our neural circuits evolved to reward. It replaces them with impersonal financial exchanges with profit-driven global corporations that value life only for its market price. I became deeply conscious of this displacement process and its destructive life consequences during my thirty years working in international development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

We humans evolved to live and learn in community. Stripped of opportunities to obtain our neural rewards from the sources to which evolution wired our minds to respond, we accept the advertiser’s message and buy into the false promise that the consumption of advertised products will provide us the sense of meaning and connection we seek. We get at most a brief moment of satisfaction, but we are left with the increased material clutter of things we neither need nor use—not the sense of belonging and meaning that is the source of our greatest satisfaction.

Stripped of options, and bombarded with seductive promises, we keep trying and failing to get the sense of meaning and belonging we truly seek. The result is compulsive shopping, drug addiction, family breakdown, collapsing natural systems, increased incarceration rates, a refugee crisis, and most all the other societal maladies that necessitate a Great Transition.

Sterling correctly observes, “The path toward sustainability must, therefore, include expanding the diversity of satisfaction.” We best accomplish this by restoring our connections to community and nature and creating institutions that support this restoration.

David Korten
David Korten is a political activist, prominent critic of corporate globalization, and former professor at the Harvard Business School. He is the author of The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.

Cite as David Korten, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume," Great Transition Initiative (February 2016),

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