In contemporary society, the most powerful authorities are the interlocking boards of directors of major business corporations and the state apparatuses that support them. As in the Milgram paradigm, the demands made by these authorities on today's consumers and citizens are leading to increasingly grave consequences for human life, including dangers that were not foreseen when Corporate America first launched the mass consumerist experiment in the years following World War I.
How is obedience maintained in consumer society? What sorts of escalating consequences can we expect if it continues?
While large corporations sometimes give direct orders to consumers, more often they exact obedience in indirect ways by suggesting images, ideas and social narratives, and by manipulating emotions so that desired behaviors become more likely. This is what we call marketing and advertising, and it works extremely well.
In recent years, a growing body of psychology research, including important work by Tim Kasser at Knox College, has revealed associations between corporate propagation of materialist attitudes (i.e., having a strong value orientation toward money and possessions) and poorer life satisfaction, higher levels of anxiety and depression, poorer quality of interpersonal relationships and lower self-esteem.
According to other researchers, such as Susan Linn at Harvard University, the consequences of prioritizing the consumerist mindset are even more debilitating for children than they are for adults, especially for young children who have not yet developed the capacity for critical thinking. Direct corporate messaging to children, a relatively new and highly sophisticated phenomenon, is a pretty easy way to boost sales, but it also has predictably negative effects on kids' social, psychological and physical health. For example, most marketing to children is for junk food, a significant risk factor for obesity. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity-related disease is predicted to shorten kids' life spans to such a degree that the current generation will probably die younger than their parents for the first time in the modern era.
As mass consumerism was being promoted in the early 20th century and the modern advertising industry was developing, the full matrix of hazards were unknown. The "shocks" caused by obedient behavior were limited and minimal - the equivalent of a slight tickle. This is no longer the case. As circumstances have changed with time, the consequences of obedience to the corporate imperative have become much more dangerous.
In spite of overwhelming evidence that the habitability of our ecosystem is threatened due to rampant hydrocarbon exploitation, natural resource depletion and unrelenting pollution, we are surrounded by incessant appeals from dominant institutions to pull levers of consumption to keep ourselves and our society flourishing.
Overconsumption is a function of obedience built on the false premise that eternally acquiring more goods will make you, your family and your society happier. These goods are produced in a way that - we now know - is likely to lead to global environmental catastrophe. While many authorities acknowledge climate realities, they also claim that the extraction of fossil fuels continues to be necessary for powering a high-tech, industrial economy.
Is there really no alternative to digging up and burning all the oil, gas and coal that industry can find? Safe energy alternatives to fossil fuels are, in fact, already technologically feasible, but they do not maximize profits and therefore are not offered as a serious replacement. Full transformation to a green energy economy is a realistic option that would come with many permanent jobs, but this is not a choice offered by fossil fuel corporations and the state that subsidizes them to the tune of billions of dollars a year. At the end of the day, an "all of the above" energy policy like that of the Obama administration cannot hold back irreversible climate change....