When you hear the word consumerism, your mind may flash to heaps of garbage lying in a dump, or children screaming in a Christmas-que, or perhaps even islands of plastic floating in the ocean; but this is only one side of a much more complicated story–a story of human success and progress, but also human flaws and foibles.
Since the inception of the industrial revolution, the movement of capital from one side of town to the other, from one side of the country to the other, and from one side of the globe to the other has driven the most explosive growth in human material wealth in all of recorded history.
As humanities wealth has grown, so too have the living conditions of a large part of the globe. Whereas a century ago cutting-edge transportation technology was unheard of in the developing world, now nation’s like India are building high-speed rail and internet infrastructure.
How Market Growth Can Be A Humanitarian Antidote to Poverty
As markets grow-as money becomes more liquid and freely available-so do nations.
The famous European philosopher Immanuel Kant once famously observed that nation’s which trade together don’t war with each other. This might be our first observable instance of consumerism as a positive force in world history.
But it certainly hasn’t been the last.
According to the World Bank, capitalism has raised over 1 billion people out of extreme poverty over the last 25-years. No other period of human history can boast such consistent and beneficial growth for humanity.
Without a doubt there have been unintended consequences of this incredible change. The environment has suffered, lifestyles have changed in ways some consider unhealthy and challenging to the human condition, but just as humanity created this growth and these problems–it is more than capable of producing solutions.
How Can Thoughtful Consumerism Make Me A Humanitarian?
One of the beautiful things about the market-based system is that it allows producers and manufacturers and purveyors of services to link their growth that of the less fortunate. Only in an open, market-based, community can a company like “Tom’s Shoes,” come to exist. Tom’s famously provides one pair of free shoes to a child in the developing world for every pair sold in the first-world economy.
Tom’s created a revolution with their human-friendly business model, and now dozens of similar companies are following suit. As Britons, Americans, and Europeans buy these products, the vital needs of less fortunate people in developing economies can actually benefit directly from Western consumerism.
There Are Other Effective Ways to Support the Developing World Too
In 2006 Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Price for developing the concept of micro-banking and micro-finance. Though Dr. Yunus’s work is a deep and complex study of human economy, his ideas can be boiled down to a simple premise.
Arbitrage–the difference in value of goods moved from one area to the next–could function as a tremendous force for growth in the developing world. Put simply, Dr. Yunus knew that stable Western currency can go much further in the developing world, and so he created a discipline and system of micro-banking that allows for investors in the first world to take interests in and help grow businesses in the third world.
Likewise, organizations like Western Union have facilitated this economic revolution by providing simple, consumer-friendly, methods of sending money around the world. Indeed, people who transfer money to Pakistan from the UK, for instance, are participating directly in the micro-finance system Dr. Yunus envisions.
The strong cultural ties between a large portion of the English population and Pakistan prove Dr. Yunus’s thesis; when money moves between a wealthy society and less-wealthy society, that movement creates opportunities on both ends.
And that opportunity creates growth.
When people are able to live and grow in a sufficient and healthy way together, they are far more likely to pound their swords into plowshares and recognize one another as neighbors, partners, and fellow-travelers in the human experience, and less likely to view those folks as rivals.
Consider becoming an ethical capitalist, a humanitarian consumer of products; spend time researching where your money goes when you buy that new pair of shoes–and ask yourself, is there a better way of doing this?
The answer is yes.