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.

“This design [of our neurological circuits] works best in an environment where primary rewards are diverse,” argues Sterling.  “But as capitalist social organization shrinks the diversity of primary rewards to the realm of material consumption, they become predictable and less satisfying. Limited to a few sources of primary reward, we consume them more intensely as the circuit adapts, and eventually they become addictions.”

What insights from brain design might aid the transition to a sustainable civilization? asks Sterling. He answers:

First, we must grasp that humans consume compulsively—insatiably—in large part because our clever circuit for reward learning now encounters too few sources of small surprise. We may rail against the capitalist manipulations that drive consumption from the top down, but that will not satiate our innate, bottom-up drive to consume. Therefore, social policies should follow the precept “Expand satisfactions!” We should re-examine and enumerate the myriad sources that were alienated under capitalism. The list will resemble roughly what we do on vacation: more nature, exercise, sports, crafts, art, music, and sex—of the participatory (non-vicarious) sort.

As a second strategy, Sterling recommends that we recognize that individuals differ in what they regard as their “primary rewards” – but these patterns emerge from the bottom up.  Social policy should recognize this fact: “Start in the classroom, where we now confine large groups of children with diverse innate abilities to ‘attend’ to one topic presented by a ‘teacher’ on behalf of the State. A worse match to the brain circuit for learning can hardly be imagined.”

One of the pleasures of the Great Transition Initiative’s essays are the curated comments that respond to them.  This one has some wonderful responses by Tim Jackson, Fred Magdoff, and Sheldon Krimsky, among others. I especially appreciated David Korten’s insightful elaboration:

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.

So our need to experience a fuller spectrum of human satisfactions — and escape the consumerist treadmill — depends upon recovering a richer, less homogenized realm of experience. The commons awaits!

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch

1 Comment The Neurology of Consumer Compulsion

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