Linde van Beers

Eat Future no 3. Review

Is it possible to eliminate consumerism?

Last Tuesday, we enjoyed already 3rd Eat Future movie night. During this night we watched the supposedly family friendly film, that might actually be the bleakest sci-fi scenario: WALL-E.

In WALL-E, the human race has been forced to leave the earth, since life is not possible anymore. What remains on earth are only some robots, left there in order to clean up the mess humans made. The intended 5 year long leave of absence has already been prolonged to 700 years, during which time the human race has been living on a spaceship that suffices every need at the minimum effort. The only food source is fast food, mostly in the shape of milkshakes, and movement has basically been eliminated. This has turned the human race into an obese species, completely dependent on technology.

The theme of this EAT FUTURE night was consumerism (get fat or die trying), and WALL-E raised a lot of questions on how consumerism is affecting our society. In this review, we will give a summary of the discussion we had after watching the movie.

One of the most important questions was: Is it even possible to eliminate consumerism? The question to this answer is not a simple yes or no, as many factors have to be taken into account. For example, is consumerism really the problem, or do we just need a different shape of consumerism? In this case, the movements of circular economy and service economy could contribute to the answer, allowing us to consume in a more sustainable way. However, in our opinion, these theories are not yet accounting for growth sufficiently. Even if we reach complete circularity, we will still need an increasing amount of resources if the population and wealth of developing areas continues to grow as it does. It is unethical to tell other societies that they are not allowed to live as we do, and therefore growth is inevitable, unless the western society starts consuming a lot less.

Another interesting part of the discussion related to the concept of development and progress in relation to quality of life. Supposedly, western society enjoys a high degree of quality of life, which developing countries strive to achieve as well. However, the actual quality of life here is debateable. With the many luxuries that we have gained by progress, we have also gained problems, such as obesity, pollution and stress. Developing countries that walk in the footsteps of the progress we made do not seem to be learning from our ‘mistakes’, but blindly follow our lead in order to gain the same so called quality of life, and therefore the same problems decreasing it.

Progress in itself is an interesting term. It suggests strongly of a linear process. However, we fail to see that the only way on is not necessarily forward. There may be concepts in the past that would make our lives better now. Therefore, we believe that progress should be more of an iterative process, where we reflect on what changes we have been through and evaluate whether they actually improved our lives. This way, we can start to develop our society in a more mindful way, without making progress for the sake of progress, but actually improving our quality of life.

Since this is, after all, a series about food, we shall also dedicate a paragraph especially to the effects of consumerism on food. An interesting question from one of the participants was whether consumerism distances us from the food we eat. An example was given that in some American classrooms, children could not tell the difference between a potato and a tomato when shown both. Children were so unaware of where their processed, ready made food came from, that they were actually unable to recognize it. The movie touched upon this by showing the spaceship-humans’ idea of farming as growing pizza-plants. These people were so detached from the process of growing food that they actually have no idea anymore how food comes to be. In the movie, this is presented in quite an over the top and mocking way, but looking at the example of American schoolchildren, it is not that farfetched. We think that consumerism, and especially the fact that you don’t ever have to cook a single meal in your whole life if you don’t want to, contributes to the detachment from the origins of our food (as well as other products). We think it is definitely a problem, because without the awareness of where food comes from, there is probably also no awareness of what food is healthy, why we have to be careful about wasting it or what impact the growing of food has on our environment.

To get back to the question whether consumerism should be abolished: an interesting point raised was that we cannot live in a vacuum, meaning that the goal should not be to abolish consumerism, but to find the ideology that should replace it. This is a basic principle of education: you should not tell students not to do something, but instead you should tell them to do the opposite. Therefore we should not ask society not to consume, but we should provide an alternative. What that alternative might be, remains a question to be answered. We do see a lot of potential in circularity and service economy but know that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to make these concepts actually sustainable, and applicable to food.