Is the reason that we fill our lives with so much stuff that doing so prevents us from facing the certainty of our death?
The popular conception about mass consumerism is that it is an evolutionary impulse. We collect as many resources as we can so that when times are tough and they become less available, we will make it through. Even those who have no reason to fear running out of anything, the one percent of the world who own half or more of its wealth, are said to be stricken by this instinct.
Though I would not discount this hypothesis fully, neither do I think it accounts for the behavior entirely. Last night at work something came up which seemed just as, if not more, likely a reason for our mindless hunger to consume.
At the bookstore where I work there is a long time regular customer who suffers from some pretty profound mental illness. We will call him Larry. Larry was diagnosed with a terminal illness a few months back. He has been rapidly deteriorating right before our eyes. On top of this he has become more unruly and combative than ever before.
The stores full-time-working owner considers herself a friend of Larry. Not only has she had to watch her friend slowly crumbling away, she has had to mediate the conflicts he has created with other employees. It has been very challenging for everyone involved, to say the least.
Larry has always been a voracious reader, but as his time slips away he has begun to collect books with a veracity that is completely out of touch with his life expectancy. He buys or orders two to ten books a day, taking a cab and battling his ailing body and mind to make the trip to the store. Besides that, when not in the store, he is often calling and checking on the availability of books and placing orders. So much of his time is spent researching and collecting books that it hardly seems he would have the time to read much at all.
Last night a co-worker and I were discussing this and he told me he had a theory that Larry was able to suspend belief in his imminent demise through the reasoning that so long as he had to receive a book, he would stay alive. A strange literary twist on quantum immortality theory.
This intuition immediately struck me as extremely insightful, and probably true in the specific case of Larry. Yet it also seems it may be true as a general statement of human psychology.
The explanation for greed and excessive consumerism that says it is an instinct of storage for survival does not explain the over-the-top avarice of the worlds wealthiest and hardly explains half of the developed world who are also given to this impulse.
John and Paul were wrong, money can buy you love. The only thing it really cannot buy you (yet?) is an escape from your own eventual expiration.
Maybe if I have just a little bit more than everyone else, I can be the first to buy my immortality when and if it becomes possible?
Maybe if I keep building my castle it will never crumble, and neither shall I, safe within it?
Maybe if I have more things to look forward to, there will be more forward to look for things in?
I am not saying we make conscious rationalizations such as these. Our reasoning for any given decision can be so incredibly complex that I doubt most of us understand the deepest layers of our motives and intent for even the simplest of decisions. We take so much of our own reasoning for granted that we forget it is still there, even though its influence over us has not diminished with our recognition of it.
So maybe our mindless consumerism and excessive greed are not primitive extincts run amok in the modern age, but modern instincts which evolved to deny our own death by throwing resources at it – an existential delusion fueled by the ideology of endless growth that drives our materialistic civilization.
Or maybe Larry really does read six books a day and I am just totally full of shit. Anything can happen in an infinite universe, and from what I can tell so far, only being full of shit is ever certain.