A few weeks ago I suggested that neuromarketing may be the ultimate threat to democracy because people's unconscious brain processes can be manipulated to shape political outcomes. In the context of today's pressing challenges, this is terrible news. Now, more than ever, we need a functioning electorate that can collaborate effectively to address the foundational design flaws of the global economy and save human civilization from utter ruin in the face of imminent ecological collapse.
Following this line of thinking, I'd like to explain why a long view can help us understand how to deal with consumer marketing and its harmful impacts on society. Let's start with the economic forces that caused marketing to come into existence in the first place...
The Birth of Mass Marketing
Throughout most of human history, people who engaged in trade did so face to face at a local marketplace. People learned who they could trust to provide safe food to eat and quality trade skills to provide for their needs. There was no pressure to develop significant brand relationships between buyers and products because trust was mitigated directly through interpersonal relationships.
More fundamentally, there wasn't enough supply to provide for everyone's needs. People went hungry when crops failed and they lived in squalor when building materials were scarce. It wasn't until the steam engine was built that industrialization scaled enough to provide sufficient supply to meet market demands. But then something happened that has shaped global economic development ever since - it became possible to generate more stuff than people needed (at least among those who had the money to pay for it). This lead to the problem of excess supply.
Peter Barnes, in his insightful book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide To Reclaiming The Commons, called this early period ‘capitalism 1.0′ defined by a perpetual demand for essential services that greatly exceeded what could be supplied. He called the second phase ‘capitalism 2.0′ because supply exceeded demand and people needed to be persuaded to buy trinket A instead of trinket B based on some criteria beyond its manufacturing quality.
And mass marketing was born.
Throughout the last century, marketing tactics have been used to cultivate consumer culture. This was deemed necessary to provide an engine for economic growth as population increased and there was greater demand for wealth creation. This is why Gross Domestic Product is a measure of economic well-being, because it tells us how successful marketing has been at getting people to buy products.
The Hidden Flaw That Threatens Us All
The operating assumption of 20th Century economics, contrary to what is taught about scarcity with regards to opportunity cost, is that there is an endless abundance of raw materials to feed the perpetual growth engine of the global economy. This assumption is blatantly wrong and we're starting to experience the consequences.
We live on a finite planet that contains a limited amount of renewable and non-renewable resources. No amount of ingenuity can increase the amount of land, rare earth metals, fresh water, or other vital inputs for a healthy society than that which the Earth is able to create through its vast web of ecosystems. We are now entering the third phase of economic development where supply is constrained by rapidly depleting resources. During this phase, the business model behind consumer marketing will become untenable. Getting people to buy more doesn't work when there's not enough to go around any more.
So consumer marketing as we know it today has a shelf life. It simply cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. So the good news is that consumer culture is going to go away. The bad news is that it may persist too long and drive massive over consumption of vital resources until there just isn't enough left to be replenished for future use. This would result in a huge die-off of people no longer able to get the food, water, and shelter they need to survive.
So perhaps we shouldn't wait for the label to expire on consumer marketing. There is serious need to redesign our economy now around ecological principles that recognize natural limits (and the interdependence of economic and ecological systems). This is what I called for last week in Let's Build The New Economy. I argued that the current economy is set up in a manner that doesn't serve people. It will need to be dismantled (or collapse) and be replaced by a different set of governing institutions that respect our ecological reality.
This is a sobering call to action.
We don't have any good choices before us since our political institutions are profoundly dysfunctional at the national and international level. And a poisonous idea about government is destroying our collective capacity to govern effectively. We are also seeing the harmful effects of marketing within politics itself in political ads and media systems designed to spread corporate propaganda. Yet the problems are only growing in intensity.
The Great Transition
These problems aren't going to go away. If we are to do anything about them, we'll need to act quickly, strategically, and with bold vision. There's no Democrats or Republicans here. Hell, we even need to think beyond national borders. This is the time for galvanizing and coalescing the global movement of people who have been organizing for decades to protect the environment and bring multinational corporations under control.
We need a fresh perspective on politics that doesn't get locked into the categories that defined the previous century. This is going to require radical transparency and accountability, which is why so many groups have initiated ‘open government‘ efforts that range from making public data accessible to software developers to using social media platforms to bring more citizens into the decision-making process. And this is only scratching the surface of what can be done with mobile technologies and our global digital communications infrastructure. Tools like Twitter and WordPress are already seeding protest movements within dictatorial countries that were unthinkable only a few years ago.
We're also going to need robust local and regional economies to weather the transition as national currencies become unstable. Just think about the amount of trade induced debt the U.S. dollar has incurred with China alone and it is clear that a Faustian bargain has been made that cannot easily be undone by either trade partner. When the crunches start to hit, be they in oil supplies or some other vital resource, we are going to find out just how precarious our current perch is.
Wherever you are, please consider the warnings in this article and the thousands of others out there pointing to the same dilemma. I may not have all the answers but I can say for a fact that we're not going to solve this problem if we don't deliberate about it with the utmost seriousness and begin the long work of putting into place the foundations for a different and better global economic system.
So, yes, consumer marketing is eventually going to come to an end. The million dollar question is whether human civilization will end with it.