Shaw points out that consumerism is a misdirected way of meeting our fundamental needs, in particular the needs for meaning and purpose. It is not quite clear to me how this shift occurred, what the psychological underpinnings are. Shaw invokes Freud’s idea of the ego but that seems to not quite explain it (I want to follow some of Shaw’s links, though). It might be a combination of factors coming together, as Jennifer Hecht describes in her book The Happiness Myth. According to Hecht, we experienced an increase in happiness when we moved from dire poverty to being able to feed ourselves, living without the fear of no food or shelter. This lead to the abundance inference: The more money/abundance we have, the happier we will be. Clearly this doesn’t hold true but this inference is nevertheless driving consumerism. At the same time, other ways of meeting our needs for meaning, purpose, and belonging disappeared. We replaced community with the TV. Shopping is now our form of connecting, yet it remains unsatisfying. The underlying needs are not truly met leading us to overconsumption in an attempt to meet those needs, which in turn creates consumer debt and drives global warming.
Whatever the underlying psychological mechanisms that allowed consumerism to take such a hold, it is most important for the survival of our species that we recognize that we have a problem. We are not really meeting our fundamental needs. The way we attempt to meet them is destroying the planet.
Once we recognize this, we can start meeting the needs in sustainable ways by building connections with other people, for example. We will also need to address the internalized beliefs that sustain the consumerism society, especially the abundance inference but also our feelings of powerlessness. We have to be careful, though, that we do not use or create more substitutes. There are also many cultural trances to avoid. Shaw mentions some: “the few socially acceptable surrogates like AA, Prozac, work or Jesus.” Better understanding these will also help us truly meet our deep or primary needs (an idea from Chellis Glendinning, as mentioned in Shaw’s article).