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C O U R S E 
A Brief History of Humankind
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
The Ethics of Capitalism and Consumerism
Notes taken on April 15, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
one of the most important developments in the industrial revolution was the changes that took place in agriculture
it enabled smaller and smaller number of farmers to produce more and more food
this enabled other people to move to the city to start working in offices and producing all kinds of cars, refrigerators, etc.
this created a new problem:
the modern, capitalist economy must constantly grow
it's not enough to produce more and more products: somebody must also buy all these projects
to encourage people to buy products which were being produced, a new kind of ethic appeared: the ethic of consumerism
most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity, so frugality was a very important part of ethics
people believed that being satisfied with the little that you have is good, and indulging yourself in luxuries was bad and corrupt
a good person should never throw away food, should always finish what your mother puts on your plate
if your clothes get torn, you don't throw them away and buy a new pair, you repair them
this was a very important part of human morality
only kings and aristocrats allowed themselves to publicly renounce such values of frugality and to conspicuously flaunt their riches
but when the industrial revolution solved the problem of scarcity, it created the problem of consumption: who is going to buy all this stuff?
and so a new ethic was born which was called consumerism
the ethics of consumerism teach us that it is indeed a good thing to throw out old clothes instead of repairing them, to constantly buy products whether you need them or not, to treat and spoil ourselves with all kinds of luxuries, to overeat food until we have heart problems, overdose our kids with sugar and fat to the point of hyperactivity and rotting teeth and obese bodies, to ruin our lives with excess lungs, to smoke our lungs black
consumerism turns previous ethics on its head by seeing frugality as a problem, as a kind of psychological disorder, as an abnormality, even as unpatriotic
the ethics of consumerism has been bolstered by modern psychology to convince people that indulging yourself is good for you, whereas frugality, being satisfied with little, is a form of self-oppression and something you should avoid
if you want a new jacket, go ahead, buy it! if you want a new car or house, go ahead and take a loan from the bank and buy it! if you want to eat that cake, go ahead, eat it! listen to yourself, if you really something just go ahead and buy it! this is the voice of the ethics of consumerism
consumerism has turned many areas of the earth's human population into very good consumers
we buy countless products that we don't need and many we can't even afford, and until recently we didn't even know they existed
manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new version of already existing and perfectly good products just in order that more products can be sold
shopping and eating has become a favorite pastime of more and more people
consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses, and parents and children
if you want to express your feelings for someone, you buy them something
even religious holidays such as Christmas became shopping festivals
in the United States, Memorial Day used to be a solemn day to remember fallen soldiers, but it, too, as been turned into a day where stores have Memorial Day sales to attract customers
the rise of consumerism is represented most clearly in the food market:
each year the United States spends more on diets than on money that would be able to feed hungry people in the rest of the world
the practice of eating too much and then spending money on diets to get rid of the excess weight is a double victory for consumerism
how to square the conflicting goals consumerism and capitalism?
capitalism says that one should reinvest profits in order to increase production
consumerism says that one should spend profits on consumer goods
in medieval Europe, the royalty lived luxuriously whereas the lower classes lived frugally
today, the roles have been switched: it is often the wealthy who live the most frugally, taking care of and carefully managing their assets and investments which they reinvest in production, whereas the majority of the public go into debt buying all kinds of cars, houses, TVs, and holiday cruises which they don't necessarily need and often can't afford
the capitalist ethic and the consumerist ethic are thus complementary:
the commandment of the rich is: invest! you must invest your money!
the commandment of the rest of the people is: buy! you must buy more!
most ethical systems throughout history presented people with a pretty tough deal:
Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism promised people paradise, but only if they could cultivate compassion and overcome their cravings and restrain their selfish interests, yet most Christians, Buddhists and followers of Confucianism failed at these challenges never being able to live up to the demands of Jesus, Buddha and Confucius
in contrast, what is revolutionary about the capitalist/consumerist ethic is that it is the first set of ethics in history in which most people actually do what they are told to do, the capitalist/consumerist ethic promises paradise here on earth under the condition that the rich remain greedy and keep reinvesting their money in the economy, and that the rest of the people give freedom to their cravings and passions and keep buying as many products and services as they can