Why We Consume: Neural Design and Sustainability | Peter Sterling | greattransition.org (2016)

Exponential economic growth is rapidly destabilizing the biosphere. Among the many factors that stimulate such growth is the human tendency to consume goods and services far beyond what is required to meet basic needs. We have to grasp what drives this tendency in order to manage it. The brain’s core circuits were long believed to stimulate us to seek pleasure—greedily and selfishly—while higher cortical circuits try to rein us in. Neuroscience now shows that the core circuits serve not pleasure per se, but efficient learning. When we obtain a reward that our frontal cortex values highly, the core circuit delivers a chemical pulse that we experience as satisfaction—so we repeat the behavior. Satisfaction is brief and diminishes as a particular reward becomes predictable. This circuit design works well for pre-industrial societies in which rewards are varied and unpredictable. But capitalism shrinks the diversity of possible rewards, leaving the remainder less satisfying, and making stronger doses, i.e., more consumption, necessary. The path toward sustainability must, therefore, include re-expanding the diversity of satisfactions.

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