An Environmental-Psychological Perspective on “Violence” From Overconsumers

A topic of discussion during last Friday’s class was Joseph Roach’s interpretations of Bataille’s claim that “violence is the performance of waste” (41). We mainly focused on “violence” as the natural definition of the word pertaining to physical destructive forces, and how ‘people with little’ felt inclined to this violence towards ‘people with more’ who live wastefully. I found this violent inclination towards those who unnecessarily waste interesting, as my Environmental Psychology class revolves around how America promotes such wasteful actions. I choose to interpret the word “violence” less as a physical attack on a specific thing, such as an effigy, but instead as a slow degradation of our planet as attacked by the unnecessary wasters.

I first want to address how my interpretation of “violence” applies to Roach’s three interpretations of Bataille’s claim.

“First, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point” (41). The violence of excessive consumption doing damage to the environment is justified by consumers as a means to make them feel better about themselves. The point this violence serves is not as a passive aggressive statement against the planet, but rather it is an accidental violence committed by consumers, and so I am analyzing the violence in this piece to dig deeper, find its results and how to change it.

“Second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its point, it must spend things–material objects, blood, environments–in acts of […] ‘conspicuous consumption'” (41). Conspicuous consumption is a term that describes the excessive spending of wealth on unnecessary luxury goods, and such self-enhancing materialistic values are explicitly contrary to the finite amount of resources on our planet. If everyone pursued their own personal interests and consumed excessively – which is a pattern the American economic system strongly depends upon – the planet would suffer irreparably, and violence as I defined it would be rampant.

“Third, that all violence is performative, for the simple reason that it must have an audience–even if that audience is only the victim, even if that audience is only God” (41). This is similar to my explanation of his first two reasons in that people excessively consume luxury goods (conspicuously consume) to feel good about themselves and display their economic status. The audience pertaining to my definition refers to two parties: other consumers are an audience to what you consume, and so you wish to show off your wealth and happiness to that audience, thus committing the “violent” act of conspicuous consumption; and the planet earth is the audience of conspicuous consumption by virtue of being the victim of such wasteful actions.

The earth is essentially one extremely large common, as no one entity owns the planet and everyone on the planet must share the planet’s resources to all survive together. The tragedy of the commons is a fairly well known theory where, if every individual in a community acts logically, a communally owned resource will be untenable and eventually destroyed due to every person slightly overstepping their boundaries. From the individual’s perspective there are two options: if I disobey the community standard then I can make more profit while doing some damage to the commons; or if I adhere to the community standard then others may defect, taking advantage of my complaisance, and the commons will be damaged regardless. The logical conclusion here is to maximize one’s own profit as the commons will be destroyed no matter what.

This commons dilemma can be applied to all of us, as we are American consumers. America’s laissez-faire economics hinges upon the creation of new or ‘better’ goods and services that people want so that they will spend money to fuel corporate America, thus incentivizing the creation of newer or ‘better’ goods and services, and so the cycle continues. We all succumb to these consumeristic pressures whether we’re aware of it or not. Our values placed upon material goods is immeasurable; consider how you feel when you watch advertisements, see people with the newest gadgets, or shop for new clothes that are shown on attractive models. Watching happy consumers makes you think one of two things: they are happy and they have that item so I want that item; or they are happy and they have that item which I cannot afford, so I am unhappy. I put ‘better’ in quotations marks because it is in companies’ best interest to make their services seem as positive and beneficial as possible so that consumers will purchase their services and feel good about their purchases.

This creates a feedback loop of continuous consumption where we purchase items to feel good, then see others who are perceived to be happier with their newer products, be it through social media or advertisements or whatnot, and we want to purchase those items to feel good, regardless of whether or not they are necessary. Consider how many phones or computers you’ve totaled and thrown out, or had “recycled” to have them really be scraped for metal and the remains dumped. Consider the new clothes that you buy and what happens to your old clothes, destined to either be passed on or (inevitably) thrown out. Whether we fuel this cycle consciously or not, it is a destructive pattern for the environment, and not sustainable in the long run.

Aside from the massive environmental impact of excessive consumption, consider the effects of this cycle on those lower class or lower-middle class citizens who live frugally and cannot afford excessive luxury items.


The model to the left is called the circumplex model of values, and is from a study by Tim Kasser “Ecological Challenges, Materialistic Values, and Social Change.” Motives are inside the circle, and overall values are on the circumference. Juxtaposed motives and values are similar and related to each other. Motives and values on opposing sides of the circle mentally oppose each other, meaning that they cannot both be motives for the same goal or values held for the same end. Thus, having strong motives or values for a goal on one side makes it very difficult or impossible to be motivated towards the same goal by motives or values on the other side of the circle.


The aforementioned innumerable factors that pressure Americans to excessively consume establish motives based on achievement, power, and self-indulgence, aka self-enhancement values.

People are pressured by the nature of America’s laissez-faire economics to work and make money so that they can spend the money on goods and services which will in turn make them happy. Americans are forced into the self-enhancement mindset, and so when people who are struggling to pay rent or afford necessities cannot afford such excessive luxury items, they struggle to use self-transcendence as a motive for earning money which would allow them to be happy with what they have and reduce their dependence upon consuming goods for happiness. Such people are pushed by the very nature of America away from happiness, and find only frustration at their inability to make enough money to consume as others do. This adds to tensions between ‘people with little’ and ‘people with more’ who live wastefully, and so the connection begins to form between violence and wasteful tendencies.

While a cynic might say that the poor not excessively consuming is a good balance for the environment, there are infinite other ways to help the environment, and exchanging people’s sanity for a green planet is not the way to better our world. Relieving some of America’s massive pressure on self-enhancing values, and promoting self-transcendent values would allow people to be more happy with what they have. Such self-transcendent values and motives would, for example, relieve the pressure on parents to work long hours so that their families can bond and be more easily content with their lives. This would slow down excessive consumption, and be beneficial for the environment.

This exact idea is the basis of an entire psychological study (also by Tim Kasser) on the value and goal conflicts of American Corporate Capitalism. Kasser summarizes what I’ve written about thus far in a neat and tidy overview of the study’s findings: “ACC [American Corporate Capitalism] fosters and encourages a set of values based in self-interest, a strong desire for financial success, high levels of consumption, and interpersonal styles based on competition. The consequence of such an emphasis is that ACC also tends to oppose, undermine, de-emphasize, and ‘crowd out’ goals and values for caring about the broader world […] and, especially among poorer individuals, feeling worthy and free; notably, such aims are typically associated with psychological well-being, optimal performance, social cohesion, and ecological sustainability” (3).

Yes, such huge changes in how America’s economy and society functions would be incredibly difficult with the many factors that affect consumers, and damage to America’s economy would certainly be at stake, but really, what is money worth when you can be happy and stop violence against the planet at the same time?




Joseph Roach’s Cities of The Dead Circum-Atlantic Performance

My Environmental Psychology Notes

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