Excessive consumption has reached a stage in the Western world where it is destroying the planet. Our hunger for material objects is spreading rapidly across the globe, as living standards rise in the Third World. Do you long for earlier and simpler times, shaking your head over our contemporary worship of possessions? Think again. Judith Flanders’s absorbing and scholarly study of the inexorable rise of consumerism shows that shopping, with the vast advertising industry that supports and encourages it, has been a defining attribute of Western urban society at least since the eighteenth century. Her account convincingly demonstrates that it was the demands of consumers that drove the Industrial Revolution, rather than the other way about.
The desire to own things not necessary to our survival is a trait as distinctively human as speech. What changed in the eighteenth century was the mechanisation of production and transport, which widened the availability