Consumerism is the major cause of global warming and wrecking the planet for future generations. It is driven by a growth economy that favors the ever-expanding consumption of the already very affluent and has allowed the gap between the richest and poorest to grow to inflammatory proportions, both within the nation-state and globally. Today 16 percent of the global population consumes 80 percent of its resources. Americans alone are responsible for around 25 percent of global carbon emissions, and their ecological footprint is five times the global capacity of 1.8 hectares per capita.
But the shopping-mall culture is also in many ways bad even for those who live in affluent societies. What the economist, John Maynard Keynes, condemned as the pathology of monetary greed is now not only regarded as a normal response to our times but also an essential driver of national well-being. Its effect is to subordinate everyone to a time economy and work ethic that sees free time as a threat to human prosperity rather than a form in which it can be realized. Despite the huge gains in productivity, time scarcity, stress at work, and insecurity remain the dominant life experience of huge numbers of people. An existence devoted to the creation of ever more stuff, most of it unneeded other than to enhance corporate profits or to secure the reproduction of the consumerist economic infrastructure, leaves all too little time and energy for actually having a life. Indeed, it functions as a major constraint on the self-development and political awareness required to enjoy a fuller and freer life. Everything that should be central to human pleasure and well-being has become marginal, whether it be convivial time with family or friends, engagement in civic and political projects, the enjoyment of hobbies and educational activities, making music, reading, gardening, being in nature, or just idling. The hedonist deprivation of consumer culture is further compounded by an unhealthy reliance on fast food and very swift forms of transport, notably air flight and automobile. Environments free of the noise, stench, light pollution, and congestion of our high-speed existence are now increasingly difficult to find. The constantly expanding supply of commodities requires methods of production and distribution that destroy both the ecological viability and the aesthetic appearance of the environment. They also involve much animal suffering and wildlife extinction, and create a legacy of often toxic waste. One in ten US households now rents a storage space for their excess clutter, while the junk resulting from domestic consumption is also mountainous and well-nigh uncontainable. Although promoted by corporate power and its advertising industry as the model of the “good life” to which everyone should aspire, in reality there is all too much that is dystopian about the consumerist way of living and it is beginning now to be recognized as such. Indeed, the consumerist way of life should now be seen for what it has mainly become: a means of further enhancing the global reach and command of corporate power at the expense of the health and well-being of both the planet and the majority of its inhabitants.
Perhaps the time has come, then, for America, the nation that has exercised the most influence on the formation of the shopping-mall culture, to rethink the commitment to it: to begin the transition to a more sustainable and more sensually, spiritually, and aesthetically rewarding way of living? Can Americans now respond more publicly to what many have always privately sensed—that the passion for ever more consuming is neither really much of a passion nor a very worthy ideal in life? Can they now lead the way in overcoming the obsession with cumbrously materialist acquisition? Can they convert to a slower-paced, more time-enriched existence and a more reproductive manner of meeting their daily needs? Surveys have suggested that 80 percent of Americans agree that protecting the environment will require most of them to make major changes in the way they live. Can they now act on that consensus and adopt “one planet” living?
In this paper, I first expand on the more negative aspects of consumer culture, and explain why it needs to change and why many Americans themselves might want now to do that. In the second part, I point to the advantages of moving beyond the consumerist system, and argue for an “alternative hedonist” approach to thinking about human well-being, consumption, and the politics of prosperity. Part three outlines some of the measures already advocated or enacted with a view to curbing the hold of consumer culture on our life experience and imagination, and then moves into a discussion in part four and the final section of the cultural revolution and more systemic socioeconomic changes that will be needed to bring about a post-consumerist order. Some examples in this context are provided of the form that would be taken by a slower-paced, less time-scarce existence and of the benefits it can provide.
Overall I argue for a profound revision in the ways in which we think about the nature and conditions of human flourishing. This will be comparable, in its scope and radicalism, to the socioeconomic reorganization argued for in other Next System Project papers. Indeed, it will be a condition of creating the necessary support for any such practical changes, and hence an essential cultural dimension of them. We have to break with the social and environmental exploitations of money-driven, high-speed ideas of progress and instead promote the means to allow for creative and non-repetitive lives without social injustice and without environmental damage. This means challenging the monopoly of advertising over the depiction of the “good life” (and especially its manipulation of children). It means opening ourselves to new forms of ownership and control over the means of provision for consumption; to hybrid ways of making and doing that draw on traditional methods alongside newly emerging green technologies; and to a revised aesthetic of material culture for which commodities once perceived as enticingly glamorous lose their appeal by virtue of their profligate resource use and legacy of unrecyclable waste.
A cultural revolution along these lines will be comparable in the forms of social transformation and personal epiphany it will demand to those brought about through the feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist movements of recent history. It will not be easy to mount, and will be fiercely opposed by those currently in power. But the gains it promises will be immense (indeed, without it the long-term future is bleak for everyone). Those who commit to a renaissance movement of this kind are not likely ever to regret it, nor will those who come after them.
Table of Contents
- Consumerism and its discontents
- The seductions of post-consumerism
- Moving towards the new consumption
- Furthering the new consumption: More radical measures
- Conclusion: Towards a new philosophy of progress