As we see on the TV news the frantic scramble to be
first into the shops with cut price sales, often of people who have traveled
far to fight the fight for bargains I am driven to post an item from "The
Guardian" of all things which makes its own comment:
Eat, drink and be miserable: the true cost of our
addiction to shopping - Madeleine Bunting - Monday December
3, 2007 - The Guardian.
it seems politically unpalatable, but soon the state will have to turn to
rationing to halt hyper-frantic consumerism.
a pamphlet scudding around my kitchen; it has accumulated coffee rings and
fingerprints, but I keep rescuing it from the recycling bin with the good
intention of signing up to a green tariff on electricity again. (I can't quite
understand why the deal I signed up to years ago ever ended.) A good intention
that has a 50-50 chance of fulfilment.
to all the research, there are a lot of people like me: full of good
intentions, deeply concerned about climate change and yet ineffective at
translating that into their behaviour. Why? A mixture of information overload,
time poverty (a much overlooked aspect of environmental sustainability is how
much time it requires) and utter confusion about what "doing one's
the killer equation: what sacrifices is one prepared to tolerate when they are
pathetically insignificant compared with Chinese power stations going up at the
rate of two a week? Is it enough to have
halved family meat consumption, have foregone flights for several sun-starved
years and arranged a life in which habits of cycling to work and walking to
school are routine? No, it's just scratching at the surface.
the developed world is to implement the 80% cuts in carbon emissions the UN
demands as part of the talks beginning in Bali today, the lives of our children
will have to be dramatically different from everything we are currently
bringing them up to expect.
2006, each person in the UK
produced 9.6 tonnes of C02, and that needs to come down to less than three
tonnes by 2050. That is the non-negotiable on which there is widespread
consensus among environmental scientists and economists. The much more
controversial issue is whether that means consuming less or just consuming
other words, does sustainability require an entire recasting of the good life,
or can we continue on our way, our aspirations to comfortable homes, nice cars
and fancy holidays unchecked, delivered by green techno-wizardry? Government environmental policy is entirely
built around the latter.
the problem is that there is no evidence that techno-wizardry can deliver the
cuts in carbon emissions needed. In the past increased energy efficiency has
only driven up aspirations: "If my fridge is more energy efficient and
thus cheaper to run, perhaps I'll now buy that air conditioning unit for these
new hot summers."
innovation is an important part of the solution, but it won't be enough.
Wizardry it is rightly nicknamed: there is an irrational faith at the heart of
government thinking. But the alternative
of lower consumption is something no politician is prepared to consider. In one
policy discussion on the subject, Treasury officials responded with contempt, and
referred to it as tantamount to "going back to living in caves".
have a political system built on economic growth as measured by gross domestic
product, and that is driven by ever-rising consumer spending. Economic growth
is needed to service public debt and pay for the welfare state. If people
stopped shopping, the economy would ultimately collapse. No wonder, then, that
one of the politicians' tasks after a terrorist outrage is to reassure the
public and urge them to keep shopping (as both George Bush and Ken Livingstone
and marketing, huge sectors of the economy, are entirely devoted to ensuring
that we keep shopping and that our children follow in our footsteps. But there
is a madness at the heart of this economic model with its terrible
environmental costs. It's best illustrated by a graph used by the US psychologist Tim Kasser at a Whitehall seminar last week.
line, representing personal income, has soared over the past 40 years; the
other line marks those who describe themselves as "very happy", and
has remained the same. The gap between the two yawns ever wider. All this
consumption is not necessary to our happiness.
graph has both hopeful and disturbing implications. On the hopeful side, this
is good news: a low-consumption economy wouldn't mean misery. But
what's disturbing is how we continue to shop when it doesn't make us happier.
He argues that our hyper-consumerism is a response to insecurity, a maladaptive
type of coping mechanism. Over the past few decades, the sources of insecurity
have multiplied: in addition to the manipulation long practised by advertising,
there are new sources of insecurity in highly competitive market economies,
ranging from identity (who am I and where do I belong?) to basics (who will
look after me in my old age?).
relationship between materialism and insecurity helps explain why countries as
diverse as the US and China are
deeply materialistic; they are places of endemic insecurity. The brilliance of this economic system built
on insecurity is that it is self-reinforcing. The more insecure you are, the
more materialistic; the more materialistic, the more insecure.
Kasser has shown, materialistic values (which are on the increase among
teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic) make
you more anxious, more vulnerable to depression and less cooperative. Studies
show that people know what the real sources of lasting human fulfilment are -
good relationships, self-acceptance, community feeling - but they face a
formidable alliance of political and economic interests that have a vested
interest in distracting them from that insight to ensure they work longer hours
and spend more money.
task of turning this around is enormous, and the transition to a
low-consumption economy has to be carefully managed to ensure a soft landing.
The greatest dilemma is that the shift could produce a damaging feedback loop -
this is Kasser's anxiety. Lower consumption could lead to economic instability
and increased insecurity; plus climate change makes people insecure.
response might be to reinforce our current frantic hyper-consumerism: an
attitude of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die"; or a
lunge after as much as possible to insulate yourself against the impacts of
climate change. But equally possible is a win-win scenario; a low-consumption
economy oriented towards facilitating the real sources of human fulfillment.
of us dimly recognise that huge lifestyle changes are necessary, but we're
waiting for someone else to initiate the process. It's a question of "I
will if you will" - the title of a thoughtful report last year from the
government's Sustainable Development Commission. Hearteningly,
we know it can be done - our parents and grandparents managed it in the second
useful analogy, explored by Andrew Simms in his book "Ecological Debt",
demonstrates the critical role of government. In the early 1940s, a dramatic
drop in household consumption was achieved - not by relying on the good
intentions of individuals (and their ability to act on that coffee-stained
pamphlet), but by the government orchestrating a massive propaganda exercise
combined with a rationing system and a luxury tax.
will be the stuff of 21st-century politics - something that, right now, all the
main political parties are much too scared to admit.
Our happy home is already a low consumption economy, many others are becoming the same as incomes are squeezed. Could The Guardian be right about something?