Let’s see how your books tie into those ideas. Your first choice, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” by Pierre Bourdieu, explores how our background plays such a dominant role in what we choose to consume.
Bourdieu is very much foundational in terms of understanding consumer culture. In contrast to many accounts that focus on advertising and marketing as somehow beaming desire into people, Bourdieu shows how the patterns of consumption that dominate in a society come out of structures of social inequality. He groups the consumer realm with the economic. I think that is very important because the ideology of consumption in the second half of the 20th century was that consumption is individualised and natural. Your taste is just who you are and it represents you as a person.
But, surely, it is fairly obvious that people with money tend to have flashier cars and houses than those who don’t?
That we would consider a sort of crude status model which comes from Thorstein Veblen, who argued that the pattern of consumption is based on people’s economic resources so it is how wealthy you are that determines what you consume and everyone wants to consume the same thing. It is just that some people don’t have enough money for it. But what Bourdieu shows is that there is a whole other structure at work, in addition to economic capital, which he calls cultural capital. Foodie culture is a great example. This is a kind of cultural capital that people develop, even if they don’t have a lot of money, and they develop tastes which go along with it. Cultural producers, for example, have very finely honed tastes. They often set taste patterns for others to follow and yet they may not be particularly wealthy. And so it is a second dimension for understanding consumer culture, which is related in many ways to economic capital but in other ways operates in opposite ways.
How does this link into what is going on with the environment?
One of the things that we have to understand is that certain types of ideas about what is sustainable have got caught in that net of culture and class in complicated ways. So it was thought that to be green you needed the latest generation solar house or you needed a greywater system or you needed an expensive hybrid car. The high cultural capital folks were a group taking up green consumption and sustainability.
So it was putting other people off, who didn’t necessarily have the capital to follow suit. And in order to change people’s consumer habits when it comes to the environment, you need to change their perceptions about what it involves?
Next up is “Econned” by Yves Smith, which explores how we managed to get into the financial mess we are in today.
“Econned” is a great book, which deconstructs economics. It is kind of an “Occupy economics” text that looks at what is wrong with the mainstream economists’ views. It is much more sympathetic to Keynesian economics. It looks at how we have gone wrong in our economic thinking and I think that is an important corrective. My PhD was in economics and I think that for people who are interested in understanding the run-up to the financial collapse, and what’s happened since, this is a great book.
Part of the way it relates to the issues of consumption and environment is that I don’t think we are going to be able to solve the ecological issues without also solving the economic problems that we face. Mostly these conversations are separate but we need to put them together. We need to think about new economic models that would allow us to move forward with new structures of production and consumption.
What kind of new economic model do you think could help with this situation?
There are really interesting social models that show the ways in which social behavior spreads from person to person through social networks. This could be things like eating, drinking, smoking or sustainable green behavior. In the standard economic model one person’s consumption is not allowed to affect another person’s. That’s a crazy idea, I know. Those are the assumptions that get us to things like the idea that it is bad for a government to intervene in consumer markets, which by the way, has been the dominant ideology for the last 30 years.
But you think they should intervene and make it tougher for people to use their cars so much or hop on a plane?
Yes, we need to think about the impacts of how we structure consumption, not just on the individual but on the whole system and on the whole planet.