Changing our culture of consumption

The author of "True Wealth" talks about how class and culture affect our relationship to the environment

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Changing our culture of consumption
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Juliet Schor, the author of “True Wealth,” suggests how we can rethink our patterns of consumption and approach our relationship with nature in a new, less damaging, way.

The BrowserJudging by the books you have written and your research, your two great passions are finding out more about consumption and the environment. How do you see the two as linking together?

At the most fundamental level we can think about all environmental pressures on the planet as stemming from consumption because production, after all, is only for the purpose of consumption. That may be a slightly simplistic way of thinking about it. But by consumption I don’t just mean households, I am also thinking about the whole chain of effects that lead to the appearance of a computer or a car or a house. All consumption has environment impacts and one of the issues I have been most concerned with in my work is the scale of consumption.

So you would argue for lessening the scale of our consumption?

I think lessening is complicated because one of the things we know from a lot of the social science research and common sense is that getting people to give up what they have is very difficult. The bigger issue is getting on to a new path. The wealthy countries have been on a path of steadily rising consumption with parallel environmental impacts and that is what we really need to grapple with now. We have got a population of seven billion people, the vast majority of whom want to consume more. We are already consuming at a level which is beyond what the planet can tolerate, so wealthy countries need to figure out how to reconfigure their consumption patterns and they need to get off that upward trajectory.

Given that we have such a powerful culture of consumption how do you think we can realistically bring about that change?

I think culture is a great word to bring into this conversation. Since World War II our culture has centred on growth and material acquisition. Transforming that culture is at the root of being able to make the transition to an environmentally viable – I don’t want to even use the word sustainable – world. I think this involves giving people new outlets for creativity, new sources of joy, happiness, wonder and social connection.



So essentially you think people should try to change their materialistic outlook on life and try to seek pleasure in other forms?

Yes. And for me one of the best ways to do this is through production. We need to foster a culture where people are creative not just on the consumption side but on the production side as well. A number of trends have started already. If we think about online culture, one of the things we know is that people are passionate about producing content. They are blogging; they are producing videos; they are making music. These are great production projects that people are extremely passionate about. And then we see, on a much smaller but growing scale, a movement offline where people are growing things, making things, crafting things and doing arts. There is a revival of cooking and baking. All this ties in with what I am talking about, which is a shift to a much more producer-oriented culture, which then starts to be more than just hobbies. We can start to reconceptualise the economy in ways that see this producer behaviour as actually capable of giving people money and resources and access to goods and so forth. So, for example, people who learn to make something well can begin to sell or trade with it. Others are starting careers having learned how to build eco-houses, or engage in permaculture, or make pottery or jewellery. Similarly, the “collaborative consumption” movement is partly about people renting or bartering space in their homes, or yards or garages or assets that can be shared, such as cars or machinery.

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?

Exactly.

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.

“The End of the Long Summer” by Dianne Dumanoski makes just that case. She advocates rethinking our whole way of life, including our consumer habits, if we want the planet to survive.

“The End of the Long Summer” is a superb book that puts both climate change and other environmental issues into a long-term perspective. A lot of it is about scientists and the way they have conceptualised the relationship between humans and nature. This book forces us to rethink the idea that we can control nature. That idea is central both to the mainstream economic models that we were just talking about, which really see humans as able to control not just the economy but their larger environment, as well as the whole ideology of consumption in the way that it fails to take into account unintended consequences.

Dumanoski finds that scientists are changing their metaphors. The metaphor of control might be the pilot steering the plane and that is the one she uses. The new metaphor is the idea of nature potentially as an angry powerful beast that humans are taunting. And the idea that we have unleashed forces that we cannot control is gaining currency among scientists and it leads us to have a much less arrogant and more humble relationship to nature. So, for example, it leads us away from thinking that we can solve the climate crisis by geoengineering the planet. And it leads us to the idea of needing to radically downsize our impact on the planet.

The problem is that while we all know this very few of us are actually prepared to do anything about it. We are so entrenched in our culture of consumption that we find it incredibly difficult to give it up. What do you think can be done to really make us change our way of life?

You really need the leading institutions – governments, NGOs, corporations and so forth – to be sincere in their commitments and I think that individual households will come along. In fact we can say that households have done a lot, given how little government has been willing to actually put itself on the line.

But, the whole situation is still very hard, given how little is being done.

It is difficult and that is why I think you need a lot more of a citizens’ movement to press those institutions.

Which brings us to Paul Hawken’s “Blessed Unrest,” which tells the story of a worldwide movement that is largely unseen by politicians or the media.

This is a movement for sustainability and a movement for the planet and for social justice. It is very small scale, which is why for the most part it is largely unseen. Of course there are larger groups that are involved in these kinds of actions. Hawken is one of the liveliest, most admired and inspirational leaders of the worldwide sustainability movement. And what he noticed, as he travelled around the world speaking and interacting with groups that are working on these issues, is how many hundreds of thousands of organisations had recently sprung up to heal the planet and the people on it. He likened it to a kind of immune system response to an ill body.

It is a different kind of political movement than we would have thought about decades ago. In those days movements were much larger and more centralised. This is the case if we think of the most powerful movements of the 20th century, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Labour Movement.

And now there are thousands of people around the world who want to do something about the common crisis that we are in.

Absolutely, and his argument is that they will begin to converge almost as a kind of collective intelligence. So it is a sort of Internet moment. I do think that the old-style movement model is not working and that is one of the reasons why I find his account so interesting.

Lastly, you have chosen “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life” by Kari Marie Norgaard.

In some ways this book is a good answer to your comments about us knowing what needs to be done but not actually doing anything to change the situation. That is the question that Norgaard addresses. She did ethnographic research in a Norwegian village for about a year and a half. Norway is a country with very high literacy and high formal awareness of climate change. The climate there is already changing dramatically. She was in a skiing village where there was no snow and she lived through an abnormally warm winter, and yet the villagers were all pretty much in denial about it. They didn’t talk about it or do anything about it or press their government to do anything about it.

So Norgaard examines the ways in which nothing happens. There was the idea that “Norway is a small country so there is nothing we can do”. Or they would excuse themselves by saying they were a green people who were close to nature. There were a variety of rationalisations that they used to try to continue along the same path.

This is bound up with the idea of our consumption and our culture – we are loath to let either go because it is what we are used to.

Absolutely – people are very much habituated to ways of life and don’t have imagination for something different. And the kind of change we are talking about is deep and profound. The Norwegians were stuck in ways that many of us in other wealthy countries are stuck in as well. Her book is not necessarily an answer but, by analysing why we are stuck, it points to some of the ways in which we might move forward.

But, realistically, short of an apocalyptic scenario where the earth is going to end in nine months’ time, unless you do something now we are still not changing. So instead I wonder about the next generation and what life will be like for them.

I do think the younger generation is much more attuned to these things and will live in different ways but they are also going to be faced with far more difficult impacts from climate change. So they are going to have fewer opportunities to live in the ways that other generations have lived in. They are going to live with much more resource scarcity and materially they are going to have to devote many more resources to protecting themselves from that angry beast that Dumanoski is talking about. Some people still believe there is a way to land that jet plane fairly gradually. Dumanoski is saying, prepare yourself for a lot of harsh unpredictable scary stuff.

What kind of time frame are we talking about?

I am not sure we know. One of the things that we are learning year by year is how much more quickly climate is changing than anyone predicted.

This interview has been edited for length.

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