We can’t consume our way to the good life.

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Ethical shopping is one aspect of the more ‘citizenly’ approach to consumption in our time. Another is associated with disenchantment with the consumer lifestyle itself: other conceptions of the ‘good life’ are gaining more of a hold, and affluence is now commonly seen as compromised by the stress, time-scarcity, air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity and general ill health that go together with it. In other words, consumerism is today being questioned not only because of its ethical and environmental consequences, but because of its negative impact on affluent consumers themselves, and the ways it distrains on both sensual pleasure and more spiritual forms of well-being.

This questioning lies behind the many laments for what has gone missing from our lives under the pressure of neo-liberal economic policies, and the frequent expressions of interest in less tangible goods such as more free time, better personal relationships and a slower pace of life. Whether in nostalgia for a nationalised rail service (for a time, as a fellow traveller said to me the other day, ‘when we were passengers, not customers’), or in dejection over an educational system tailored to the needs of industry rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning, or in alarm over the commercialisation of childhood and the evidence of depression among the young, what is voiced is a sense of sadness that only monetary values can make headway in our culture, and that public goods cannot be expected to survive unless they make a profit.

These voicings of discontent are not particularly class-based and remain low-key, diffused and politically unfocussed. They are the frustrated murmurings of people aware of their impotence to take on the corporate giants and lacking a coherent idea of what to put in place of the existing order. But the regrets and disquiet are real enough, and feed into a widely felt sense of the opportunities we have squandered in recent decades for enjoying more relaxed and less narrowly reduced ways of living.

This is reflected, too, in the concerns of medical professionals, welfare workers and academic researchers about the economic and social effects of the high-stress, fast-food lifestyle. Recent studies have indicated that buying more does not bring greater happiness and that economic growth has no direct correlation with improved levels of well-being.

As the UK’s independent watchdog on sustainable development (set up by the Labour Party in 2000 and abolished by the Coalition government in 2011) noted some while ago in its report on ‘Redefining Prosperity’, psychologists and alternative economists have set out to demonstrate that, far from there being any automatic increase in wellbeing for every increase in levels of consumption, much of our current consumption is turning out to be a very inadequate surrogate for meeting human needs in a more satisfying, durable way.

More recently, recognition that a time-scarce, work-dominated society is bad for the physical and the mental health of workers has led to many calls for GDP (sometimes dubbed the ‘Grossly Distorting Picture’) to be displaced in favour of other indices of social wealth. While the huge contribution of unpaid activity such as household and voluntary work is discounted, GDP includes profits made from dealing with the consequences of mishaps and disasters such as air pollution, plane crashes and car accidents. 

A number of alternatives have been proposed, including the Human Development Index, which now recognises, alongside living standards measured by income, the role of life expectancy and knowledge in advancing well-being. The Genuine Progress Indicator (developed by Herman Daly and John Cobb in the late 1980s) also adds in the value created by domestic and voluntary work while subtracting the costs of crime and pollution. More recently, the Ecological Footprint measures how much land and water a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste under prevailing technologies. 

The Happy Planet Index uses the Ecological Footprint along with life expectancy and reported experience of happiness to calculate national levels of happiness. It thus includes ecological efficiency in providing for well-being as a key criterion of its achievement. Nations score well on the index if they achieve high levels of satisfaction and health with low levels of damage to the environment. To date many of the most industrialised nations, including the UK and USA, have scored pretty poorly on the index.

There is, then, a climate of concern about the impact of unchecked consumption on ourselves and on the environment, which is reflected in an extensive body of research. But not much of this new thinking has entered into mainstream political argument, which still entertains only the most orthodox (and outdated) economic models and conceptions of prosperity. Even as it is progressively undermining the basic conditions of existence for millions alive today and for all future generations, the Western affluent lifestyle continues to be upheld as the model to which all societies should aspire.

Mainstream political parties and corporate elites certainly profess concern about global warming, and have supported (often under some duress) measures to reduce emissions. Governments have also implemented schemes to reduce the collateral environmental damage of domestic consumption: encouraging and enforcing recycling, taxing plastic carrier bags and so on. But those in power have certainly not invited the electorate to think more radically and expansively about ideas of progress and prosperity. Little or nothing is heard about the purpose of all our wealth production, and whether it really enhances well-being; little or nothing is said about what might be gained by pursuing a less work-driven and acquisitive way of life. On the contrary, governments and mainstream opposition parties have been happy to allow consumer culture to retain its hegemony over the imagery and representation of our well-being, and they continue to encourage us to spend more on it. 

The message is repeated in a never-ending barrage of advertisements and in the many incentive schemes to keep us spending. So culturally entrenched is the idea that our health and happiness as a nation is conditional on how much shopping we do that it seems eccentric to even question it.

—excerpted from Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper

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