In our latest ‘ask an expert’ session, Kim Humphery (RMIT University, Melbourne) advocates balance and fresh thinking in the West’s discussions about consumerism and anti-consumerism.
When we hear the term ‘western society’ it’s a sure bet that one of the things we think of is ‘consumer society’. The western world is the affluent world; the world of material abundance and endless shopping. Maybe that’s why the Global Financial Crisis came as such a shock. We’d all come to expect that the consumer good times would roll-on; because, after all, that’s what the West is supposed to be about.
But not everyone has bought this idea. There’s always been opposition to ‘consumerism’; and over the past few years I have been delving in to the nature of this resistance.
One of the things I have wanted to do is both celebrate and evaluate what has come to be called the ‘new politics of consumption’. Whether expressed through ‘frugal living’ or ‘ethical shopping’, a politics of anti-consumerism, especially in the West itself, has been picking up steam for a number of years. Why? Because more and more people have become concerned about the social and environmental results of overconsumption; of our tendency in the affluent world to buy and waste increasing amounts of stuff.
One of the most positive aspects of anti-consumerist politics is that it asks us as individuals to think hard about why we consume, what we actually get out of acquiring stuff, and what this does to the world around us. Anti-consumerism insists that we change our ways and consume less. Like all philosophies of change, though, the new politics of consumption has a few shortcomings.
First, anti-consumerism tends to be ‘anti-thing’. It sees material objects as less important than the emotional aspects of life, and often condemns the valuing of things as foolhardy. This misunderstands our relationship to the material world and overlooks the fact that material objects are crucial to human culture and happiness (see Danny Miller’s blog post).
Second, so many anti-consumerist critics simply stick the boot in; portraying western populations as mindlessly materialistic and blaming individuals for the continuation of overconsumption. This fails to recognise that we consume for various reasons, not simply because we are brainwashed. It exaggerates individual change as a response to consumerism, and it swallows the fallacy of ‘consumer society’; as if such an overgeneralising term can actually define the lives we lead.
Anti-consumerism is thus a timely politics of the moment, but also a politics in need of fresh thinking.
Oliver asks: Is overconsumption always about increased personal consumption - after all, the world population is much larger than it was 50 years ago, so overall consumption is a bigger issue. Do you think it makes sense to think of an obligation to consume less per person when we face massive population increases?
As the global population increases so do levels of consumption (particularly of energy), no question. But it's a bit of trap to see population increases as the driver of overconsumption. I'm no fan of stats, but I like one in particular: currently about 20% of the world's population is responsible for about 85% of world consumption expenditure. The remaining 80% of the global population either consume at moderate levels or underconsume - that is, they live in poverty. Population is a factor in aggregate world consumption levels, but this does not diminish the responsibility of affluent societies to consume more moderately and thus facilitate a more equitable use of the Earth's resources. Some of this is about individual change, but mostly it's about broader socio-economic and infrastructural change in affluent countries in particular.
Louise asks: Big supermarkets and businesses are sometimes criticized for hijacking and commercializing green issues and ethical shopping, and only paying lip service to them. Do you think ethical shopping is in any way different from 'normal' shopping, or is it just a moderate version of the same old consumer culture?
Ethical shopping (ES) has its critics, and in many ways it deserves them. ES, in-line with consumer culture, often reduces ethics to individual product choice. As such, it can be seen as little more than a 'politics-lite' for those who can afford the often higher prices of ethical goods. What is more, ES tends to imply that those who don't buy certain goods are not invoking a sense of ethics in their consumer choices - and this is quite mistaken. Having said all this, ES does at least express some worthy abstract principles (especially relating to ideas of global equity and environmental sustainability) and a willingness to 'consume with care' must surely be a part of any anti-consumerist politics. At its best ES is conceived also as simply one strategy among many, and as not simply about making better market choices but reducing our overall levels of consumption and waste.
Kim’s new book, Excess: Anti-consumerism in the West, provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of the ‘new politics of consumption’. Drawing on interviews with activists across three continents, it offers a new alternative to current anti-consumerism, which avoids treating consumers as mere dupes in the logic of capitalism.