Here is an Excerpt from part one;
"What’s consumerism done to us? How have we been changed by fifty or sixty years of that?
I think what consumerism has done to us is turned us into consumers. Which sounds like a silly answer but we all have roles in our lives, and we have multiple roles: I’m a father, and I’m a professor, a teacher, I’m an activist and I’m a consumer too, and our roles like our values end up influencing what we think is important in life, they influence our behaviour and how we treat other people. I think what’s happened over the last fifty/sixty years is that in order for our economic system to maintain itself, it requires people to enhance the consumer role – to think of themselves more as consumers and I don’t know how it is here in the UK, but when you’re reading the newspaper in the US you’re much more likely to see people referred to as consumers instead of citizens.
To be a consumer has a very different set of implications than to be a citizen. To be a consumer is to think about “what is it I want to buy?” So first off there’s a selfishness already involved in the role and there’s a set of behaviours implied by the role. There’s this sense that as that role comes to dominate more and more of how we think about ourselves and how our policy makers think of us, it leads potential solutions to problems or potential decisions to be “well what’s good for consumption, or what’s good to make a citizen?”, as opposed to what’s good for people. If you think about what a citizen’s role is, it’s to think about the whole of the community and “what’s my role in the community?”
You’re obviously still thinking about yourself, but you’re not thinking about yourself and what you’re going to buy, you’re thinking about yourself and who you’re going to be in relationship to others. There’s sort of a transcendent characteristic or aspect to that role. That I think leads us to behave in very different ways. I behave very differently when I’m being a consumer to when I’m being a citizen. The way that our economic and thus our political system is oriented now, is very much attuned to people as consumers and less to people as citizens and therefore it develops all kinds of policies that end up maximising the consumer role and not too much for the citizen role.
I think that’s part of why it makes it easy for people to think about “Do I want this?” instead of “well, how is it made, and how does my buying this impact people?”, and to think, “well it’s Friday and I’m going to stay home and watch TV”, rather than “I’m going to go out enjoying my fellow citizens cleaning up the river bank”, or having a meeting to help determine town policy about zoning and whether Tesco’s is coming in.
Consumer society tells us what the optimal ways are to live our lives. That’s what any social system does, there’s nothing special about consumerism with regard to that. Christianity tells us how to live our lives, fascism told us how to live our lives… the particular way consumer capitalism tells us to live our lives is this way and through consumption and the maximisation of economic growth. Through working hard so you can have a lot of money and then you can spend it on stuff that you want to buy. Whenever you believe something’s important something else has to become less important and the value of consumerism and materialism crowd out other important things.
Has consumerism left us more or less able to respond rapidly to change? Are we less resilient? How can we know that?
I think to the particular kinds of changes which we’re likely to face here in the near future if climate science is right and if everything we read about what’s happening socially is right, I really think it’s left us less able to respond to those challenges and I think there’s a couple of different things that goes back to: one of them is that consumerism leads us (this is true of any social system) when we have a difficulty to think about certain ways to solve that difficulty and to not think about other ways.
If you take a look at people who accept that there is climate change or climate disruption and then they try to figure out how to solve that problem, consumerism says: “well, consume in a green way”, because that’s a very reasonable solution to the problem from a consumers’ perspective – we just need to consume different things and we need to decarbonise and we need to keep economic growth, but just have carbon clean economic growth. So we get locked into that set of solutions when we think about the problem of climate disruption from a consumerstic view point.
All the climate scientists I talk to and everything I read suggests that that’s important, but it won’t get us anywhere near the way to solve those kinds of problems. Plus, it’s not going to help habitat loss or the other environmental problems we have to do those things. That’s one issue – it tells us solutions which are far too partial.
Another issue is that because we know that materialism and consumerism and materialism in research is associated with behaving in less cooperative and more competitive ways and less empathic and more manipulative ways and less pro social and anti social ways. What all that suggests is that when push comes to shove, and there are significant problems that we face, we will have lost some of the interpersonal, social skills and community skills that are really needed in order to come together as a group and solve the problems and instead I think we’ll be more likely to continue our competitive mindset in ways that end up damaging us at the very time we need to work together to solve the problems. Because we don’t think about consensus and we don’t think about building a group and listening to everybody and treating other people like people instead of other objects to be manipulated when we take on that materialist mindset.
So that scares me. If things get really bad here we may have lost some of the important skills that we need to manage that and the aftermath. We have milk goats and my wife wanted someone to teach her how and there wasn’t anyone. A hundred years ago there’d have been all kinds of people to teach her. But we’ve lost a lot of the self sufficiency skills that we need. Instead we go to work to earn money so we can hire somebody else to do it because that’s good for the economy.
We’ve lost a lot of the skills that ultimately we’re going to need if we live in a more localised way and we live not in a self sufficient way, but in a group sufficient way."