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Downshifting

The post-consumer society

“The megalogue (mass dialogue) about the relationship between consumerism and human flourishing is now flickering but has yet to become a leading topic…The main challenge is not to pass some laws, but, rather, to ask people to reconsider what a good life entails.”

– Amitai Etzoni, The New Republic (June 2009)

For all its catastrophic implications, climate change is apparently not a sufficiently serious threat to engender a fundamental re-examination of our consumer-based society. We talk of using market mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade, to address the problem. Energy efficiency improvements, smart grids, investments in renewables, but the consumer mantra continues unchallenged, even celebrated, despite the fact that reducing carbon emissions would be a much less daunting prospect if we were not so fixated on economic growth ad infinitum (more growth means more energy consumption). As this article on PlanetArk points out, “Developing nations such as China and India say that the rich should cut emissions by ‘at least 40 percent’ below 1990 levels by 2020 — a target developed nations say is out of reach when they are trying to stimulate recession-hit economies.”

But where climate change has failed, perhaps the economic crisis will succeed.  This article by Amitai Etzoni in the June 17 issue of The New Republic calls for a transformation in our culture that questions the very organizing principle of American life: consumerism. And he sees the current economic crisis as an opportunity to begin a widespread public dialogue (‘megalogue’ he calls it) on the need and merits of shifting away from our consumer-driven society.

“The crisis has caused people to spend less on luxury goods, such as diamonds and flashy cars; scale back on lavish celebrations for holidays, birthdays, weddings, and bar mitzvahs; and agree to caps on executive compensation. Some workers have accepted fewer hours, lower salaries, and unpaid furloughs.”

And the benefits of this downshift are tangible according to Etzoni. “A society that downplayed consumerism in favor of other organizing principles would not just limit the threat of economic meltdown and feature a generally happier populace; it would have other advantages as well. Such a society would, for example, use fewer material resources and, therefore, be much more compatible with protecting the environment. It would also exhibit higher levels of social justice.”

But what would replace consumerism as the central economic organizing principle in of western societies? Etzoni advocates a shift toward communitarian and transcendental pursuits such as self-expression, volunteering and so on, but I would go beyond this to say that the path of moderation needs to be the new American dream. No longer should we celebrate ostentatious displays of wealth but we should instead look down upon extravagant lifestyles as wasteful and destructive. With excessive wealth invariably comes high environmental costs such as energy consumption and social costs through the deprivation of basic necessities for the poor. It is now clear that there is only so many resources to go around and a rising tide does not lift all boats. If some are obscenely wealthy, others are deprived. Modesty must become the new hallmark of success. 

This is far from socialism and I agree with Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz when he said in a recent article in Vanity Fair, “democracy and market forces are essential to a just and prosperous world.” The goal is not income equality for all but basic fairness – an end to the vast income disparities we see between the opulently wealthy and the desperately poor, neither of which have done much, in the majority of cases, to deserve their respective lots in life. 

Where Etzoni’s analysis misses the mark, however, is in his assumptions of what actually motivates human behaviour. I agree that the consumer society has not made us any more satisfied with our lives but is happiness the only objective of human endeavours? I fear not. What about our appetites for luxury, status and power? We are hard-wired to seek self-satisfaction to be sure but this is not always the same as happiness. For whatever reason, we humans seem to like to compete with each other and we like to best our opponents. Doing so may not necessarily make us happier but this is not really the point, for happiness is only one of our many personal goals.

There are countless examples of individuals engaging in behaviour or activities that by any account do not seem to bring about greater levels of contentment. Choosing and sticking with professions that we are unsuited for and don’t enjoy but bring status and wealth is one example. Working endlessly long hours to make a little more money than our neighbours at the expense of our families and leisure time is another. If it were only happiness we seek, surely no sane individual would pursue such lifestyles. But we do – in droves. A post-consumer society will have to acknowledge and provide some outlets for this basic human need. If not through consumerism and ostentatious displays of wealth, then what?

As Etzoni says, “The main challenge is not to pass some laws, but, rather, to ask people to reconsider what a good life entails.” We must allow that, for many people today, the  good life entails more than just the pursuit of happiness.

What do you think?

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Categories: Consumerism
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