[First off, let me say sorry about yesterday’s post of a revamped version of the national anthem. Like so many people commented, I couldn’t hear the lyrics. I thought that only the melody had been adapted. I would never have posted it if I had realized that the lyrics had been changed. But onwards…]
One method of making consumption sustainable is to modify material and product production, distribution, use and disposal methods so that the consumption is less damaging. Another method, and the one that I often write about, has to do with just reducing consumption.
I like this approach because no new technology is required. It is simply a matter of habit change. And I like it because I don’t believe the two-job, credit card debt up to our necks, don’t have time for our friends and families approach to life makes us happy.
I believe, as Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey discussed in his 2005 paper “Live Better by Consuming Less?,” that there is a “double-dividend” to reduced consumption. One dividend is that it helps maintain our health, happiness and security as it depends on our planetary habitat and the other is the increase of happiness that can come with a lesser emphasis on accumulating stuff.
What I like about Tim Jackson’s paper is that he clearly articulates the arguments both for an against this position, and then comes to a conclusion about how the double-dividend argument might actually be achieved, given the complexity of human nature:
- A starting point for conventional economics is that, “in some simple sense, the consumption of goods and services is an attempt to provide for our individual and (at the aggregate level) collective well-being.”
- “What emerges from this assumption is the idea that the more we consume (in economic terms) the better off we are…The equation of economic consumption with well-being goes a long way toward explaining the primacy of measures such as GDP in public policy terms.”
- In contrast, “the environmental lobby has been particularly vociferous in denouncing the economic model both for its failure to to protect the environment and for the over simplicity of its underlying conception of human nature.”
- “The assumption of insatiability at the heart of economics is directly counter to certain classical conceptions of human well-being. Pleonexia, the insatiable desire for more, was regarded in Aristotle’s day as a human failing, an obstacle to achieving the ‘good life.’ In the modern consumer society, it is encoded in both the ideological foundation and the institutional structure of the market economy.”
- Jackson goes on to ask if consumption does not offer us the good life, why would we consume so much? This is a strong contradiction to the idea of pleonexia as a pathology. Jackson demonstrates that consumption is actually rooted not so much in the need of the products we consume, per se, but in deep psychological needs.
- “Among the behaviors suggested by the evolutionary psychology of consumerism are those concerned with display and status… That certain kinds of consumption are used to advertise status, power, and social position has been explored extensively in the sociological discourse on consumption.”
- This is not pathological but an “expression of behavioral traits that have been successful in ensuring the survival of the species for generations.”
- Furthermore, status-based decisions, such as to buy a big house, then lock us into other consumption decisions, like to buy the oil to heat the house.
- Beyond that, “in addition to their purely functional characteristics, material commodities possess vitally important symbolic properties… One of the most obvious applications of this broad thesis lies in the role of material commodities in constructing and maintaining personal identity.” In other words, as our culture is constructed, consumption lies at the heart of expressing our style and individuality.
- “We consume in order to communicate. Through consumption we communicate not only with each other but also with our pasts, with our ideals, with our fears, and with our aspirations. We consume in pursuit of meaning.”
- “But where do these arguments leave the double dividend argument? How should we now construe the idea that it is possible to live better by consuming less?”
- Jackson goes on to say that the needs for status, identity and meaning do not preclude their being decoupled from what we own. That, in fact, what we learn is that if we want to reduce consumption than we need to find ways to replace the communication that consumption achieves. We need to find better ways to achieve that same communication.
- Furthermore, “the insight that a certain amount of consumer behavior is dedicated to an (ultimately flawed) pursuit of meaning opens up the tantalizing possibility of devising some other, more successful and less ecologically damaging strategy for pursuing personal and cultural meaning.”
- “It remains a very real possibility that we could collectively devise a society in which it is possible to live better (or at least as well as we have done) by consuming less and becoming more human in the process.”
To read the whole 19-page paper, in PDF, go here.