Everybody seems to agree that modern society is organized around and defined by consumption. At the dawn of postmodern period an ever-increasing capacity of the manufacturing industry to supply an unprecedented amount and diversity of goods and individuals’ growing financial and personal freedom to engage in consumption was regarded as a great achievement of the capitalist economy. Today, however, consumption is no longer seen as a boon. Consumption is increasingly linked to a whole array of societal and environmental problems, the notion of consumerism has acquired overtly negative connotations and is no longer used in its primary meaning – as the “protection and promotion of the interests of consumers” (Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2014), and consumer culture is being either mocked at or explicitly disdained with everyone who dares to enjoy shopping being labelled as “materialistic”, “hedonistic”, “irresponsible”, “rampant”, “conspicuous consumer”.
While much of what I have read so far contributed to precisely this way of thinking about consumption, today I’d like to give voice to an alternative view. This view comes from several sources. First, I have recently come across an engaging talk (part 1 and part 2) by Joseph Patrick who argues that the problems of the third-world poverty and environmental degradation, which are often linked to over-consumption in the West, are actually brought about not by excessive consumption or, for that matter, production of stuff, but by the constant pursuit of profit – the underlying logic of the entire capitalist system. Production of goods is so damaging to the environment because of the profit-oriented practices, such as outsourcing of manufacturing to the countries with cheaper labour and then shipping goods back all across the world to the intended consumer; dumping waste instead of recycling; planned obsolescence of goods that are only functional for a limited period and require constant replacement with newer, “improved” versions which results in more consumption and simultaneously more waste. He also makes the case against anti-consumerism as a means to redress cross-national wealth inequalities – the reason the third world is so poor is not because 20% of the world population consume 86% of goods leaving meagre 14% to the developing nations; people in the third world are excluded from consumption on a purely financial basis – for not having money and hence being “economically insignificant”. Consuming less in the West, the argument goes, will never result in more goods being available somewhere else – unwanted goods will simply go to waste, not shipped where they are needed. A compelling argument, given that many other commentators have been long contending that third-world poverty is caused not by the lack of goods, but by unfair distribution thereof.
The idea that excessive consumption in the developed world is what going to destroy the planet gets under serious attack in Daniel Miller’s (2012) most recent book “Consumption and its Consequences”, in which three scholars engage in a discussion on the nature and implications of consumption. One of the discussants puts forward a convincing argument that major “over”- consumption is going to come not from the West, but from the provision of essential services and needs (such as hospitals and public transport) and basic functional goods (such as fridges and washing machines) to the impoverished populations. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the rampant, excessive and lavish consumption that is commonly blamed for ruining societal and environmental wellbeing. But an even more provocative claim made in the book is that a reduction in consumption, however warranted by the needs of the planet, is actually not beneficial for people since goods do in fact enrich our lives with more comfort, more possibilities, more functionality, more efficiency and yes, more meaning too. This leads me to two other strands of ideas. First, the so-called “double dividend” argument, suggesting that less consumption will not only benefit the environment but also bring true, “unmaterialistic” happiness to people (Jackson, 2005) ; and secondly, a crucial distinction between consumer culture and material culture which Daniel Miller has been long asserting. Each if these ideas, however, deserve a deeper exploration and more careful consideration that the remainder of this post allows for.
I’ll leave you to think about the pros and cons of consumption as an economic, social and cultural act, but will soon come back to this far from uncontested topic.
consumerism (Def. 1). (n.d.). Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved February 21, 2014, from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumerism
Gioan, P. (2011, 20 July). Joseph Patrick of the German Marxist quarterly GegenStandpunkt
Lecture and Discussion in Copenhagen, Denmark (in English), November 9, 2010. Retrieved February, 21, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUdD8y0Hrho
Gioan, P. (2011, 4 August). Joseph Patrick of the German Marxist quarterly GegenStandpunkt
Lecture and Discussion in Copenhagen, Denmark (in English), November 9, 2010. Retrieved February, 21, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xN9T7yBeFI
Jackson, T. (2005). Live Better by Consuming Less?: is there a “double dividend” in sustainable consumption?. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9(1‐2), 19-36.
Miller, D. (2012). Consumption and its consequences. Polity.