A survey out last week from the Pew Research Center shows declining perceptions of necessity for a variety of household and consumer goods.Some have moralistically jumped on this finding as evidence that people are finally realizing that “things don’t make you happy.”
Ahhh… Not exactly.
This drop in consumer perception is a practical response to declining purchasing power. As soon as the economy rebounds, it’s quite obvious people will immediately rediscover all those temporarily repressed “needs.”
But anti-consumerism is a durable meme in some political (and religious) circles, along with the companion false choice between consumer goods and the environment. Some anti-consumerists even go so far as to imply that advertising undermines free will, because diverse brands are all centrally owned–the so-called “illusion of choice.”
Anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism have become key points of ‘Dark Green’ political activism. This attitude in turn is why many people, particularly conservatives, equate environmentalism with anti-capitalism, a desire for “punishment” and often see environmentalists as killjoys, or “secular fundamentalists.”
I think it goes even further than that.
Dark Greens have very effectively poisoned the well for the uncommitted. Their austerity and neo-Victorian admonitions that we must “be happy with less” have painted environmentalism with the brush of defeat and retrenchment. They’ve told us we have a ‘spiritual’ problem, that our appetites make us defective, and we should strive to overcome them in a return to simpler living. This is akin to, and even stems in part from the Buddhist aphorism “suffering is caused by desire,” (itself a response to poverty and deprivation), and also biblical support for the poor and oppressed. Dark Greens largely make up the groups whose fringes have been involved in very un-Buddhist, un-Christian, and terroristic activities such as spiking trees, torching car dealerships and sabotaging animal research labs. They approach the zeal and idealism of committed revolutionaries.
All of which is horrendous for the brand of environmentalism. It makes the goal of mainstreaming conservation and sustainability much, much more difficult. Alex Steffen, one of my favorite writers on one of my favorite sites, WorldChanging [now defunct] put it this way in a September 2005 interview:
Progress is perhaps the key American virtue. It’s right up there with individualism. One of the worst things that happened to us in the last 10 or 15 years is the other side has managed to equate us — due in part to irresponsible statements by some of our allies — with the idea of regression, stalled progress, moving backwards, killing jobs, a future that is bleak, where everyone shivers in the dark. In fact, the future they’re proposing, which is basically to drown in our own filth, is not progressive in either sense of the word, and we have a much, much better solution.
Steffen has broken down the environmental movement into three main categories, Light Greens, Dark Greens, and (my personal choice) Bright Greens. From wikipedia:
Light Greens see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility. They fall in on the reformist end of the spectrum introduced above, but light Greens do not emphasize environmentalism as a distinct political ideology, or even seek fundamental political reform. Instead they often focus on environmentalism as a lifestyle choice. The motto “Green is the new black.” sums up this way of thinking, for many.
In contrast, Dark Greens believe that environmental problems are an inherent part of industrialized civilization evident in both state socialist and capitalist societies, and seek radical political change. As discussed earlier, ‘dark greens’ tend to believe that dominant political ideologies (sometimes referred to as industrialism) are corrupt and inevitably lead to consumerism, alienation from nature and resource depletion. Dark Greens claim that this is caused by the emphasis on growth that exists within all existing ideologies, a tendency referred to as ‘growth mania’. The dark green brand of environmentalism is associated with ideas of Deep Ecology, Post-materialism, Holism, the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock and the work of Fritjof Capra. The division between light and dark greens was visible in the fighting between Fundi and Realo factions of the German Green Party.
More recently, a third group may be said to have emerged in the form of Bright Greens. This group believes that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes–and that we can neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability. As Ross Robertson writes, “Bright green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the “tools, models, and ideas” that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions.”
Rocky Mountain Institute co-founders Amory and Hunter Lovins wrote a seminal and prescient book in 1999 called Natural Capitalism. In the past few years, they have been incredibly productive and influential, doubling the efficiency of Wal-Mart’s trucking fleet, spurring the development of electric and plug-in hybrid cars such as the Chevy Volt, and most recently consulting on a top-to-bottom energy refit of the Empire State Building. RMI pretty much defines Bright Green, proving that current technology is more than sufficient to create a sustainable world–if only we could muster the political will.
The Obama administration has made green energy a centerpiece of its economic recovery plan. It’s a huge step in the right direction, and a welcome break from the rapacious policies of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the magnitude of Obama’s green initiative is far too small. In a country that imports $250 billion/year worth of oil (at $50/barrel–far more at higher prices), we could afford to spend at least a year’s worth of oil revenue (or five) to build out the domestic biofuel infrastructure, to eliminate these imports permanently. Talk about creating American jobs! But I digress.
The real point of this article is to debunk the idea of ‘consumerism’ as a ‘malaise’ of modern society. In fact, I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s not even a useful term–and has always been a politically charged, judgmental and pejorative weasel-word.
From my comments over at WorldChanging:
“Sustainability and consumer goods are opposites.”
This, in a nutshell, defines the Dark Green position. Because they’re evaluating consumer goods as they’ve always been made in the carbon-energy era. Not as if they were made sustainably. It’s a tautology: unsustainable consumer goods are unsustainable. But if they’re made sustainably, that means virtually unlimited demand could be satisfied without environmental damage. That’s what the word means! Indeed, sustainability is the only way to grow the economy on a resource-constrained planet.
No one said consumer goods make everyone, (or anyone) happier. When I hear this tripe, I somehow think of people having support group meetings at IKEA or worshiping at the church of Best Buy. Sorry, I think people just go there to buy the stuff they want/need as cheaply as possible. I think everyone understands they’re not buying “inner peace” when they pull out their credit card.
Whatever the reason, people keep desiring and purchasing goods, though. Dark Greens blame advertising. How patronizing. The truth is, advertising improves brand loyalty, and may slightly increase overall demand. But you’ll never convince anyone that advertising is the only reason people have refrigerators, for example. They are a necessity by any stretch. One of the first things a village gets when it gets electricity is a fridge for storing vaccines and medicines. No household could survive long without one, unless they were willing to eat nothing but canned and dried foods, or if they lived on a farm.
Again, striking a balance between goods vs. personal development is a choice best left to the individual. Society has failed when it allows goods to be manufactured that are cheap, disposable and destructive without paying for the externalities they create.
The above referenced Pew study is an obvious response to a lack of purchasing power. As soon as that changes, you can bet people will rediscover all the “necessities” they gave up during lean times. This is not rocket science.
So we’d better use this downturn to push sustainability in manufacturing even harder than before. And smart public transport will take more cars off the road than a million philosophical discussions about getting by and “being happy with less.”
So much misery and political grandstanding can be chalked up to this idea. At the fifth Summit of the Americas, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA–Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Dominica) recently issued a statement condemning capitalism for:
…destroying humanity and the planet. We face a global crisis of a systemic and structural character, not just one more cyclical crisis…provok[ing] an ecological crisis by subordinating the necessary conditions for life on this planet to the domination of the market and profit. Each year, the world consumes a third more than what the planet is capable of regenerating…The global economic, climate change, food and energy crises are products of the decadence of capitalism and threaten to end life on Earth. To avoid this, we must develop an alternative model to capitalism.
I feel their pain. But what they are really asking for is sustainability. And until people understand what that word truly means, we will remain mired in fruitless debates about capitalism vs. communism and consumerism vs. environmentalism. They are really the same conversation, one on a personal level, and the other writ large.
Sustainability and Bright Green environmentalism have the potential to permanently transform world politics, vastly increase prosperity, and make these stark ideological differences seem like a historical footnote.
People have needs and wants. How they meet those needs and wants, how things are manufactured, and what is done with post-consumer waste (whether it’s repurposed for new products) will determine whether humans are capable of living in harmony with our ecosystem. And those decisions hinge on the capacity for greater democratic control of industry–not on an externally imposed guilt-trip against consumption.