Consuming Paradise? - Unsustainable Consumption in Cultural and Social-psychological Context
By Tim JacksonCentre for Environmental StrategyUniversity of Surrey
“[T]here is now an intriguing body of evidence to suggest that healthy psychological and social functioning may actually be impaired by high levels of materialism (Kasser 2002). In fact, this suggestion has provided the basis for a long-standing critique of materialism that had its roots in the debate between the Stoics and Epicureans about the nature of happiness several millennia ago. This critique was renewed with some vigour in the neo-Marxist critiques of industrial society that populated the first half of the twentieth century. And the same basic idea still informs many modern green critiques today: far from being necessary to our survival, materialism threatens our environment, engenders inequality and does not even make us happy.
If this were the whole story, it would be a very happy state of affairs for sustainable consumption. Reducing material consumption would not only protect the environment it would also make us all happier. We could all live better by consuming less. Unfortunately, things are not so simple, as Sen himself has pointed out. In a passage harking back to something Adam Smith (1776) once said about the desire to live a ‘life without shame’, Sen (1998, 298) argues that:
‘To lead a life without shame, to be able to visit and entertain one’s friends, to keep track of what is going on and what others are talking about, and so on, requires a more expensive bundle of goods and services in a society that is generally richer and in which most people have, say, means of transport, affluent clothing, radios or television sets, and so on... The same absolute level of capabilities may thus have a greater relative need for incomes (and commodities).'
Sen is clearly saying something recognisable about modern consumer society: namely that in this particular society we do appear to require a more expensive bundle of goods and services in order to carry out the functions he identifies. And we could certainly at this stage agree – provided that...these functions are themselves fundamental aspects of human motivation. At the same time there is something unsatisfactory in Sen’s explanation. Or rather, it is not really an explanation at all, merely a description of a contingent state of affairs: we behave this way in rich societies, because this is what rich societies are like, Sen seems to be saying.
The clue to enabling us to get beyond this, I contend, lies in the word ‘shame’... In feeling shame, an individual is responding to a relationship between his or her individual actions and others or the expectations of others. Shame defines itself between the individual and the group. It is also, vitally, a key signifier of the boundary between meaning and anomie – a point to which I return below. This apparently innocuous appeal to ‘a life without shame’ thus points us to an absolutely vital element in the search for an understanding of unsustainable consumption: the relationship between self and other.
... A little reflection shows that shame is not unique in this sense. Pride, approval, disapproval, loyalty, envy, belonging, affection, even disaffection and hate: these are all negotiations between self and other, between the individual and their peer group. The injunction to a life without shame is one that demands that we look to our relationships with others in pursuit of healthy functioning. We are driven, in other words, towards an undeniable overlap of social and psychological functioning, and to a second key proposition in support of our understanding of consumer society.
... The self only exists in relation to social conversation. Personal identity, in other words, is an emergent property of inherently social relations. In Mead’s view this emergent self plays an essentially evolutionary role. It is there to support the cohesion of the group. And it is able to achieve this precisely because it is a result of social conversations. These social conversations aprovide the mechanism both for negotiating and for internalising (in personal identity) the values, attitudes and beliefs of the social group. At the same time, it is clear that the concept of the self also plays a key role in negotiating and perpetuating culture. Cultural norms are internalised in individuals by way of social conversations.
... The implications of this view for understanding consumer society are quite profound. In the first place, of course, it undermines key principles of modernity, such as the centrality of individuality and individual choice...[I]ndividualism is in some sense a kind of myth. Methodological individualism – which holds that it is individuals operating as more or less unilateral agents under the influence of largely free choice who determine behavioural patterns...
... Instead we must look to social processes, social conversations, interactions between self and other as being absolutely vital influences on behaviour at both individual and social level. None of this is to deny the existence of individual cognitive deliberations. But it all points to the limits of deliberative processes, and the centrality of social influence at the heart of those deliberations.
An immediate casualty of this position is the rational choice model that lies behind most economic analyses of consumer choice. The economic model suggests that people make choices on the basis of a cognitive deliberation over private costs and benefits. Provided that certain conditions hold – in particular the availability of ‘perfect’ information – then such choices are assumed to be in the best interest of the individuals (ie ‘rational’) and therefore to be robust guide to actual behaviour. The failure of the model in real life – people rarely behave as economists might wish them to – is usually attributed to either a lack of information, or else to the existence of a series of ‘hidden’ costs and benefits that act as barriers or perverse incentives at the individual level.
The policy prescriptions that flow from the rational choice model tend to be relatively few and relatively straightforward. Typically policy-makers are enjoined either to improve information flows (eg through labelling, information campaigns and so on) or else to use financial incentives and disincentives to shift the balance between individual costs and benefits to reflect the existence of hidden social costs and benefits.
The limited success of such interventions is one of the reasons for a resurgence of interest in understandings of consumer behaviour and public attitudes. From the social-psychological perspective outlined here, limited success is only to be expected. The individual is constrained in taking pro-environmental or pro-social action by a variety of important factors. In addition to the economic and physical constraints that are conventionally acknowledged, the individual must negotiate his or her own conflicting motivations...
... What I have attempted to show in this paper is that some absolutely vital social and psychological functionings are mediated through our interactions with consumer goods. To the extent that we can achieve these functionings without the use of consumer goods, it would clearly be possible to shift attitudes and behaviours away from environmentally significant consumption towards sustainability. But the complexity of the relationships between identity, goods and social functioning should warn us against any simplistic prescriptions of social change in this direction. Moreover, the extent to which vital social functionings – such as identity creation, social cohesion and the defence against anomie – are mediated through material goods in the consumer society, suggests that resistance, indeed quite violent resistance to change is to be expected.