The Consumer Self
by Clive Hamilton
Obedience by Alex Gross
Consumerism & the restructuring of consciousness
Just as a nation’s sense of itself has become bound up with how it grows, so our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume. The transformation of consumption from a means of meeting needs into a way of acquiring an identity has been underway for some decades, but it shifted into a new and more intense phase from the early 1990s. Although much more recent and not yet fully understood, the consumer revolution may prove to have restructured our consciousness as much as the Industrial Revolution.
The shift from a production society to a consumption society makes the task of persuading citizens of affluent countries to change their behaviour in response to the climate crisis more intractable, because of the psychological meaning of the consumption process. This shift has been reflected in a change in the nature of firms and a change in the nature of the consumer.
The new firm
Marketing creativity has replaced production efficiency as the key to competitiveness and corporate success. The cost of investing goods with often-intangible qualities that contribute nothing to their practical usefulness now frequently exceeds the cost of actually manufacturing the items.
Advertising long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of its useful features and began building symbolic associations between the product and the psychological states of potential consumers. It is virtually impossible today to buy any product that is not invested with certain symbols of identity acquired by the buyer knowingly or otherwise. And consumption today is inseparable from profligacy. In the era of hyper-consumerism, the urge to satisfy any desire has reached amazing levels.
The new consumer
In the consumption society marketers are now engaged in an endless process of creating and transforming, as well as responding to, consumer desires. In a society saturated with the outpourings of the mass media, symbols of achievement and characters worthy of emulation appear on the screen and magazine pages rather than in the local community, or handed-down stories of the saintly and the stoic.
The desire for an authentic sense of self is pursued increasingly by way of substitute gratifications—external rewards, money and material consumption.
These substitute gratifications can never provide what we really need; one cannot find an authentic identity in a supermarket or department store. Yet this unbridgeable gap is precisely what the latest phase of consumer capitalism needs, a constant feeling of dissatisfaction to sustain spending. While economic growth is said to be the process whereby people’s wants are satisfied so that they become happier, in the consumption society economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented. Economic growth no longer creates happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth.
Over-consumption has psychological costs. One study found that four in ten people ‘feel anxious, guilty or depressed about the clutter in their homes’. They say they feel overwhelmed and disorganised; some feel trapped by their possessions. The collapse in national savings and the blow-out in debt reflected an upheaval in the values that had defined the post-war era. Norms of moderation and thrift were replaced by a culture of impulsiveness. We wanted it now and once we had it we soon began to think about replacing it.
The point of all of this for climate change is evident. When we ask affluent consumers to change their consumption behaviour we are asking of them much more than we realise. The purpose of the shift in marketing from promoting the qualities, real or imagined, of a product to promoting brands as a lifestyle choice was to exploit the modern need to construct a sense of self. If we have constructed a personal identity in large part through our consumption activity, and consuming is how we sustain ourselves psychologically from day to day, a demand to change what we consume becomes a demand to change who we are. If, in order to solve climate change, we are asked to change the way we consume, then we are being asked to give up our identities—to experience a sort of death. So firmly do many of us cling to our manufactured selves that we unconsciously fear relinquishing them more than we fear the consequences of climate change.
The idea that in affluent countries much of our consumption behaviour is driven by an urge for ‘self-completion’ rather than any real material need is reinforced by the evidence on wasteful consumption, that is, spending on goods and services that we do not in fact consume. If our desire knows no bounds, our capacity to use things is nevertheless limited: there is only so much we can eat, wear and watch, and a house has only so many rooms that can be usefully occupied. The difference between what we buy and what we use is waste.
A study of the extent of wasteful consumption in Australia revealed that virtually all households admit to wasting money by buying things they never use—food, clothes, shoes, CDs, books, exercise bikes, cosmetics, kitchen appliances, and much more. They admit to spending a total of $10.5 billion every year on goods they do not use, an average of $1200 for each household…more than total government spending on universities or roads. Despite two decades of environmental education, young people are both more likely to engage in wasteful consumption and less likely to feel guilty about it. In the case of greenhouse pollution, wasteful consumption is related to the idea of ‘luxury emissions’, those emissions associated with consumption above a subsistence level.
What can we say about the moral standing of emissions associated with the purchase of consumer goods that are not consumed but simply thrown away? They must have ‘negative’ moral standing because they are emitted for no benefit yet cause damage to others. While persuasive, these arguments neglect the purpose of modern consumption whose benefits often lie in the act of acquisition and ownership, rather than the act of consuming.
U.S. consumers account for some 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, but could live reasonably comfortable, healthy and safe lives with emissions of a fifth of that amount even without any change in the way energy is supplied. French emissions, for example, stand at nine tonnes per person.
In 1970 air travel by passengers from affluent countries was about 15% of current levels. Were we miserable then? Would our quality of life collapse if we were required to return to those levels, so that travelling by plane was restricted to essential journeys? Of course not, yet the psychological resistance to such a change appears almost insuperable.
The idea that individuals can solve global warming infects the academic literature as well as popular culture. While some of us understandably want to reduce our own contribution to global warming, green consumerism is effective only to the extent it fosters political mobilisation.
Nevertheless, the message of green consumerism is seductive: if I am worried about climate change then I should try to do something about it, and the one thing I can control is my own behaviour. The danger of green consumerism is that it transfers responsibility from the corporations mostly accountable for the pollution, and the governments that should be restraining them, onto the shoulders of private consumers.
Michael Maniates has written: ‘A privatization and individualization of responsibility for environmental problems shifts blame from state elites and powerful producer groups to more amorphous culprits like “human natue” or “all of us”. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told that we each have to accept liability for our personal contribution to every problem.
Climate change is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. In other words, it needs good, strong policies enforced by governments. Green consumerism is often advocated by governments and corporations who want to show how concerned they are about the environment and divert attention from their own role. When environmental problems become individualised the nature of public debate is no longer about the institutions that perpetuate and reinforce environmental degradation; it’s about our personal behaviour.
The ethical conversation is also changed: instead of understanding the systemic factors that are the cause of and solution to the environmental problem, it becomes a question of personal morality. We are encouraged or shamed into buying eco-friendly products, insulating our homes and recycling our waste. While these activities do not deserve to be criticised in themselves, when they are promoted as the solution to environmental decline they may actually block the real solutions. Green consumerism can actually disempower us, because it denies our agency as citizens or political actors instead of consumers.
In response to criticism, corporations typically try to change public perceptions of what they do before they change what they do. It’s cheaper. Thus rising public alarm about global warming has seen firms respond with a rich variety of dissimulation, of which greenwash has become the highest form.
A large part of the resources of the global marketing and PR industries are now devoted to trying to convince the public that fossil fuel emissions are good for us. In one of the most ‘creative’ tactics in advertising history, the coal industry is now trying to persuade us that coal-fuelled electricity is an ‘environmentally sound’ form of energy. To do so they have deployed the intentionally misleading term ‘clean coal’. The phrase is used in the climate change debate to give the impression that coal is or can be benign because of the possibility that carbon emissions might be captured and stored underground. In truth, carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants is a technology still on the drawing board that will not have any effect on emissions for at least 20 years, if at all.
Saved by the crash?
More than nine in ten (93%) believe that Americans are too focused on working and making money, and not enough on family and community. Nine in ten (88%) also believe that American society is too materialistic, with too much emphasis on shopping.
It is possible to imagine a society in which we live up to Keynes’ vision, one in which we are no longer obsessed with growth and consumption and instead cultivate the art of life? It would be a society in which we nurture the things that really do improve our wellbeing, rather than dreaming evermore of the things that only money can buy. In a way the recipe for such a society is simple. Sooner or later, we spend what we earn. So if we want to consume less we must earn less, and if we want to earn less we must work less. At least, we must perform less paid work. If that sounds shocking today, it is nothing more than a call to resume the great historical trend of declining working hours.
A return to the downward trend would mean a social choice to take less of the gains from productivity growth in money income and more in free time. Society could be just as vibrant and technologically innovative; the difference would be that we would have much more time for activities other than paid work, including caring for others, education, community work, hobbies and leisure. One of the most effective long-term policies that Western governments could adopt to tackle growing greenhouse gas emissions would be to redefine progress so that falling working hours became its foremost indicator. For that to happen we would first need to redefine ourselves.
So will the recession be an opportunity for new values to become entrenched, ones that will rule out a repeat of the rampant materialism and debt-fuelled consumption that marked the 1990s and 2000s? The depressing answer might well be ‘no’, for in the course of the last long boom the marketers planted a poison pill deep within affluent society—a generation of children consciously moulded into hyper-consumers. Children now begin to recognise corporate logos when they are as young as six months. A British study found that for one in four children the first recognizable word they utter is a brand name. A generation of children, now reaching their late teens, has grown up in an unrelenting barrage of commercial messages, all with one underlying theme: that the path to happiness is through consumption.
From comrades to consumers
The growth of China’s economy since the early 1980s has been extraordinary, averaging 9.5%. Its fossil fuel emissions grew at 11-12% each year in the first years of this century. Around one third of China’s carbon dioxide emissions are attributable to production of exports. However a larger and larger share of output in China will be consumed at home so that efforts to constrain emissions will have to focus on Chinese consumers, particularly urban households.
Perhaps most worryingly, there seems to be nothing that can prevent a massive increase in China’s emissions. The essentially ecological sensibility of Confucian thought has not been allowed to stand in the way of a rapacious industrialisation drive. The government has turned increasingly to consumption for its legitimacy, particularly to overcome the unpopularity of the one-child policy and unrest as expressed in events like Tiananmen.
The transition ‘from comrades to consumers’ telescoped into one decade a process that in the West took several, sparking a period of ‘consumer madness’ perhaps best encapsulated in the department store maxim ‘the consumer is god’. Although the volume of consumer spending fell short of expectations, shopping became a favourite form of recreation, in the process transforming the desires and life goals of ordinary Chinese city-dwellers.
China now has a vast class of middle-class consumers with a seemingly unquenchable taste for Western-style consumer goods. In 2005 they accounted for 12% of global luxury goods purchases, not far behind US consumers, who bought 17%. The Mao-inspired conformity’ of earlier generations has been replaced by the consumer-style conformity and brand worship of the present one.
Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at the Australian National University, has held visiting academic positions at Cambridge & Yale Universities, & wrote the remarkable Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, described as "the best book written about the climate crisis so far". Australian Book Review said about it:
It takes intellectual rigour, as well as moral courage, to write a rational analysis of what is essentially the collective insanity of our own species. This book ought to be mandatory reading. The above article is an edited extract of the third chapter of the book. Don't miss Hamilton's excellent video lecture here.