Sunday, 27 September 2009

Shopping as a "patriotic duty"

Lately, the media have been discussing the idea that the public needs to do more shopping to prop up the economy. Some have even framed it in terms of there being a "duty to shop". Meanwhile, the UK government has been lowering interest rates, which ends up punishing people who haven't been living above their means, while bailing out the ones who have.

Anyone with even a passing interest in ecological issues knows that the current rate of consumption is simply impossible to sustain, much less increase. The earth is of a finite size, so eventually we will run out of things. We might quibble about when that's going to happen, but it will, and it will likely happen within your lifetime.

Still, the idea that the economy would - god forbid - shrink - is discussed in apocalyptic terms.

I understand that without some heavy adjustments in society, a shrinking economy means that people lose their jobs. But perhaps modern technology (and the UK's convenient position atop a giant pyramid of exploitation, I mean, trade) has made working forty hours a week an unnecessary burden? Theoretically, we could simply all agree to work less, be a little poorer, and have more free time. In this free time we could discover that there are ways of enjoying ourselves that don't cost as much.

For example, board games. I'm a great fan of board games, and play them fairly regularly. If you look at them from a cost/benefit point of view, they're amazing. An expensive board game may cost 25 pounds, but will provide hundreds of hours of entertainment to several people. However, people don't play board games because they think they're for children, or for nerds, or they're outdated.

Partly, this is due to conspicuous consumption, that tendency of people to consume goods and services to show off their wealth and success. Playing a board game doesn't require you to be rich, successful or popular, so it's an unpopular pastime for that reason.

To some degree, I think, this is human nature - people instinctively want to enhance their social status. But societies can differ in what things define your social status, and theoretically, those things could be something less environmentally disastrous.

But anyone who sells anything has a vested interest in equating its consumption with social standing. Hence, advertising consists of a thousand daily voices telling you to buy things. But there are next to no voices telling you not to.

Another vested interest is the limitation of public facilities. Anything that's freely available to everyone - benches, public toilets, public television, public anything - is in competition with its private counterpart - coffee shops, toilets that charge you, private television, etc. (Yes, benches and public toilets compete with coffee shops. How many times have you had a cup of tea because you needed the loo and a sit down, rather than because you wanted the tea?)

Finally, I have to bring up the argument that money does not make you happy. This is a phrase that many people secretly disbelieve, but I think it's quite accurate. Unsurprisingly, there has been quite a lot of research in that direction, and what it generally says is this: people who are actually poor (by the standards of their society) are less happy than others. But for everyone else, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. [1] [2]

At this point you may have dismissed this post. After all, none of this is new. You've been told to turn off your TV, go outside, stop buying pointless things, et cetera et cetera. You've been told more times than you can remember.

That doesn't mean it's not true, though, now is it?

People have this crazy idea that once something's no longer fashionable, it's no longer true. Criticisms of consumerism haven't stopped being true just because people came up with them a while ago. Just because they're no longer "trendy" doesn't mean they're not valid.

I think that's pretty much what happened to environmentalism in the 90s - it was considered such an 80s thing to worry about that the public just largely forgot about it. Instead we had the dot-com boom to occupy us. Next, terrorism grabbed the headlines. And now it's 2009, and unsurprisingly, the environmental problems haven't gone away by themselves.

So what can you do? Understand that a lot of people are putting a lot of effort into making you believe you must constantly spend money to be happy and entertained. Distrust these impulses and consider the alternatives.

If you're interested in reading more about such things, I can recommend the book Growth Fetish, which makes most of the points I make above but in more detail.

[1] Clive Hamilton - "Growth Fetish", chapter 2.

[2] Or alternatively, Hamilton's sources, which I admittedly haven't read:

Steve Dodds, "Economic growth and human well-being", in Mark Diesendorf and Clive Hamilton (eds), "Human Ecology, Human Economy: Ideas for an Ecologically Sustainable Future", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, "Happiness and Economics", Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant... I can't believe that the only way to keep people at a constant level of happiness is to have an economy that grows constantly (and consequently uses more resources). There aren't enough people who are content with what they have to the extent that if they had an extra thousand pounds they wouldn't start splashing out on things they don't need. This bothers me and I'm glad it bothers other people too