The Iron Cage of Consumerism

Left to their own devices, it seems, there is not much hope that people will spontaneously behave sustainably. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has concluded, sustainabil-ity just "doesn't come naturally" to humankind. But it is a mistake to assume that evolutionary motivations are all selfish. Evolution does not preclude moral, social, and altruistic behaviors. Social behaviors evolved in humans precisely because they offer selec

Figure 4-3. Domain Satisfaction by Social Group, England

Percentage difference from overall average

Key (examples of occupations in each social group) AB: doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher, nurse, police officer C: junior manager, student, clerical worker, foreperson, plumber D: manual worker, shop worker, apprentice E: casual laborer, unemployed

Figure 4-3. Domain Satisfaction by Social Group, England

Relationships

Accommodation

Standard of living

Local area

Day-to-day activities

Health Leisure

Control

Achievement of goals Future financial security

Community

Percentage difference from overall average

Key (examples of occupations in each social group) AB: doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher, nurse, police officer C: junior manager, student, clerical worker, foreperson, plumber D: manual worker, shop worker, apprentice E: casual laborer, unemployed tive advantages to the species. An important lesson from evolutionary psychology is that the balance between selfish and cooperative behaviors depends critically on the kind of society they occur in.43

Social behavior can exist—to some extent—in all societies. In very competitive societies, self-serving behavior tends to be more successful than cooperation. But in a society characterized by cooperation, altruistic behaviors tend to be favored over selfish ones. In other words, the balance between altruism and selfishness is not hardwired in people at all. It depends critically on social conditions: rules, regulations, cultural norms and expectations, government itself, and the

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles set of institutions that frame and constrain the social world.44

So there are some searching questions to ask about the balance of the institutions that characterize modern society. Do they promote competition or cooperation? Do they reward self-serving behavior or people who sacrifice their own gain to serve others? What signals do government, schools, the media, and religious and community institutions send out to people? Which behaviors are supported by public investment and infrastructure and which are discouraged?

Increasingly, it seems, the institutions of consumer society encourage individualism and competition and discourage social behavior. Examples are legion: private transport is encouraged through incentives over public transport; motorists are given priority over pedestrians; energy supply is subsidized and protected, while demand management is often chaotic and expensive; waste disposal is cheap, economically and behaviorally, while recycling demands time and effort. These kinds of asymmetry represent an "infrastructure of consumption" that sends all the wrong signals, penalizing pro-environmental behavior, making it all but impossible even for highly motivated people to act sustainably without personal sacrifice.45

Increasingly, it seems, the institutions of consumer society encourage individualism and competition and discourage social behavior.

Equally important are the subtle but damaging signals sent by government, regulatory frameworks, financial institutions, the media, and education systems. Salaries in business are higher than those in the public sector, particularly at the top; nurses and those in the caring professions are consis tently poorly paid; private investment capital is written down at high discount rates, making long-term costs invisible; success is counted in terms of material status; children are becoming a "shopping generation"— hooked on brand, celebrity, and status.46

At one level, the task facing sustainability is as old as the hills: balancing individual freedoms against the social good. This relies crucially on being able to make prudent choices, at the individual and the social level, between the present and the future. Rampant individualistic behavior that seeks short-term gratification ends up undermining well-being not just for the individual but for society as a whole. So the task for sustainability— indeed, for any society—is to devise mechanisms that prevent this "undermining of well-being" and preserve the balance between present desires and future needs.

Oxford economic historian Avner Offer addresses exactly this task in The Challenge of Affluence. Unaided, argues Offer, individual choices tend to be irredeemably myopic. People favor today too much over tomorrow, in ways that—to an economist—are entirely inexplicable under any rational rate of discounting of the future. Offer's unique contribution is to suggest that this fallibility has (or in the past had) a social solution. And that solution is precisely what affluence is in the process of eroding.47

To avoid trading away long-term well-being for the sake of momentary pleasures, society has evolved a whole set of "commitment devices": social and institutional "mechanisms" that constrain people's choices in ways that moderate the balance of choice away from the present and in favor of the future. Savings accounts, marriage, norms for social behavior, government itself in some sense—all these can be regarded as examples of mechanisms that make it a little easier for people to curtail their evolutionary appetites for immediate arousal and protect their own future interests. And, indeed, the interests of affected others.

The "challenge" Offer addresses is that affluence is eroding and undermining these commitment devices. The increase in family breakdown and the decline in trust have already been noted. Parenthood has been placed under increased financial and social pressure in industrial countries. And in terms of economic commitment, it is telling that savings rates fell worldwide in the second half of the last century, declining by 5-10 percentage points across the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, consumer debt has soared, rising from $1 trillion to $2.5 trillion in the United States alone between 1995 and 2007. The role of government itself has been increasingly "hollowed out" as politicians on both left and right sought to bolster economic output and free up the "invisible hand" of the market.48

The drivers behind these trends are complex, but a key responsibility, argues Offer, lies with the relentless stream of novelty inherent in consumption growth. Evidence seems to bear this out. "Accelerating the rate of innovation is a top priority for technology managers," notes the U.S.-based Industrial Research Institute. The rate of innovation is driven in turn by the structural reliance of businesses and the economy on growing consumption. Novelty keeps people buying more stuff. Buying more stuff keeps the economy going. The continuing expansion of the market into new areas and the continuing allegiance of consumers appear to be vital to this process—even as they erode commitment devices and undermine well-being.49

The end result is a society "locked in" to consumption growth by forces outside the control of individuals. Lured by humanity's evolutionary roots, bombarded with per-

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles suasion, and seduced by novelty: consumers are like children in a candy store, knowing that sugar is bad to eat, but unable to resist the temptation. This is a system in which no one is free. People are trapped by their own desires. Companies are driven by the need to create value for shareholders, to maximize profits. Nature and structure combine to lock people firmly into the "iron cage" of consumerism.50

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  • amira
    What is the iron cage of consumerism?
    7 years ago

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