Thursday, October 9, 2014

Consumerism, Society & Our Ecological Future

We are at UTS to hear Tim Kasser, a visiting professor from Knox College in the US speak about our consumer culture.  I have never been obsessed with consumerism and I hate the frenzy of the end of year season when people seem to go hell bent on buying everything in sight.  The idea of voluntary simplicity intrigues me.  I know that I have often thought to myself that I was happiest when I was travelling the world with just the clothes I carried in my backpack.  I find simple living appealing and I have always wanted to share experiences rather than gifts.

Tim reminds us that after the 9/11 attacks, Bush encouraged the people of the US to go shopping so they could keep their economy growing.  This urging for people to go shopping and messages like “get down to Disney Land” eventually resulted in the US being severely affected by the Global Financial Crisis.  Surveys show there has been an exponential rise in students whose philosophy of life is to be very well off financially.  Unfortunately, results in increased social, personal and ecological costs.  Of course all of us are somewhat materialistic.  It is getting some balance in our lives that Tim is here to inspire us about.
Tim goes on to discuss the notion of eco-attitudes.  He explains that the more materialistic you are, the less concerned you are about the environment.  Your behaviour will result in a larger ecological footprint and your frequency of engaging in eco-behaviours such as re-cycling, using renewable energy sources, composting your waste or taking public transport will be less.  He further explains that our social attitudes will also be impacted by the degree of our materialistic behaviour.  We will have less empathy, we will have a higher racial and ethnic prejudice and we would be more predisposed to a social dominance orientation.  That is a predisposition to a ‘dog eat dog world’, someone would prefer a hierarchical social system than a more egalitarian one.

So what are the causes of materialism?  Often it is as a result of social modelling, where people strive to keep up with the trends promoted on TV and by their peers.  It comes from living in a neo liberal capitalist nation or one that promotes global capitalism at the expense of the public good, social services and exploitation of our natural resources.  Sometimes it is a result of having experienced poverty, a lack of love as a child or feeling confronted by your own mortality.  I find the co-relations quite revealing because I had never really thought about materialism quite like that.  He goes on to explain that less materialistic people would have more intrinsic values such as self acceptance, a sense of community and affiliation. 

Tim also discusses the idea of voluntary simplicity.  It is based on the fact that your lifestyle could be focussed on being “inwardly rich” rather than outwardly wealthy.  It is often associated with accepting a lower level of income and hence a lower level of consumption so that you can find more time to pursue more meaningful things in life.  The things you pursue will vary with each individual but will often include more time with those you love, reading, writing and other creative pursuits, contemplation, meditation, spiritual exploration, a greater focus on your community and sustainable living.  Duane Elgin has defined voluntary simplicity as “ a manner of living that is outwardly simple but inwardly rich…a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us.”

Such a commitment is not about being judgemental of other people’s choices but rather deciding for yourself how much consumption is enough.  It also does not mean that you cut yourself off from society, that you reject the technological advances of today or that you become a monk.  I know from my own periods of living more simply that I have never felt such freedom or been happier.   A recent web article I read from the blog of the Simplicity Collective explains these concepts well.  See:

The blog also explains what Voluntary Simplicity is not.  It is not a glorification or romanticizing of poverty.  Poverty is extremely debilitating and the advocated of voluntary simplicity are not downplaying the plight of those who live lives of deprivation and starvation.  It is more about an empowering expression of freedom, of escaping the gilded cage and making a choice to live with fewer market commodities in the belief that this can result in a better world.

Finally Tim shares 3 thoughts.  He raises the point that even our environmental communication is couched in terms of money.  When advocating for an environmental project, we are encouraged to prove its worth in the terms of a business case, or through a benefit cost ratio rather than talk about the intrinsic values of the project.  The advertising we are bombarded with encourages us to be more materialistic and impacts our sense of wellbeing.  We need to think of alternative business models   
such as benefit co-ops that benefit the whole community rather than a conglomerate.

I come away from the lecture feeling inspired and having learnt a little more about the journey we are on.  I was glad we have made a positive step away from the work-buy-consume-die paradigm that is promoted in the world we live.  It is both a little scary and exciting to be on a journey where we are consciously seeking an alternative lifestyle.  One where we work less, consume less and focus on developing our creativity and our sense of well-being.  Finding time to do the things that we love is refreshing and rewarding.  We have also been reminded about the importance of pursuing intrinsic values—those that are inherently rewarding to pursue, rather than extrinsic values—those that are centred on external approval or rewards. Intrinsic values include social justice, creativity, self acceptance and connection with nature while extrinsic values include wealth, social status, prestige, material success and concern about image. They are not mutually exclusive but we have all of these values to varying degrees at various stages of our life.  I am reminded that my exhibition Fate or Destiny and the ideas I discussed there are also closely related to what we learnt today. 

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