I’ve been happily distracted, in all the general election and coalition mayhem and the musings on the implications of Coalition and hung parliaments for sustainable development.. by a visit the Conservation Economy blog. Jon Alexander, one of its founders, told me about it at our event on Mobilising Democracy to Tackle Climate Change. It’s a space “to provoke a fundamental questioning of the role of marketing, advertising and the communications industries in driving consumption”. Hard-core stuff indeed.
In a 29th April 2010 post, Jon draws a key distinction between consumption and Consumerism. And elsewhere on this blog, guest Jules Peck, over at Citizen Renaissance, argues that the mix between consumerism and citizen action for sustainable development needs to be reconfigured in favour of the citizen.
We can expect that these kinds of musings will be key underlying themes in our new UK coalition government as it seeks to redefine the relationship between citizen and the state; however hard to sell David Cameron’s grand idea of ‘The Big Society’ might have been on doorsteps.
“We all consume. And we always will”; Jon opens in his post, and goes on “There is a very important difference, though, between consumption and Consumerism. If consumption is the act, Consumerism is the social system which exists when that act becomes defining of a society. And it’s Consumerism that causes the problems. Consumerism takes the act of consumption and turns it into the defining act of our role as social beings, rather than one expression of that role. We all consume, but in a healthy society, we should also participate to an equally significant extent in social groups and relationships that are beyond consumption. We should produce, and we should be citizens. But in a Consumerist society, these other roles fade into the background…”
Jon suggests that: “With Consumerism, we no longer have real responsibility as citizens, because we become merely the Consumers of the political parties. Our role in representative democracy as it stands in this country today is merely to be marketed to, and if we are sufficiently wooed, to choose the best value for ourselves as individuals. We have no responsibility even to vote, and many – even most of us – do not.”
Arguably, our recent UK general election offers just the right sort of jolt. And if it’s not too trite, I might add that almost as never in living memory we’re now collectively sensitised, for good or for ill, to the range of possible immediate consequences of our votes as citizens; and deeply aware of the likely imminent restrictions on our ability to consume as the inevitable and looming cuts begin to bite.
It’s perhaps more useful, as I suggested in a post back in October last year, to view the links between consumption (Consumerism) and citizenship as a continuum rather than as inherently competing polar opposites. Indeed, in a 2003 paper for Renewal magazine, “Consuming ideals: sustainable consumption, behaviour change and active citizenship”, Ian Christie argues that “The sharp distinction between ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ makes sense as a shorthand for regret that neo-liberal policies over the past twenty-five years have led to an under-valuing of public goods and the public sector, and may have played some part in the decline of public engagement and trust in formal politics. But beyond that, a strong distinction between ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ is not especially helpful.”
A more ‘blended’ approach could potentially encompass the entirety of peoples’ engagement with the public realm issues that make up sustainable development. But the potential of ‘blended consumer-citizenship’ would not stop at ethical or sustainable consumption or public service delivery. It could also be about scaling up the impacts of real people’s behaviour on sustainable development by finding new ways to align responsible consumption and citizen-led community action in the public realm.
The missing ingredient then – on the path to transformative action for sustainable development – might be a sense of connection between our acts as consumers, our attachment to Consumerism if you like, and the entirety of our (peoples’) engagement with the public realm issues that make up sustainable development.
It’ll take the skills of some of the marketers and advertisers who frequent The Conservation Economy, though, to help ensure that this sentiment doesn’t meet the same dismal doorstep reaction as Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society. And it’ll take some real social and civic entrepreneurship to find meaningful ways to breathe life into it, so that it becomes more than pious sentiment; so that it becomes a way of thinking that is directly and closely connected to the times and spaces where we feel ourselves most actively citizens.