So, what’s wrong with consumerism?

Professor Daniel Miller argues that our western view of consumerism oversimplifies its relationship with climate change

After the publication of authoritative reports such as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, attention has turned from arguing about whether climate change is happening to the urgent need to take action to prevent or at least diminish it. There is no doubt that some forms of consumption, those that directly or through driving production create pollution, are a major cause of this problem and must be reduced. Unfortunately, I believe the rhetoric behind this appeal to curb consumption has become hopelessly muddled. As a result, a vital ambition to decrease consumption has become hindered by the very people who argue for this decrease.

The message from science with regard to the destructive impact of certain industries and consumer behaviours upon the planet has become submerged in a much older and wider critique of consumption as something intrinsically bad. A stance given in the very meaning of the word consumption. The term implies that we use up, destroy and diminish. It was once a term for tuberculosis. Underlying this is an age-old, originally religious, moral concern with materialism, which today has become almost a ubiquitous belief. Materialism is the assumption that people are becoming increasingly orientated to commodities. Consequently, they have become less concerned with other people and their social relationships. As a result, the evidence that consumption is partially responsible for climate change is seized upon as further ammunition for this older attack on consumption and commodities, making it tantamount to a modern evil. This view is as evident in journalism and in the radical modern arts as it is in pubs and at dinner parties.

The myth of materialism

The problem is that these assumptions are just that – assumptions. They make for a comforting common morality that can become equally a critique of capitalism, America and almost anything that people wish to attack and thereby demonstrate to each other their own superior and shared moral values. But is materialism actually true? I am currently publishing a book, The Comfort of Things (Polity 2008), based on 18 months’ study of the role of possessions in the lives of 100 persons and households, all living around a single street in South London. I would defy anyone who reads this book to maintain this myth of materialism. In my research, it becomes clear that the people who develop strong and multiple relationships with things are the same people who develop strong and multiple relationships with people. Conversely, those who find it difficult to maintain their relationships with commodities are the same people who have problems maintaining their relationships with other persons.

The problem with our comfortable critique of commodities is even more evident when it comes to places far distant from London. My previous book was The Cell Phone (Berg 2006), a study (with Heather Horst) of the impact of mobile phones on low-income families in Jamaica. As an anthropologist, I am commonly conducting fieldwork in regions where the main concern is with poverty. Typically, I am studying people who make huge sacrifices, often undertaking many years’ hard work in foreign countries, all of which is to ensure that their children can have a concrete house, a car and the same range of electronic goods, choices in clothing and food from supermarkets that we take for granted. This was the case in Kerala, South India, where I was working last winter. Nearly all the men I met were striving to obtain work in the Gulf states in order to obtain sufficient money to establish a family back home.

In an earlier study of shopping in London, I argued that while our rhetoric of commodity purchase is that it is about individualism, hedonism and materialism, the reality is that most shopping is by self-sacrificing housewives provisioning for their family. So, whether we turn to our own consumption of goods in London, or the desperate desire to escape poverty in much of the rest of the world, it becomes clear that, for most people, commodities are not about waste, commodities are about love. They are not something we are going to give up readily unless we absolutely have to, even if all advertising was abolished. But some of this we do absolutely have to give up.

The critique of consumption and commodities is often aligned with a general distaste for capitalism. Other aspects of my research suggest that the term capitalism has become a rather lazy word, masking a great variety of forms of political economy. These often work against each other, rather than forming some seamless process based on a single intention. My own issue with capitalism has more to do with the persistent inequality that prevents people from obtaining commodities. Indeed, one of the failures of left-wing critiques during the 20th century was that they increasingly confused the need for equality and redistribution with a growing distaste for commodities as the tainted spore of capitalism. In fact, socialism was originally about trying to produce still more goods in order to eliminate poverty.

Commodities can create happiness

The same confusion is repeating itself today with respect to climate change. The rhetoric is doomed to fail partly because it is so hypocritical. I know dozens of people who constantly bemoan the terrible consequences of commodities and how they don’t make anyone happy. But every one of them enjoys a lifestyle that to my informants in other lands looks like the most profligate and luxurious consumption. When people say questionnaires show that those with more money do not claim to be happier, it explains why I do not use questionnaires. I suspect this is merely that people with more education find the explicit claim to happiness sounds complacent. I prefer to take my evidence from what people do, rather than just what they say.

This has further consequences at the level of politics. Personally I always prefer to blame electorates for our problems, rather than politicians. It is a function of our democratic system that, in response to climate change, what we, the electorate, seem to want from our politicians are comforting gestures.  These ideally help us show our personal commitment and contribution to green issues expressed through relatively minor matters. So we may favour the move to recycling, which is quite possibly more polluting than the hated incineration. Or agree that we need to stop supermarkets supplying plastic bags, which litter more than they destroy the planet. Politicians who want to be elected are forced to concentrate on these highly visible issues that will make the electorates feel they are less materialistic.

The effect of this is to make climate change increasingly an example of even more consumer choice. If anything, it descends still further into consumer fashion – an essential part of the Sunday magazine leisure reading, alongside more traditional forms of fashion. It also becomes a stick by which the sophisticated can regard less educated people as vulgar and wasteful. In Kerala, the more expensive the hotel, the more likely one was to find a notice about being careful not to waste water when brushing one’s teeth, even in areas prone to flooding.

The trouble is climate change is far too big a beast to be tamed by such easily granted titbits. What we surely need is something much more effective and authoritative. We need governments, working internationally, to take responsibility for making sure that we cannot choose that which is demonstrably harmful. If cars with high emissions are damaging the planet, we should not be able to buy them – not even if we are wealthy enough to afford higher taxes on such cars.

A grown-up attitude

As an academic with respect for scholarship, I would much rather cede the decision-making to the natural scientists who inhabit other corridors of my university as to what is actually most destructive. I don’t think this should be a question of my feelings, or what I read in today’s newspaper. Saving the planet surely needs to be a grown-up occupation. I expect disputation in science, but also emerging consensus as to the most destructive practices. The role of politics should then be to determine what the world itself, rather than the individual, can afford and not afford. This is not exactly a simple solution. The critical arguments about the determination of equity between developed and developing countries with regard to enforcing certain austerities have probably only just begun. But whatever the outcome of such debates, they need to be about preventing consumer choices, not presenting climate change as a new form of consumer choice.

This essential task will be considerably enhanced if we start to separate two entirely different things. One is our desire to believe that materialism and the act of consumption somehow diminish our humanity. This is, of course, hugely important and the subject of continued research. But there is another issue that needs to be quickly resolved. We need to end those specific forms of production and consumption that are leading to imminent climate change and the destruction of our world.

Your views

Do you agree with Daniel Miller? Is it too simplistic to describe all consumerism as bad and should politicians regulate what we can purchase? Please share your opinions on this article by emailing the editor at editor@rsa.org.uk