Anxiety and consumerism: Tim Jackson on how buying stuff soothes our fears

Professor Tim Jackson is one of the most eloquent and fluent of writers about sustainability and economics. His book Prosperity Without Growth has just come out in its tenth anniversary edition, and Jackson notes rightly the slow-burning effect it has had - joining up the dots between our behaviour, and the planetary climate crisis, in powerful and persuasive ways.

Alerted to this by Jonathan Rowson of Perspectiva, here's an important essay from Jackson, which worries away at one of his great themes: how can we think correctly about (meaning, not underestimate) the emotional and sensual attractions of avid consumerism? In the language of Human Givens (one of the resources that feeds into A/UK's work), what "emotional needs" is it answering? And how might those natural, powerful needs be otherwise answered, in a way that doesn't choke and trash the planet? 

In Escaping The Iron Cage of Consumerism, Jackson reaches for the religious concept of theodicy, meaning strictly "the justification of God... why should a caring God allow evil to prosper and the innocent to suffer"? Tim says consumerism takes the place of God, in a secular theodicy:

Theodicy can be construed as the attempt to ‘make sense of’ our lives. Faced with persistent injustice, the prosperity of ill-doers, the persecution of the righteous, how should we seek to live? What kind of morality are we to live by? Confronted with our own mortality, the persistence of suffering, the sorrow of bereavement, where should we turn for solace? How are we to protect the authority of compassion and the promise of love? Where, in short, are we to find meaning in our lives?

The broad argument I am going to make is that consumerism, ironically, has become a kind of secular theodicy. In some quite precise ways, consumerism has grappled and continues to grapple with foundational questions about our destiny. About social progress. And if we want to counter consumerism, I shall argue, we have to understand that. And offer some other less damaging ways of grappling with them.

...Consumerism has appropriated the functional importance of theodicy through the role that material commodities play in our lives. This theodicy is not entirely pathological. But it is clearly flawed.

Its conceptualisation of justice is tenuous, its framing and disbursement of rewards is iniquitous. It is deeply but perhaps perversely seductive in offering a rather fleeting kind of ontological security, one that needs continually to be reinforced by engaging in yet more consumption.

But the material and environmental implications of this consolation are profound, even as its success as a psychological strategy is short-lived. It does offer a form of transcendence, but the degree to which this facilitates any real hope or consolation for our losses is suspect....Consumerism appears to be a continuous exercise in denial of our own mortality and of the widespread suffering in the world.

One thing is abundantly clear from this analysis. If consumerism is a core element in the sacred canopy of modern capitalist society, [then] any attempts to counter it through exhortation are bound to failure. If consumption plays such a vital role in the construction and maintenance of our social world, then asking people to give up material commodities is asking them to risk a kind of social suicide. People will rightly resist threats to identity. They will resist threats to meaning. They will ask quite legitimate questions of the motives of the moral persuaders.

Instead, we might usefully conclude, countering consumerism must start from more robust secular (or religious) theodicy: the building of meaning structures, communities of meaning, that lie outside the realm of the market; and that offer credible answers to the deep foundational questions that continue to haunt us...

The growth-based society is predicated on the relentless desire for material stuff. But this perverse dynamic is deeply destructive and in the final analysis has little or nothing to do with meaningful prosperity. Worse it is now in danger of undermining the conditions on which future prosperity depends.

At the end of the day, prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings — within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times. 

More here.