Battle in Print: The Battle for Affluence

Stuart Simpson, 27 September 2006

The production of wealth has become redefined as the consumption of resources and of products. The discussion over how best to organise our society has shifted from one that is concerned with the best way of generating wealth and managing an environment that suits our needs to one that is concerned with the moral choices of individual consumers. This situation produces a vindictive culture where normal everyday activities are labelled immoral and viewed as the causes of many of the world’s problems. It also limits our ability to face the problems generated by development or the lack of it.

It is often said that we are the victims of a disposable consumer culture. This view unites radicals of the left, such as Naomi Klein of No Logo fame, with crackpots such as Osama Bin Laden. We are told that our society is obsessed with celebrity culture and fast food. We are constantly bombarded with adverts selling us products that we must have but that we don’t need. Celebrity gossip magazines and Hollywood blockbusters present us with lifestyles and images to which we aspire, but which we can never hope to reach. Instead we define ourselves by the car we drive, the clothes we wear, and the shampoo we use. But these are cheap disposable products and lifestyles. Ultimately we are unsatisfied. So the argument goes.

But in vain do we look for a critique of the idea that we might find meaning in a life oriented around consumption. Instead, the problem is that we are consuming the wrong types of goods. What this ignores is the extent to which this ‘consumer culture’ is observed more in the breach than in the observance. We may shop at a giant supermarket chain, or we may shop at our local farmers’ market. We may go on a package holiday to Ibiza, or we may become ethical tourists. We may drive an SUV, or we may drive a Toyota hybrid. These are the kinds of consumer choices that we are offered. Shopping at Tesco may be frowned upon by organic food enthusiasts, but it is an everyday activity that is merely a practical and cheap way of filling the fridge. Shopping at the local farmers’ market, on the other hand, is a far more explicit choice: it is a consumer act which says something about what you value.

The consumer culture we live in is not driven by the millions of Tesco shoppers, but by the far smaller number of ‘ethical consumers’. A recent anti-car commercial produced by Greenpeace sums up this critique quite neatly. The slick advert can be found on the Greenpeace website by clicking on the link entitled ‘What does your car say about you?’. Do you drive an SUV – the gas guzzling behemoth hated by the environmentalist? If you do then you are a ‘prick’ with no friends, and people will spit in your coffee. At least this is the message from Greenpeace. Those who drive SUVs are amoral consumers, indulging their macho image at the expense of their fellow road users, the environment and future generations. What is the alternative? Buy a different car, and become overnight a morally conscious individual.

After finding a Greenpeace leaflet stuck to the windscreen of her 4x4, film star Thandie Newton decided to switch to a more moral mode of transport: ‘[T]his year I made what I believe is a life-changing choice; for myself and my family, and also, in a small way, for the planet, and I wanted to share that with you, and tell you why’. Greenpeace goes on to tell us that ‘As well has trading in her own gas-guzzler, the actor has written to celebrity 4x4 owners on both sides of the Atlantic – including Jamie Oliver, Chris Martin, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Sean Connery, Ozzy Osbourne, David Beckham and her Mission Impossible II co-star, Tom Cruise’. The conflation here of moral righteousness with celebrity name-dropping should not be seen as in any way discordant. From Jamie Oliver’s crusade to get kids to eat their greens to Bono’s recent launch of the ethical brand ‘Red’, consumer and celebrity culture itself has begun to rebrand itself as moral and responsible.

The moral condemnation of everyday acts such as driving to the shops is concerning enough. However, it is the implication that the choices we make as consumers have global implications that is most damaging. It may not be surprising to find a movie actress believing that every little decision she makes has consequences for the future of the planet. But when government policy is constructed on such tenuous grounds we should be worried. In response to the drought in the South East, Ken Livingstone has vetoed the application by Thames Water to build a desalination plant in the Thames estuary. Ken instead lectures Londoners about consuming too much water. A UK NGO, Waterwise, goes one step further than Ken, promoting the idea of ‘embedded water’ as a more reliable way of measuring the final consumer’s true water usage. A glass of orange juice may take hundreds of litres of water to produce, so too may your laptop. If you fancy a burger, consider that 100,000 litres of water go into every kilogram of beef. We might as well be living on Arrakis, the water-starved planet of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune.

The arguments of the London mayor and Waterwise amount to the claim that London’s underdeveloped water infrastructure is somehow the fault of individual consumers, since they are the ones who must pay the cost by changing their behaviour. This demands that we accept the conceited belief of Hollywood movie stars that our individual actions will address the scale of the problem. Obviously, this is untrue: neither turning off the tap whilst brushing our teeth nor feeling pangs of guilt whilst tucking into a nice meal will resolve the problems of the ageing and inadequate infrastructure. Ethical consumption is about more than separating people into the moral and the irresponsible, but with it we also witness the abdication of the responsibility for dealing with issues such as poverty in the third world, road congestion, water shortages and environment change.

This is not to say that amongst the great and good there is a conspiracy to blame thoughtless consumers for problems as a way of avoiding dealing with these problems themselves. Targeting individual acts is symptomatic of a deeper trend, namely that we have lost the sense that we can deal with problems at the level of society. Humanity today is seen as having the ability to create problems on a global scale, whereas solutions are located only at the level of individual actions. In a nutshell, this is the implication of the favourite phrase of the environmentalist – ‘think global, act local’. Think of the world’s poor; buy Fairtrade coffee. Think of the floods in Bangladesh; ride a bike to work. Think of the drought in the South East; don’t flush the loo.

Today we see consumption as a cause of problems, rather than production as a solution. This is highlighted in the way in which America is often cited as the world’s biggest consumer. In reality, America is the world’s most affluent society as it is the world’s greatest producer of wealth. But we have become blinded to the notion of production – production is something that happened in the industrial revolution, or something that happens in China. Western economies are more often viewed as in some way parasitical on the world, consuming resources at the expense of others. This says more about the way we view ourselves, our relationship with the world as defined by our consumer habits, than it says anything about economics.

Production is often seen to be located in the labour intensive (and less productive) economies of the developing world, but even here our obsession with consumption is at the fore. Discussions of China today often dwell on the growing competition for resources that the development of the Chinese economy will bring. The consequences this may have for global warming, and the disproportionate impact climate change will have on the world’s poor, are often highlighted. We often neglect to mention that China has done a great deal more to eliminate world poverty than all of Bono’s ethical consumption could ever hope to achieve. We may all use ‘Red’ credit cards and switch our TVs off standby, but China has built factories and people are paid to work in them. We are only left to worry impotently about the effect all this consumption may have. We should remember that a consequence of China’s development is that millions of people no longer live in abject poverty, and that China, as a result of increased affluence, will be better able to manage its environment, as we are able to do in the developed world.

A shift of attention from production to consumption hinders our ability to solve the problems of development or the lack of it. Here again China is a useful example. China has far more severe water distribution problems than the UK. But whilst the UK considers moving water from the rainy North to the South East unfeasible, China has begun on a project to construct a canal so long that it would cut the British mainland in half, from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Whilst we are concerned with limiting our consumption, China is using its productive capabilities to resolve its environmental problems. It should also be noted that China’s project to transport water is concerned with resolving some of the water pollution problems created by the recent rapid development of Chinese industry.

In the battle for affluence we need to redefine an affluent society as one that produces wealth for its citizens, not one that consumes the world’s resources and produces only pollution and waste. It is only through generating a more affluent society that we can begin to address any of the issues that legitimately concern us today. But more than this, the problems that are often understood to be the consequences of too much consumption, and hence too much affluence, are often the result of the contrary. The reason the developing world will continue to face the most severe consequences of environmental disasters is because they have not developed – they do not consume enough. Managing the environment for our own benefit requires productive capability and wealth, lots of it. Our self-indulgent concern with our consumer habits will only make facing these problems harder.

Adopting Orthodoxies

"The energy, verve and enthusiasm at The Battle of Ideas filled me with hope. Coming from India where so many people still lack the basic necessities that make human life worth living, it was heartening to see basic issues of equity and justice debated with such passion and fervour."
George Thomas, orthopaedic surgeon; editor, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics

follow the Academy of Ideas