By Carolanne Wright
Consumerism goes hand-in-hand with the “the good life” — at least according to our contemporary Western culture. Massive advertising, securing the bargain, garage sales and credit cards are simply par for the course and rarely questioned by the average person. Shopping during our lunch hour is a national pastime, we wander through shopping malls on our days off, and make online purchases late at night. And it’s not just about comfort, our way of living needs to border luxurious. The yardstick of “keeping up with the Joneses” has evolved beyond our neighbours — we’re now competing with the lifestyles of the upper middle class and wealthy. It’s a vicious cycle — and we’re miserable for it. The environment also suffers as our material aspirations climb.
The reasons behind this shift are complex and sobering. But to expect consumerism to disappear altogether is unrealistic. We can’t just shame ourselves into reforming our cultural orientation — although, many have tried. Instead, we can generate true wealth — strong communities, a healthy eco-system, creativity and a sense of connectedness. In short, a self-provisioning, sharing economy.
Work More, Live Less
Juliet Schor, PhD, a professor of sociology at Boston College, is an expert on work, consumption and sustainability. In her book, True Wealth: how and why millions of Americans are creating a time-rich, ecologically light, small-scale, high-satisfaction economy (paperback version of Plentitude) she explores the idea of a new economy, one that moves beyond the work-and-spend cycle to a rewarding lifestyle abundant in time, innovation and community.
“The strategy which optimised individual wealth and wellbeing over the last 25 years has changed. I am referring to the use of one of our most precious resources: time. For a quarter century, individuals have been devoting an increasing number of hours to the market. Jobs are more demanding and people spend more hours per year in paid employment. More people have joined the labour market. Second jobs have become more common. Commutes are often longer. The average individual or household devotes more time and energy to the market, in order to earn money.
“But that devotion to the market has had a price. Social ties have frayed, as there is less time available to reproduce them. Community has eroded. Household production – an important component of a good life – has collapsed, especially for certain activities. An excessive market orientation has led to more ecological degradation,” said Schor.
Thankfully, it isn’t necessary for us to remain stuck in our current economic model, with long hours of work and diminished social relationships. There’s a better way — and we’re seeing glimmers of it already.
The Falsehood of Sacrifice in the New Economy
When asked to help preserve the environment, most Americans associate the idea with sacrifice — mainly of conveniences, which makes it a hard sell. But Schor believes we need to shift away from this mentality of “scarcity” and move toward true “plentitude,” a life that’s rich in reward and fulfillment.
“It’s not about sacrifice. I termed my book Plenitude to make the point that we can actually be rich in the things that matter most, and that is not a sacrifice at all. I believe the things that are degrading the planet are also degrading human well-being. So the same economic trends that are unsustainable from an ecological point of view are also unsustainable to humans. Change our system and we can restore the planet and make people better off,” said Schor. “Concretely, that means working fewer hours in a primary job and freeing up time for some novel, high value activities. It’s a shift that an increasing number of people are making, gaining tremendous satisfaction in the process.”
Downsizing work hours equals less consumerism. If we’re bringing in a smaller income, we rely more on ingenuity and DIY skills — rather than convenience. And a reduction in consumerism — whether goods, takeaway, dry cleaning or other services — naturally shrinks our impact on the environment, from the reduction of fossil fuels and resources used in product manufacturing and transportation, to commuting and travelling less.
Schor imagines what the United States would look like in 2050 with this new economy. First off, people work on average 16-20 hours in regular jobs, receiving standard paychecks. Needs are met in a variety of other ways, like growing food using the most high-tech, ecologically sound methods — essentially low-labour, high-yield technologies. Pretty much every household has a 3-D printer, where they can make small manufactured goods — a household mini-factory. People also rely heavily on collaboration with neighbours and networks. This peer-to-peer economy spans a range of areas — we can already see instances today with companies such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb, along with Uber.
Fritjhof Bergmann has coined the term “self-provisioning” for this new, high-tech, do-it-yourself trend, because it requires less low-skilled labour and produces higher yields, compared to methods of the past.
In the realm of food production, permaculture is a perfect example of a knowledge-intensive, light on labour, high yield approach.
Likewise, Fab Labs are another self-provisioning trend. Small, computerised prototyping machines are available for public use to reproduce an entire lifestyle, utilising scrap materials and programming know-how, the machines make alarm clocks, toasters, furniture, computers, bicycles, clean energy — even prefabricated, low-cost housing. In India, they’re creating solar devices. Afghanistan, it’s prosthetics. The range of products in the U.S. is vast — including a way to program the machines to replicate themselves. As it happens, the National Science Foundation has partnered with community organizations in Metropolitan New York to train low-income high school students how to use these technologies, opening up a new world of self-reliance, innovation and entrepreneurship.
In this ideal economy, people have the time to produce things, such as making clothes or baking, and trading any extra with neighbours in exchange for another item or service.
“It’s an economy of sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration that frees people from high-impact lifestyles and long hours, because most of this activity is local and creative. One thing that people like is variety in how they spend their days. It’s the new economics of household production,” Juliet told Our World. “As people shift out of the “business-as-usual” economy, they are opting into a range of new, ecologically light, high-satisfaction activities and ways of creating livelihood.”
We don’t have to wait until 2050 — we can seize the moment and make it happen now, one person at a time.