In 1994 philosopher Peter Singer wrote that there are two very good reasons for rejecting materialist prosperity as an economic growth model. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest that materialism equals happiness. On the other, that modern life based on mass consumption has had a significantly negative impact on the environment with climate change threatening to destroy life as we know it. Singer lamented that ‘We are running up against the limits of our planet’s capacity to absorb the wastes produced by our affluent lifestyle’.
Some twenty years later, the need to rethink our relationship with mass consumption has never been more urgent. Yet, we keep on consuming. We keep on consuming despite our increasing indebtedness and we keep on consuming at record levels despite the dire environmental predictions and consequences. We keep on consuming and governments continue to pursue the growth model regardless of the harm that results.
The climate crisis has been directly driven by capitalism, by over-consumption and the belief that the consumer is king. Prosperity based on material acquisition and the myth of consumer sovereignty has already led to countless environmental disasters and economic turndowns. This article offers a solution to materialism’s discontents by arguing for radically simplified lifestyles in order to move away from outdated and unworkable notions of consumerism. In the aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015, I argue that rather than waiting for governments to take action we should actively embrace austerity to meet the challenges of climate change. And the time to do so is now!
There are a number of common assumptions made about climate change:
- Climate change is real and it is caused by human behaviour;
- We should not make individuals feel guilty about what they ought to be doing about climate change; and
- Governments should be responsible for doing something about climate change.
I am not going to debate the first point, there is little point questioning the reality of anthropogenic climate change. It is here and it is impacting the planet now. Catastrophic bushfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods, sea level rise, and other extreme weather events are becoming the norm.
The next two points are interrelated. On the one hand we should continue to wait for a top-down solution. It is clearly governments that should do something about climate change. On the other, individuals should not feel guilty and need not change their behaviour because individual action is infinitesimal. Individual action, so the argument goes, simply does not make a difference. However, this view is at odds with the elevation, over the last sixty years, of the consumer.
In theory consumers have significant power in the marketplace. They have the power to choose to buy one product over another, the power to switch brands, and ignore marketing messages. Australian consumers, like their counterparts across the developed world, have almost unlimited choices. However, more choice doesn’t always mean better choice. Indeed, many of our choices may have unwanted consequences not the least over-consumption and climate change.
Since the end of the Second World War, the pursuit of economic prosperity and security has been focused primarily on material acquisition and increasing consumer choice; most Australians reaped the economic benefits. With consumption as the key to prosperity all efforts were geared to making the market work efficiently and equitably. The commercial sector, the government, and the independent consumer movement all pursued this aim through the various measures that formed the consumer policy framework and established the notion of consumer rights.
At the height of the consumer revolution in 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy introduced his four consumer rights to Congress: the rights to be informed, to safety, to be heard, and to choose which largely determined the direction of consumer advocacy. In 1985, the United Nations extended Kennedy’s notion of consumer rights by adding: the satisfaction of basic needs, to redress, to consumer education, and to a healthy environment. This final right – the right to a healthy environment – has been mainly applied to the elimination of pollution in developing countries and has not been prioritised during times of heightened climate change. Neither has the right to the satisfaction of basic needs been the primary focus of consumerism and materialism. Overwhelmingly it has been the ‘right to choose’ that has been the focus of marketers and policy makers and has ultimately led to unfettered consumption. Governments depend on consumer spending for economic prosperity. Consumers, it is argued, can help to buy their way out of economic recessions.
More recently, the consumer policy framework is designed to empower consumers and in turn stimulate competition. ‘Effective competition’, the Productivity Commission argued, ‘is stimulated by empowered consumers and responsive suppliers that trade fairly’. The Commission’s 2008 ‘Review of Australia’s Consumer Policy Framework’, which led to the new Australian Consumer Law 2011, recognised the importance of competition policy as being the greatest driver for improving the wellbeing of Australians. Consumer choice was central to its delivery:
Most notably, reductions in trade barriers and competition policy reforms have put downward pressure on prices, enhanced product quality and increased consumer choice. Indeed, almost all economic policies are ultimately aimed at improving consumer wellbeing.
While the Commission was careful ‘not to downplay the importance of consumer’s rights, which for many are the starting point for assessing a desirable policy framework’, the broader body rights of consumers could not always be the ultimate goal. Nor, from the Commission’s point of view, were they always in the ultimate interests of the consumer body as a whole. The Productivity Commission argued that ‘while broadening those rights may be in the interests of the wider community, the associated costs must always be considered as part of the policy formulation process’.
The current consumer policy framework as it has been historically structured is largely unequipped to consider issues that extend beyond individual consumer participation. Governments, consumers, and businesses are so caught up prioritising choice and promoting acquisition that other, often more important, issues – like dealing with climate change – do not get examined.
So why has the government not pursued the path of sustainable or ethical consumption for individual consumers? Put simply, frugality, austerity, and thrift are not seen to be easy politically. Since the end of the Second World War, governments across the western world pursued the twin goal of mass production and consumption to ensure prosperity and full employment. Most citizens enjoyed the (economic) benefits offered by a life based on material acquisition. Individual choice is the catch cry of the market with the consumer freedom to choose equated with democratic freedoms. Australian’s, like their American and European counterparts, view austerity negatively as a restriction of rights.
It is within this context that the Rudd Labor Government introduced its Economic Stimulus Package during the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. Instead of calling on citizens to exercise economic restraint, to save rather than spend to weather the economic storm, the Rudd Government sent us out to spend as if our (economic) life depended on it. This measure was largely successful in economic terms. It initiated stimulus spending to avoid economic recession and a potential economic depression with a $42b Economic Stimulus Plan. Success of the Government’s Stimulus Package reinforced the message of consumption and its importance in creating economic wellbeing.
Despite significant spending on infrastructure and education, a major part of the package – $12.2b – was in the form of ‘bonus payments’ to encourage individual consumer purchases. The message was explicit: good citizens should not spend the money paying off debt and they certainly should not save it. The good citizen was not to tighten his/her belt and exercise thrift in a time of economic hardship; the good citizen would go forth and spend. And, spend we did.
Whatever the root causes of Australia’s successful negotiation of the GFC, Labor’s actions reinforced that consumption was a democratic duty and that a good citizen was a good consumer (and vice versa). This presents a paradox for those charged with addressing the problems and consequences associated with over-consumption – waste, environmental damage, global warming, climate change, etc. Whose responsibility is it to deal with these problems and how can these aspects be reconciled? It is worth investigating possible alternatives.
Labor’s intervention contained significant incentives to encourage individual consumption. But the message of spend, spend, spend as if the prosperity of the country depended upon it was as problematic as it was compelling. This narrow definition of citizenship – good citizen as good consumer – has wider ramifications for a healthy democracy (one that is unable to meet challenges and spread rewards widely and evenly).
While the plan included spending on what can be labelled as environmentally sustainable initiatives, including rebates for energy efficiency, as well as the ill-fated housing insulation program, individual consumers were not encouraged to spend their individual bonus payments in environmentally sustainable or ethical ways. In so doing, the Government missed an important opportunity to better sell an environmental sustainability or austerity message.
Governments, for fear of being criticised for reining in rights, have been reluctant to rein in consumption. But the benefits for the environment of moderate consumption levels are obvious. We have to, however, be careful that we are not merely offered superficial alternatives. We need substantial and permanent change as well as changing light globes, installing water tanks and solar panels and using E10 petrol. We need to use less power, water, and petrol per se. We need to live simply.
The Climate Crisis
During the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called climate change ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. Despite almost universal agreement on the urgency to combat climate change Australia has done little of substance to fight it. Indeed, Australia’s political action on climate change could be called the greatest failure of our time.
Regardless of the significant groundswell amongst well-meaning urbanites in developed nations, the answers to one of the greatest questions of our time are not to be found in the stalls of farmers’ markets, in the pages of so-called green magazines, or around the kitchen tables of urban farmers, however virtuous these things might be. While we wait for top-down solutions, for governments to take climate change seriously rather than merely paying lip-service to it, we may as well do our bit: by growing our own vegies, keeping bees, and sewing our own clothes. We should generate our own energy, ride bikes, and take public transport. We should not fly, eat red meat, or factory farmed produce. We should only eat sustainable seafood. We really should do our bit for the planet. Very seriously the list of things we should and shouldn’t do in the name of climate change is almost endless.
Time is up. We simply cannot wait any longer for a serious political commitment, however we may need it.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will seek to find a binding agreement on climate change, comes at a time of the greatest urgency. Without question what we really need is a top down approach but until governments of all persuasions actually put in place serious and drastic emission reduction policies we have no choice but to act.
However, given past unsuccessful attempts to broker a solution we cannot rely on governments to implement strident policy initiatives. But because governments can easily override the political decisions of previous administrations, there is heightened need for individuals to take action. Holly Lawford-Smith argues that we need bottom-up action, because it is simply too easy for governments to repeal top-down solutions. We should, instead, focus on individuals and their great potential power, she writes:
I think if we stop talking about what states ought to do about climate change, and start focusing on what individuals ought to do, we might find that states end up being able to do what they ought to do as a consequence.
One way of radically reducing consumption is to place formal restrictions on consumer rights. While ‘free choice’ may be central to commercial decision-making, there is a good argument for restricting our rights as consumers. Governments must enable us as citizens to step back from the consumer market just as governments must move away from the growth model of material acquisition.
While free choice is the mantra of the market only a specific aspect of this is promoted – the free choice to choose – to say ‘yes’ to consumption. Yet, saying no must be prioritised instead. We must transition quickly to austerity in order to embrace a newer, simpler way of living.
Nor can we merely buy our way into green solutions to fix climate change. In fact green solutions are too easily co-opted by marketers and sold back to us as consumers with an increased price-tag. As Naomi Klein writes:
Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reasons we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic – indeed, they encourage us to go out and buy more new, efficient, green cars and washing machines.
If we have indeed reached the tipping point on runaway climate change and there is much to suggest that we have, then the solution does not lie in sustainable capitalism. There will be no green solution for marketers to hijack; no technological answers to hope for. We need to transition to austerity, not only for economic reasons but to appease the climate crisis.
Yet, it goes without saying that economic austerity is politically unpopular. However, what I am suggesting need not be a Greece-type bailout. It has little to do with government deficits, although it will improve the government’s bottom line. It has little to do with raising taxes, although it will decrease reliance on government coffers. We must all simplify if we are to meet the demands of the climate crisis.
Simple living, as defined by Alexander and McLeod (2014), is a ‘way of life based on notions such as frugality, sufficiency, moderation, minimalism, self-reliance, localism and mindfulness’. Ultimately it is a middle way between over- and under-consumption. By growing, cooking and preserving, building, raising animals, producing energy, and making and doing, we can actively practise an authentic lifestyle: a lifestyle based on creativity, self-help, independence, self-expression, and freedom – elements that are, and perhaps always will be, lacking or impossible in the mainstream.
In order to live simply we must rethink our relationship with the consumer market and its spoils. By embracing austerity, by rethinking the meaning and relationship between luxuries and necessities we can do our bit to mitigate and adapt to the climate catastrophe that is upon us. We can all simplify regardless of our economic means. Austerity is something we can all embrace. But until we do we, and the planet, are doomed.
It is a strange kind of consolation that the economic prosperity witnessed over the last sixty years has resulted in real and expected environmental catastrophe. Over-consumption is at once revered and scorned. As prosperity expanded in the years following the Second World War consumers were elevated in status. Consumers, acquiring rights never experienced before, wielded unbridled power. Yet this new power has never been fully utilised as Australian consumers have been largely unwilling to mobilise as a group. Boycotts are not a feature of the Australian consumer scene. Despite this, consumers remain a potential political force to be reckoned with.
The environmental catastrophe that is anthropogenic climate change has been the subject of significant concern for more than forty years. Yet despite growing interest, lack of real action has seen the ‘issue’ stagnate for a number of reasons not least the prioritisation of the growth model of economics, the advance of globalisation, and burgeoning free trade agreements.
Within this power structure individual action seems to be a waste of time. We need to step away from the consumerist system to achieve a revolution in values to truly reform the capitalist system. Despite our growing interest in ‘green’ solutions, our global ecological footprint is simply too high. Even if we significantly change our consumer behaviour and personally reduce CO2 emissions by following Al Gore’s advice and put more solar panels on our roofs we are not doing enough. Even if we insulated our homes better, drove more efficient cars, and become vegan, we are not doing enough. Even if we radically change our behaviour as consumers we are not doing enough to combat climate change. Indeed ‘enough’ is not a word often uttered in the world of marketing and advertising. And, we cannot wait for Government action however we may need it.
Richard Heinberg wrote in 2007, we have reached ‘peak everything’. Indeed, we cannot rely on individuals voluntarily reducing their carbon footprint to deal with the enormity that is climate change and global warming. But, it seems, individual action is all we have.
Climate change is a peril of prosperity. Unbridled capitalism is responsible for untold harm not least harm to humans, animals, and the planet; harm that is likely to increase exponentially. The climate crisis is not an issue of future imaginings, it is here and it is real. We must radically change our consumer behaviour, our lifestyles, and our expectations about luxuries and necessities. Without doubt we need top-down (state) responses to the climate crisis. We need governments to reign-in consumer rights and marketers and advertisers to stop driving the economic agenda.
But we are still waiting.
In the aftermath of Paris 2015 we will hold our breath for serious emission reduction solutions. We will have to simplify regardless of outcomes. Let us simplify sooner rather than later.
Let us simplify now.
 Peter Singer, (ed.), Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 179.
 See for example: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations’, chapter 18 in Stephen M. Gardiner, (et.al), Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 332-346.
 As federal treasurer, Peter Costello instructed the Productivity Commission in 2006 to examine Australia’s consumer policy framework with a view to introducing a ‘single generic consumer law’ which would apply across all Australian jurisdictions (the Australian Consumer Law came into effect in January 2011).
 Productivity Commission, Review of Australia’s Policy Framework, Final Report, 2008, p. 2.
 Productivity Commission, Review of Australia’s Policy Framework, Final Report, 2008, p. 12.
 Holly Lawford-Smith, ‘Difference-making and Individuals’ Climate-Related Obligations’, final draft as at 29th July 2014, 21.
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, UK: Penguin, 2014, p. 90.
 Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod, Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future, Melbourne: Simplicity Institute, 2014, p. xiv.
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, UK: Penguin, 2014.
 Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, 2007.