Cover of Book 'Limits' by Giorgos Kallis
Cover of Book 'Limits' by Giorgos Kallis

Rethinking consumerism

In this extended review article, John Foster considers some recent thinking on living within limits, and discusses the implications for Green House’s current ‘Rethinking Demand’ project.

In this extended review article, John Foster considers some recent thinking on living within limits, and discusses the implications for Green House’s current ‘Rethinking Demand’ project.

Kate Soper, Post Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020).

Giorgos Kallis, Limits: Why Malthus was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care (Stanford UP, 2019).

1.     Paradox

Both these books offer to confront what might be characterised (though neither actually presents it in quite these terms) as the Paradox of Destructive Consumerism. This paradox brings together two elements, of which the first can be stated, somewhat long-windedly, thus:

The majority population in the societies of the West and North, to imitate which the rest of the world increasingly strives, spend their lives in the hectic mobility and trivial consumption now driving climate and ecological catastrophe, while funding these activities largely by unfulfilling and ever more precarious work in a concrete and plastic urban desert.

The second element, however, may be put more tersely:

They seem to like it.

These are deliberately blunt formulations – in an emergency we may surely forsake academic blandness and soft-mouthed political correctness in favour of stating matters starkly – but the grounds for the two claims are nonetheless rather different. While the first represents what can be seen by anyone ordinarily honest with their eyes open and a faculty of judgement still in touch with any traditional understanding of human nature, human possibility and the human good, the second relies on numerous straws in the empirical wind. Among the more obvious of these are the determined resistance shown, most recently for instance by the gilets jaunes in France, to attempts to make fuel prices reflect the real ecological costs of current energy usage; the derisory votes (either in absolute terms, or just in comparison to what is at stake) obtained by green political parties offering the only policies credibly aimed at addressing the crisis; and perhaps most depressingly, the Gadarene post-Covid rush back to the airports en routeto formerly exotic locations rendered less and less distinguishable by the effects of mass air travel. It is also worth noting the virtual abolition, in this unabated consumerist frenzy, of any real distinctions of income, class or taste: ordinary folk now everywhere aspire to live in ways as like those of the rich as they can afford, and the rich (if the colour supplements are any evidence at all) aspire to lives of unredeemed and utterly demeaning vulgarity.

From the terms of this seemingly paradoxical conjunction, different conclusions may be drawn depending on how one interprets the second of its elements. The most frightening such conclusion would be that they really do like it – that is, they like the whole package including the destructiveness: they have been thoroughly vitiated, that would mean, by a century and more of material ‘progress’. This in its initial, wholly justified phase generated (after a bitter political struggle, since bitterly betrayed) a decent standard of food, housing and other provision for those whose work turned the wheels of the Industrial Revolution; but latterly it has become, as Marcuse long ago pointed out, a combination of bread-and-circuses and cynical bribery to keep capitalism in business worldwide – and the majority population in the West, whence the dynamic is driven, are for reasons to be considered below peculiarly and unprecedentedly vulnerable to such an approach. Thus bribed, it might seem, they now revel in a brazen triumphalism. They actively embrace consumerism and positively enjoy ways of living which stick up two fingers at any limitations felt to be threatened by the non-human natural world, limitations which there is a general consensus (when the matter is considered at all) that more ‘progress’ can always transcend. They therefore vehemently reject any policies which might address the environmentally disastrous consequences of their preferred lifestyle, and will go on being flattered in this rejection by the lickspittle populist politicos whom their attitudes have spawned and empowered. They really do prefer, we should on this account have to accept, shopping malls to mountains and forests, flying and driving to cycling or walking, the television and social media to living interaction; they are in fact developing under techno-capitalism into a sort of post-human species of digitalised anthropoid. So, on this interpretation, we – and of course, they – are simply screwed: humanity will destroy the biosphere and thereby itself, in all its manifestations, sooner than voluntarily exit this phase of terminal decline. It is fervently to be hoped, for the credit as well as the future of the species, that this is not how things stand; but there is no denying that it is one possibility suggested by the paradox.

(I should perhaps deal here with an objection which may well by now have been raised, that I write of the majority population as them rather than us, and that this is variously to be reprehended as snobbish, undemocratic or arrogant. I can only meet this head-on, avowing frankly that I do indeed write from a position which is consciously outside, as a corollary of being thoroughly appalled by, the majority-endorsed consumerist lifestyle; I think any responsibly thoughtful person must do that. I have already suggested how this is no longer, if it ever was, a class issue – unless the responsibly thoughtful count as a class. I develop an extended argument in what follows for why ‘undemocratic’ misses the point. And as for arrogance: anyone deterred by the prospect of that accusation from expressing contempt for what is contemptible – not people, by and large, but conditions of life – had better not write about contemporary civilisation at all.)

Only slightly less frightening would be the interpretation that the majority population really do like the megalopolitan consumerist lifestyle, even while growing more and more uneasily aware of how destructive fuelling it predominantly through fossil energy has been. Thus they are now prepared for a transition away from dependence on that source, provided that the energy itself keeps flowing. They want there to go on being a biosphere, not just out of a dawning self-interested recognition of its necessity as a provider of resources and sinks, but also from a sense that life bounded entirely by shopping malls lacks something crucial; they want their relation to that backdrop natural world, however, as well as to the goods and services provided by the economy, to go on taking essentially the form of shopping. As Soper firmly points out, this notion of a ‘greened consumerism’ is basically an oxymoron:

“Whatever efforts are made to optimise the efficiency of resource use and to limit carbon emissions, continued economic growth cannot be made sustainable…more efficient technologies have hitherto always gone together with an overall expansion in resource use and production of more commodities. Since 1945, American energy consumption per dollar of GDP has been cut in half, but energy demand has increased by 40 per cent. In aviation, fuel efficiency has increased by 40 per cent, but total fuel use increased by 150 per cent.” (p.41)

Since maintaining the shoppers’ paradise in being, however greenly, depends on relentlessly continued growth, in the case of that interpretation too we should all still be screwed, albeit perhaps on a slightly longer timescale.

What both Soper and Kallis take as a licence for hope, though, is a third interpretation: the majority population don’t really like destructive consumerism, but have been bullied and seduced by capitalism into imagining that they like it, and therefore can perhaps be persuaded out of it again, provided that this persuasion is accompanied by sufficiently far-reaching institutional changes.

2.     Redefinition

This has also been the terrain latterly occupied by attempts associated with Tim Jackson and the former UK Sustainable Development Commission to redefine prosperity. Soper’s focus is on pleasure (hedonism) rather than ‘the good life’, as this is supposed to be more democratic – it is felt that people can tell for themselves what’s fun, rather than having to be guided towards recognising what is good for them – but the move is essentially the same in both versions. A term is identified which has good vibes on the ruling consumerist paradigm, and it is then shown that real prosperity involves things (localised production, more satisfying work…) which consumerism either doesn’t deliver or actively undermines, or that real pleasure comes from pedestrianised conviviality rather than hassled commuting, from being energetic rather than passively mechanised, and so on. For example,

“the machines and lifts and escalators and moving walkways that reduce our energy expenditure do so at the cost of the exertion of muscular power and the sense of vitality that goes along with that” (p.129)

– a classic case of the consumerist paradigm depriving us of something which is actively enjoyable as well as good for us. The key trick, throughout, is to retain the good vibes from current usage of the respective terms, while redirecting what these terms are taken to signify towards activities which are both more individually fulfilling and ecologically non-destructive. And ‘trick’ is often the right word for the sleight-of-hand which can so easily go with this strategy. For if you can tell people with a straight face that eco-responsible living, whatever they may have heard, will not only not mean living in caves but will actually increase their prosperity and pleasure, it is hoped that this could be more persuasive than telling them the uncomfortable truth – which is that achieving such benefits while avoiding climate catastrophe will come also at the price of being colder and dirtier and much less distracted from essentials, that they are going to eat less and their muscles are going to ache more and that everything will be a lot shabbier, more localised and labour-intensive than they have been encouraged to get themselves accustomed to.

Soper of course sees herself as engaged in something much loftier than sleight-of-hand: nothing less, in fact, than creating a revitalised democratic mandate for the changes that will have to come if destructive consumerism is to be transcended:

“A counter-consumerist ethic and politics should appeal not only to altruistic comparison and environmental concern…but also to the self-regarding gratifications of living and consuming differently. It can seek democratic anchorage and legitimation for its claims about the attractions of a post-consumerist lifestyle in already existing ambivalence about and resistance to consumer culture…it becomes urgent to renew an earlier tradition of positive thinking on the liberation from work, and to associate that with an alternative hedonist defence of the pleasures of a less harried and acquisitive way of living.” (p.51)

In pursuit of this mandate she envisages (for Britain – with corresponding configurations elsewhere) a political alliance between Greens and Labour, the former bringing to the table policies based on ecological responsibility, the latter such as would effect the necessary pre-condition of reining in neo-liberal global capitalism and bringing it under social-democratic governance – since “it is – or used to be – the socialist parties which have been most prepared to implement political control of the economy” (p.171). Here, as with redefining prosperity, the dominant note is the win-win register of the Green New Deal and similar projects: as well as improved pleasure, we are to ensure ourselves equality and justice along with reduced emissions and a chance to avert climate catastrophe, all without jeopardising the democratic procedures of electoral politics – through what I have elsewhere characterised, not I think unfairly, as “a caucus-race ‘revolution’ in which, somehow, everyone emerges with prizes and no one gets hurt.” [1]

Does she really believe in this warm utopian prospect? Her book is fairly unremittingly chipper, but underneath the confident tone there are unmistakeable signs of doubt. One is the palpablywilled optimism with which she over-generalises that “ambivalence” about, and supposed dissatisfaction with, consumerist forms of pleasure seeking:

“These voicings of discontent…remain low-key, diffuse and politically unfocussed. They are the frustrated murmurings of people aware of their impotence to take on the corporate giants and lacking a coherent idea of what to put in place of the existing order. But the regrets and disquiet are real enough…a widely-felt sense of the opportunities we have squandered in recent decades for enjoying more relaxed and less narrowly reduced ways of living” (p.45)

– to which the realistic response, of which Soper herself cannot fail to be aware, would be  that while such murmurings may be audible in North London and similar enclaves, one need only spend some time in a motorway service station or an airport to recognise that describing them as “widely-felt” is wishful thinking. And that she really knows this does come out here and there, as in the almost comically plaintive cri de cœur which, dropping her guard a bit towards the end, she permits herself in her Conclusion:

“63 per cent of Britons think we are in a climate emergency…If this is the case they should also be ready to act on their opinions…Why, for example, are the 63 per cent not doing everything they can to minimise their car use? If even half of car owners did so, it would have a noticeable impact” (p.153)

Here, in fact, she comes as near as she does anywhere in the book to admitting what is actually the most plausible conclusion to be drawn from the seeming paradox with which we started: that the majority population don’t really like destructive consumerism, but can’t desist from it because they have become addicted to it.

If that were to be recognised as the state of the case, the lights by which the advocates of alternative pleasure and prosperity are steering would be decisively changed. For while the pressures and seductions of capitalism would obviously have a great deal of relevance to an addiction to commodities, the underlying causes of such a condition must run deeper than anything merely economic or political. Addiction, whether individual or collective, is essentially the attempt to fill an unfillable hole in the soul – a radical and unignorable need, for the meeting of which only patently inadequate substitutes are available, so that the hole only deepens with each attempt to fill it, while making repeated such attempts becomes a compulsion.[2]And identifying the unmet radical need which drives commodity-addiction in the majority population must call for a profounder cultural and indeed existential analysis than anything in the tradition of historical materialism, in particular any light-green liberal post-Marxism like Soper’s, could hope to provide.

By just the same token, the broader sociological analysis of consumer behaviour which recognises individual choice and preference as embedded in a complex of interlocking social practices would have to revise one of its fundamental assumptions. Thus Riniken, Shove and Marsden observe, very plausibly, in their Conceptualising Demand that

“the practices on which demand depends do not arise by chance; they have histories, and forms of interconnection, and they rely on material arrangements, infrastructures and systems that extend well beyond the individual consumer. This way of thinking challenges the very foundations of established discussions of ethical consumption and consumer choice, and in the same move establishes what we might think of as a politics of practice.” [3]

So, whether or not it was aiming to promote an alternative hedonism as such, that politics would seek to address, for instance, demand for fridges and freezers, with its implications for electricity usage and hence for carbon emissions, in the whole broad context of eating habits and expectations, and of food-sourcing, rather than just as an issue about willingness-to-pay for renewable supply or higher energy standards of appliances. This makes a lot of sense while such practices are envisaged as potentially flexible enough to respond to various nudges, encouragements, institutional disincentives and similar manipulations – which is how the authors see them, and the policy point of their book. But it would be much less hopeful in respect of practices which are in fact configured around a core of addiction – not of course necessarily in this case addiction to particular foodstuffs, but to the commodification of eating, to the pursuit of exotic and destructively-sourced comestibles as one among a range of compulsive substitutes for something vital which has gone missing, with the result that when it comes to the pinch, other considerations can’t help going by the board.[4]

A similar point can be made about the conceptual framework developed around the idea of ‘Sobriété énergétique’, of which the authors write for instance that:

la mise à l’agenda politique de la sobriété comme réponse au pic des ressources constitue…une méthode d’animation du débat public qui met l’accent sur la fin annoncée de l’abondance énergétique, tout en invitant à renégocier les modalités de répartition des richesses restantes. Contrairement à l’efficacité qui s’inscrit dans une perspective d’innovation technique, la sobriété insiste plutôt sur la nécessité d’une renégociation des besoins et des normes sociales à l’origine du besoin énergétique.”.

(Putting sobriety on the political agenda in response to peaking resources is a way of firing up public debate by stressing the coming end of plentiful energy alongside an invitation to renegotiate how our remaining energy wealth is to be allocated. As against the efficiency focus implicit in a technical innovation perspective, sobriety insists that it is instead the needs and social norms of energy demand which require to be renegotiated.)[5]

But that invitation only stands any chance of being taken up if the public is able to contemplate the ending of plentiful energy, which could not be expected of people addicted to the products and services which that superabundance is consumed in order to supply. The authors indeed seem to have some intimation of this potential objection, although it is one at which they only glance in passing and by a kind of inadvertence. They suggest that

“la sobriété n’ayant pas de traduction littérale en langue anglaise, elle peut néanmoins trouver un équivalent dans la notion de suffisance (sufficiency). Celle-ci postule l’existence d’un seuil de contre-productivité au-delà duquel il devient indésirable de continuer à croître, à consommer ou à accumuler.”

(la sobriété, lacking a literal English translation, can nevertheless find its equivalent in the idea of sufficiency. This latter concept proposes a threshold beyond which it becomes desirable to recognise continued growth, consumption or accumulation as counter-productive).[6]

English sobriety, they presumably feel in offering this linguistic judgement, savours just too much of its alcoholic context, whereas the French term includes that meaning within a more general notion of moderation and balance. But of course, habitual intoxication, which our sobriety invokes by contrast, is already on the way to addiction, and persisting in it often arrives there. Being sober, thought of as a virtue, means not merely not being drunk on this or that occasion, but being characteristically abstemious with this primrose path in mind (mere sufficiency carrying none of these vibrations). Sobriety, we might say, raises the issue of addiction inescapably, even while these authors ignore it as a possibility.

3.     Limits and limitation

But why should one invoke a condition of addiction in the first place as a way to explain our paradox? Here we need to bring Giorgos Kallis’s book Limits more explicitly into the frame, because he is making there

“a case for self-limitation – the establishment of self-imposed and deliberately chosen limits – as distinct from the Malthusian limits we attribute to our internal or external world” (p.5)

– and of course, precisely the one thing that an addict can’t do, at least unaided, is to limit him- or herself. It is in fact the glaring inadequacy of Westernised consumer society to just the kind of sober self-governance and self-regulation desiderated by Kallis, which perhaps most readily prompts the diagnosis of addiction.

The argument about limitation from which this ideal emerges is a subtle one. Kallis sees that nature as such does not confront us with limits but only with thresholds: intensities of particular processes or activities, beyond which consequences of particular kinds will follow according to biological, chemical and ultimately physical laws. These thresholds are converted into limits by our wanting things which the consequences of crossing the threshold in a given case would preclude our having, a practice of social construction in which it is also implicit that natural thresholds so encountered are constructed as constraining us – they erect themselves in opposition to a career of want-satisfaction which is itself constructed, in the very same stroke, as in principle open-ended or limitless. This is true whether the constraint comes from features of human or of external nature. Thus, on Kallis’s account, when Malthus famously observed that the increase of subsistence only in an arithmetical progression would always tend to act as a natural check on populations growing by geometrical progression, he was not (despite what quickly came to be his grim reputation) predicting deserved starvation for the too-philoprogenitive lower classes whose fecundity transgressed this moving threshold, but identifying a limit within which society would have to work if production and population were to go on increasing in step. He thereby

“invented the unlimited…subjects of modern economics, those with an instinct and a call to work and to subdue and populate the earth…These people can never have everything they want. And there will never be enough for all of them” (pp.29-30)

– a state of affairs which was meant to dispose of Godwin’s argument in Political Justice for forced transfers of wealth to reduce inequality, as well as of Poor Law relief encouraging the unemployed to breed in idleness, but which also launched the conception of homo economicus of which nineteenth-century (and subsequent) economic thinkers made so much.

Environmentalism, Kallis argues, was then born in “a Malthusian moment” in the late 1960s when fears of population growth (the Ehrlichs’ ‘population bomb’) coincided with a new awareness of the finite mineral resource base and (with Silent Spring) of approaching thresholds in the absorptive and adaptive capacities of natural systems. But then, again, the assumption of open-ended desire deeply implicit in the social construction of limitation kicked in: “Environmentalists wanted to limit growth because it destroys the environment. But they ended up arguing that unless the environment is preserved, growth will come to an end” (p.44). The whole Limits to Growth case, he points out, was about avoiding a crash by maintaining the highest level of population and consumption compatible with resource availability and biospheric stability. On this account the subsequent transformation of environmental concern into the pursuit of ‘sustainable development’, so far from being a travesty of the original impulse, can be seen as absolutely thematic:

“Like Malthus, who invoked collapse to sustain the maximum number of people possible, environmentalists, when they involve the limits to or collapse of growth, imply that what we want is to sustain the maximum output for as long as possible. Within this Malthusian framework, the ecological question is reduced to an economic one of how to sustain optimum output given scarcity constraints” (pp.47-8).

Now while the kind of post-growth discourse of alternative hedonism or reconceived prosperity which Soper and her co-adjutors are canvassing is clearly an attempt to think beyond this disastrous paradigm, Kallis’s insights here have important consequences for that approach too. For however firmly the focus is fixed on rediscovering real pleasure and so forth, the issue of limits is always bound to come up in this discourse, if only in response to the perfectly legitimate question: “If it’s all about pleasures, why not stick with the ones we’re already enjoying? – since any shift away from them will evidently mean major political and institutional transformation with its own accompanying pains needing to be subtracted from the utility sum, and by your description those pains could be quite significant”. That question can only be answered by adducing the independently decisive benefits of living within climate and ecological limits. But if these limits are conceived as external and natural, as has been the overwhelmingly dominant model (for instance in the framing of ‘planetary boundaries’), then not only will they be encountered by definition as adverse and constraining, and so as inherently unpopular, but they will present themselves of their very nature as things to be worked around if only we can devise the technical means for doing so; and hence the impetus away from destructive consumerist pleasures, with their associated growth-fixation, will always be threatening to undermine itself. Still more insidiously, it will continue to do so even if limits are grudgingly accepted, because the majority population (who may be trapped in consumerism, but aren’t stupid) will always be tacitly aware that in their character as social constructs, environmental limits can be flexed – which they inevitably will be when they are encountered as just too uncomfortably constraining in the short term. As Kallis notes, water contamination (for instance)

“is a limit if we want a clean public water supply available to all; it is not a limit if we are fine with a world where everyone has to buy expensive bottled water because rivers are contaminated” (p.119)

– and the temptation to be fine with that, on behalf of future bottle-purchasers who aren’t yet around to argue the point, will grow less and less resistible as the full costs of uncontaminated supply increase. So the new hedonism, with such limits lurking in the background as they must, will always tend to remain an inherently uninviting alternative.

Kallis’s response to all this, as already noted, is an attempt to recast limitedness as self-limitation: for limits which we place ourselves under, rather than construct as representative of externally-obtaining natural thresholds, will (so he argues) be experienced as freely and autonomously chosen, and therefore as owned, not as constraints asking to be subverted. This is an appealing move on the face of it, but it raises much larger questions than either he seems aware of, or his model of autonomy is equipped to deal with.

The gain to be had from self-limitation, on his account, is getting free from the tyranny of open-ended desire:

“Consumer society…overwhelms us with a potentially limitless range of options…limitless possibility can be debilitating and a constant source of frustration. Simplifying choice by setting our own limits and by choosing ‘not to’…can then be liberating.” (p.57)

As well as liberation for oneself, there are also and quite as importantly to be factored in the promotion of justice and of care for others, both of which go with abjuring ever-expanded self-gratification and “living simply so that others can simply live” (an injunction which he attributes to Gandhi). It is through choosing such aims and deliberately committing ourselves to the corresponding limits and the accompanying rejection of growthist consumerism that we fully internalise the requirements not to cross natural thresholds, the breaching of which would now bring catastrophic climate and ecological consequences. We have here what on inspection is evidently a mirror-image of the trick being turned by Jackson and Soper: Kallis takes a term with bad vibes on the consumerist paradigm and argues that, properly understood, limits are enabling and empowering – the hope then being (to put matters rather more crudely than he allows himself) that when told they must do considerably less driving and vastly less flying, cut down on meat and imported foodstuffs and put on more jumpers, the majority population will reply with “Yippee!” rather than “On your bike”.

One’s instinctive scepticism about this is not, however, the main difficulty (though it points towards it). That emerges when, to depict a culture exemplifying such internalising of limits, Kallis appeals to ancient Athens. Classical Greek culture, he notes, from its cosmology through its political and economic institutions to its conception of personal behaviour, was constructed around the principle of individual and collective moderation expressed in Solon’s maxim of meden agan, “nothing in excess”. But, as he also emphasises, the notion of avoiding  hubris was central to this cast of mind – hubris as a principal theme of Greek tragedy, the overweening human self-confidence leading men to trespass unknowingly on ground reserved for the gods, and as opposed to aidos or humility which involved walking humbly and delicately to propitiate the Fates. And what that compels us to recognise is the complete absence, from anything which could be called the ‘culture’ of the majority population in our own very non-Athenian society, of anything remotely corresponding to that dimension of concern.

Kallis is in fact hoist here on the petard of the thinking about limits which goes with his being a modern and scientifically-rational rather than an ancient Greek. If the boundaries which we must exercise caution and restraint (Aristotelian phronesis) in order not to stray unwittingly beyond are taken to be set by natural thresholds, we are back with all the practical drawbacks, which he has so carefully outlined, of constraint externally encountered. But if our limits are set by our autonomous selves so that we can enjoy the benefits of self-limitation, they will not be genuine limits at all – for the good Wittgensteinian reason that there will then be essentially no difference between keeping to them and reinterpreting them under pressure. If I have decided, for instance, to limit my expenditure on clothes because it is good to be liberated from open-ended desire or in order to be able to donate more readily to charity, I can still think of myself as happily so liberated or enabled while flexing my limit just that little bit for the new tie which it turns out I need for this particular and of course not-to-be-repeated special occasion; and if I refuse this one-off finesse because I can see where it leads, still my reaffirmed ‘limit’ has been revealed as gratuitous – why not have set it somewhere slightly different? – and has thus been subtly destabilised.

What this shows Kallis’s account entirely failing to grapple with, in fact, is the very deep requirement that self-limitation, if it is to be real, has to involve the self’s creative realisation of internally given limits, in a way which must seriously affect our notions both of its nature and of its autonomy. His acknowledged mentor Cornelius Castoriadis has a clearer view here, although it is one which also makes the difficulty even more starkly evident:

“We are living in the first society since the inception of the history of humankind in which religion is no longer central to social life. Why did religion occupy such a tremendous place? Because it reminded you that you are not the master of the world, that you are living on top of the Abyss, Chaos, the Bottomless Pit, that there is something other than humankind…By the same token, it gave meaning to human life and death…it reminded humans of their limits, reminded them that Being is unfathomable and uncontrollable.” [7]

But this essentially three-dimensional recognition – that as well as humankind with its values and practices and the material world of object and forces with which it engages, there is something unfathomably “other”, not external to us as the material world is external, nor in the different way that gods used to be, nor internal in any psychological sense, but intimately relevant to everything we do – is one for which contemporary civilisation and majority ‘culture’, in this respect a thoroughly and helplessly two-dimensional business, has lost any speakable language. And this is where we need to pick up again the theme of commodity- addiction which the glaring implausibility of Kallis’s prescribed self-limitation as a remedy for consumerist excess prompts us to posit. For it is just that loss, and the failure of any robust project of meaningful human life going with it, which constitutes the unfillable hole at the core of the addicted condition.

4. Commodity-addiction

Human beings need guiding purpose in life as they need air to breathe – not just the ad hoc tasks and goals with which each day presents them, but a pattern of settled purposes organised by the pursuit of what is felt deeply to carry lasting significance, which will implement in turn an abiding structure of values. Such purposes and values people cannot simply choose for themselves, for essentially the same reason that they cannot set themselves merely self-chosen limits: values merely chosen would carry no more life-guiding authority than could be countermanded and redirected at the next choice point. (They would no more offer guidance, which is their whole point, than a compass which always swivelled to point in the direction you had already decided was North.) But equally, they cannot be given to the individual from some authoritative external source of divine or human injunction, nor by any conventions of society; nor can they be understood as given merely causally, by the circumstances of one’s upbringing, one’s psychology or any other form of involuntary habituation. For a requirement externally imposed in any of these ways cannot become a life-purpose unless endorsed by the individual’s own thrust of life-energy. But if that means it must be accepted and embraced by an act of mere choice, such an act as we have just seen cannot support it. A life-purpose capable of organising one’s life into significance must finally be something about which one finds oneself having no choice. This radical dilemma, that life-purpose can be neither chosen nor imposed, while those seem to be the only options, has hitherto been accommodated by the tacit recognition that while we don’t belong to ourselves, we are creatively responsible for ourselves. All religions have expressed this profound human awareness in some kind of mythological-dogmatic mode, but the underlying insight has always been that purpose and meaning depend on the principle of life working creatively through each of us, a principle which is nevertheless only realised within each one of us as a directing force insofar as each follows out the life-clue of a uniquely-configured individuality in a context of collaboratively-created value and significance. That understanding has been found habitable, however, and thus a whole three-dimensional human life broadly liveable, for as long as there has been strongly present in the collective consciousness both some compelling mythological picture of the relation between human life and what grounds it from beyond the human world, and also an intuitive sense of our inherent creativity as a vital life-force upholding that world.

But, as Castoriadis notes in his own idiom, our own unprecedented form of civilisation is the first where neither of those conditions any longer obtains. The reasons for this are complex, and have been accumulating over at least a couple of centuries. They include the failing credibility of religious framings for these existential issues, and correspondingly a growing inability to recognise anything beyond the human world except a material universe within one tiny corner of which humanity is of vanishing significance. They include also the increasingly routine and mechanical nature of work and of daily life, robbing the ordinary individual of any daily exercise of creativity, while urbanisation and declining direct contact with the non-human world only reinforce this deprivation, as do accompanying changes in attitudes to relations between the sexes and to sexuality itself. Meanwhile the increasing predominance of passive entertainment in the forms of semi-literate fiction, cinema, popular music and the television has brought with it a lethal lapse of cultural authority for genuine art as the guarantor and prime exemplar of creativity. The upshot has been an almost complete dissipation of the cultural resources which were once available for bringing this third dimension of human experience – the life-dependent creative responsibility which is the essential religious recognition – properly to mind, let alone for talking of it in any way of which the ordinary majority could hope to make living sense. As a result their lives are, unprecedentedly in history, radically two-dimensional. And this is the context within which we have to place the widespread contemporary phenomenon of destructive commodity-addiction if we really want to understand it.

It is, in other words, from a hole in the collective soul or psyche so deeply configured in Western culture as to have the force of inevitability, that this form of addiction arises. The profound natural need of human beings for life-purpose organised into significance within a robust framework of value finds itself confronted, in a two-dimensional world-view, with a general impossibility of satisfaction. As we have seen,  neither the individual self as choosing agent, nor any pattern given externally to that self, can meet the need for life-guiding purpose. But Western culture has so powerfully reinforced a two-dimensional picture of the options (subjective self confronting external material world as all there is) that it has progressively deprived the majority population of resources for recognising any third dimension in which significance is given both through and as the life-dependence of the creatively-responsible self. Hence everything to which they turn in the hope of meeting the profound need for life-purpose and direction must either exalt the subjective will, or impose some kind of external requirement. But it is precisely as the felt deep inadequacy of that dichotomy that the life-need for significance insists upon itself, so that in this condition nothing thus proposed could satisfy it, and the hole at the centre of ordinary life becomes inescapably unfillable.

The basic need remains so pressing that (necessarily substitute) satisfiers must nevertheless be constantly pursued, and a wide variety of contemporary addictions have emerged in response. There are those to the television (sat in front of for 20% of the waking life of the average Briton), or to smartphone applications (more than 2,500 touches, swipes or taps a day, again on average)[8] – both substitutes purporting to enhance the subjective self’s sense of range, agency and control over its purposes, while really offering little but helpless passivity. (The pervasive presence of screensin contemporary life is itself a potent, quasi-literal reinforcement of two-dimensionality.)  Various increasingly prevalent forms of food-related addiction, whether to over- or under-eating or to specialised diets, perhaps fall into the same category of pretences at autonomous agency. Over against these there are substitutes for life-direction to be given from beyond the self, manifesting for example as addictions to work (where this has enough human content to support the appearance of providing significance), or as attachment to sterile –isms (Marxism, feminism…), which claim to apply a general explanatory shape to our experience. But the addiction which most compellingly combines both these kinds of appeal, to pseudo-control as well as to pseudo-givenness, while also (and of course, quite un-coincidentally) having the full force of our current dominant mode of economic organisation behind it, is that to the attempted pursuit of life-purpose and life-meaning through commodities. Capitalism, familiarly, tends to commodify and  marketise everything it can – to turn not just bodily necessities and material goods but a whole gamut of other desirables, from entertainment and adventure through education and health all the way to beauty and virtue, into items available for sale and purchase. That transmutation, equally familiarly, interacts with ordinary human psychology to turn acquisition of these various commodified entities into sources of excitement (or at least, of boredom-alleviation), modes of self-assertion and vehicles of status-display. But what is fundamentally addictive about the relation of the unreflective majority population to this process is the way the restless churning of commodities, endemic to capitalism’s central competitive drive, supplies such a powerful form of substitute life-direction. The logic of capitalist production, distribution and exchange dictates a constant quest for novelty and ‘improvement’ in the relentless pursuit of market advantage; and keeping up, or attempting to keep up, or even just aspiring to keep up with this dynamic supplies to people who ‘find their soul in commodities’, as Marcuse once put it[9]– in iPhones, cars, flat-screen televisions and holiday flight-packages, to update his examples – a permanently available source both of apparent autonomy and of apparent point in their lives.

Hence, when we concede (as clearly we should) that the role played by global capitalism in bringing on the climate emergency and rendering it so intractable must be urgently addressed, and when we point to those with vested interests in defending that system, even while catastrophe looms, as needing somehow to be restrained, removed or transformed, we shouldn’t confine ourselves comfortably to identifying in that role the glitterati billionaires, oil sheikhs and coal barons, innumerable mendacious CEOs or smooth fat shareholders. The most powerfully vested interest in the continued operation of this engine of planetary destruction is that of the ordinary consuming majority in preserving the kind of civilisation which ours has become – because that represents the overmastering interest of the addict in maintaining continuity of supply. And that is a compulsion the grip of which is not weakened, here any more than in other forms of addiction, merely by knowing that continued dependence will have lethal consequences.

5.     Rethinking…

A project of rethinking demand must think about liberation from demand: to the extent that they conceive it in this way, and thereby give a positive spin to the move beyond Western consumerism which is now (if we are to survive) inevitable, both Soper and Kallis are right in their emphasis. But if commodity-addiction is the true framing of that consumerist condition, liberation from it cannot be thought of on their model – essentially, as opening the door of a conceptual and practical cage in which people have been corralled by capitalism, and which they will more or less happily exit once they register both that it really is a cage, and that the door is open. Liberation from imprisonment and liberation from self-imprisonment are radically different matters. If the latter is what ending the historic consumerist aberration must involve at the level of social action, it requires of us the boldness to imagine an unprecedented politics. Castoriadis, insightful here too, observes that the sort of revolution to which we must now look has to mean

“profound changes in the psychological structure of people in the Western world…The idea that the only goal in life is to produce and consume more – an absurd, humiliating idea – must be abandoned. The capitalist imaginary of pseudo-rational pseudo-mastery, and of unlimited expansion, must be abandoned. Only men and women can do that.” [10]

In the last analysis this is obviously true – unless people at large, the ordinary majority, doabandon these ideas and illusions, we have no hope whatever of averting catastrophe. But it ought also now to be clear that getting them to do so cannot call simply on the kind of persuasive-democratic politics to which we have all become accustomed (or resigned). Rather, if we are to fix on a single contrasting term, the politics required must now be understood as therapeutic.

As such, its key premises must be that the majority population are now in a genuinely pathological condition, and that the minority who can recognise this have an inescapable responsibility, for everyone’s sake, to guide and help them out of it. Given what is at stake, however – biospheric stability and the survival of civilisation – their coming out of it is not, as in ordinary individual therapy, something in respect of which the therapist can contemplate failure; there is no equivalent to the shrug which says that one can only help so much, that there will be other clients and that you can’t win them all. Without winning this one, it’s game over. Helping the commodity-addicted out of it, that is, will have to mean not just decisively breaking them of it, but also comprehensively ensuring that there is no opportunity for relapse – whatever that takes, and however traumatic and even brutal the process may have to become. This is evidently not the sort of thing which Carl Rogers had in mind when he said that offering respect, empathy and a collaborative non-judgemental approach is the basis of all therapeutic relationships.[11] Commodity-addiction, by contrast, has to be judged – it has to be recognised as a lethally dangerous condition not just for the addicted but for the whole human future, and the addictive cycle must be broken in the interests of life on Earth. There is simply neither justification nor time for getting non-directively alongside those caught up in it. The challenge is then to identify just what characteristically therapeutic means and resources this new kind of politics willneed to deploy.

Since that is the cardinal political question of our time, no-one will expect me to have ready answers: what follow are some suggestions, under three broad heads, for an approach to beginning to answer it. They mainly concern new ways of understanding the coming necessary transformation, rather than actual policies and interventions. They are nonetheless suggestions with which any serious rethinking of demand in the context of climate emergency cannot avoid engaging; it should be a central role of any such project to explore more specifically how they might be operationalised.

(a)   The therapeutic vanguard

In the first place, it belongs to the very idea of therapeutic activity that the therapist can see more than the patient, can see into and behind the condition needing treatment, and can trust to the warrant for particular skilled interventions which that insight provides. In terms of the foregoing analysis, that is to say that the therapeutic protagonist, the responsible minority, must bring to bear the kind of three-dimensional understanding of human being, habituated lack of which lies at the heart of commodity-addiction. If we then ask where that protagonist is to be found, and what licence it has to act, all we can point to is the green movement (which is importantly not the same thing as, for instance, the climate justice movement or any actual Green Party, although obviously there are overlaps), and to its becoming conscious of itself as having an irreplaceable vanguard role. One absolutely crucial condition of a therapeutic politics is that this role should be recognised and then (in ways which clearly need careful consideration) effectively operationalised.

What is inherently three-dimensional about the green movement? – how is it in responsible touch with the dimension of depth, the dimension of life ignored or suppressed when all that a scientistic-utilitarian majority ‘culture’ can see are the material world of objects and forces, and over against it the human domain of values embedded in institutions and practices? Here we need to appeal back to those original and fundamental elements of the ‘green turn’ so damagingly overlaid in recent years by an off-the-peg left-utopian discourse of ‘rights’, universal justice and well-being for all (a discourse the insidious pervasiveness of which both Soper and Kallis amply illustrate). Those elements might be encapsulated in the recognition that while the Earth seems to be increasingly at human disposal (the Anthropocene impetus), actually it can’t be, not being ours to dispose of – but not because it belongs to God (who doesn’t exist) or is “borrowed from our children”[12]. Rather, the Earth does not belong to humans to dispose of because it is the vital scene and condition of our not belonging to ourselves, but belonging in and to the life-impetus which pervades and throngs it. The green turn in its real and enduring nature was a spontaneous commitment, in the face of newly-perceived threats and after two industrially-driven centuries of increasing alienation, to life-energy as the creative force which makes sense of human being as it informs all that lives.[13] At the heart of that commitment as it continues to manifest itself in present conditions is a horrified recoil from biocide (not as the squandering of ‘natural capital’ but as travestying our place in the living world), a deep sense that the world must not be over-humanised (that there are limits here which are neither external nor matters of choice) and an understanding, going back through Muir, Thoreau and Ruskin to the great Romantics, that a good human life is lived in ways open to wild nature and harmoniously integrated with it. It is this heritage, prompting in those who share it an understanding-in-depth of the uniquely human world of objectivity and evaluativity as one form of life among others, which combines with intelligent, imaginative and reflective recognition of our climate plight to give an activist vanguard minority the role of necessary therapeutic protagonist. And it is because they speak as such out of human wholeness, and so (with a radically non-statistical representative status) for the whole of humanity, that they have for acting in that role the indefeasible authority of life itself.

What they then do on that authority must, I believe, amount if we are to avoid catastrophe to the actively revolutionary pursuit of opportunities afforded them by their likely closeness to the levers of efficacy and legitimacy of the fossil fuel state. I have made that case in print, most recently in Realism and the Climate Crisis, and have no space to reprise the argument here. The point of emphasising the therapeutic nature of their role is further to reinforce the claim advanced there, that the kind of authority which they must claim on the basis just sketched warrants them in declining to wait for majority or even widespread consent. It arises, indeed, as part of the recognition that the majority population are currently in no condition to consent; and yet it is precisely in virtue of that fact that what must be done serves the longer-term real interests of this majority. (Here again, there is also a significant disanalogy with individual therapy, where the therapist normally has no locus for insisting that the patient submit to treatment, or for going ahead anyway – but that is evidently in the nature of the case.)

(b)   Facilitating attended breakdown

My second category of suggestions regards how we should understand and approach the prospect of breakdown– not the breakdown of climate stability, which must of course be minimised (since at least its first stages cannot now be avoided), but of the consumerist civilisation which is driving the instability and which in the coming years will be subject to very serious dislocation from its increasingly violent fore-shocks. The difficult recognition which emerges when this prospect is viewed in the perspective of therapeutic politics is that such dislocation must be accorded positive value.[14] The therapist actively wants the addict’s pattern of dependency to break down, as a crucial step towards helping him or her through this necessarily painful process and out into non-dependent living on the other side; and the addict has not just to need such help, but openly to acknowledge that need, a precondition of which is breaking up the configuration of continually reinforced reliance on substitute satisfiers which enables ongoing denial. Similarly, the activist vanguard in its therapeutic role must be prepared to welcome and not try to palliate the now-inevitable unravelling of consumer society under climate-driven strains and stresses, while at the same time offering a framework of understanding within which those increasingly deprived of their consumption shots can begin making constructive sense of what is happening to them.

This is a hard saying, but it is vital that its implications are not shirked. Shortages, rationing, disrupted or precluded mobility, consequent shifts and shake-outs of employment, changed expectations about power availability and usage, an increasing need to make do and mend or go without – realistically but fearfully to anticipate these developments is one thing, welcoming them is very much another. It demands a cast of mind from which even many who hate the consumerist paradigm will be strongly tempted to flinch. If the framing of this paradigm as commodity-addiction is correct, however, we have to see the only route to averting climate catastrophe as passing through this bitter, indeed tragic terrain. The proper responsibility of the therapeutic vanguard is precisely not to minimise these effects of breakdown – though they also have a responsibility to see that they are as far as possible equitably shared, as privations for a good cause in wartime were meant to be. Rather, it is to confront them as hopefully and educatively as possible.

We must also, of course, be prepared for emerging dislocations to be forcefully and probably violently resisted, and for the resistance to be pandered to by fossil governments as long as these remain unsubverted and in power. (An early straw in the wind is the British response to oil shortages stemming from current economic sanctions on Russia, predictably following the pattern of Macron’s cave-in to the gilets jaunes – fuel duty cut, fracking suddenly back on the agenda, a renewed confidence in nuclear power…)  The crucial insight from the therapeutic perspective in this connection is that such resistance, however majoritarian, along with all such pandering, is just as pathological as the addictive dependency which it tries to defend. Far from bowing reluctantly to its supposed democratic legitimacy, it must be contested and as necessary overridden.

But none of this uncomfortably revised attitude to breakdown is tenable unless that process is also what I have called ‘attended’. The therapist may welcome dislocation of dependency, but equally may not leave the addict to flail and suffer on his or her own as a consequence: it is in that conjunction of commitments that therapeutic responsibility resides. Correspondingly, the therapeutic vanguard, as well as unremittingly ramming home to distressed ex-consumers why what they are experiencing is happening and had to happen, must be actively and visibly at work to develop understandings, strategies and institutions of resilience which will enable at least a proportion of them to build alternative, more ecologically credible patterns of subsisting and interacting. That is the topic of my final category of suggestions.

(c)   ‘Recovery capital’

I take this term from Svanberg’s book on addiction, where it signifies “the internal and external resources that are required to make and maintain changes” away from addictive behaviour. In individual therapy this involves encouraging access to “secure relationships, purposeful activity, a robust sense of self-esteem and a life worth living”[15]. Translated into the terms of therapeutic politics, it becomes a criterion for evaluating policies designed to promote a post-growth, post-consumerist society: do they generate or reinforce social capital (laws, institutions and practices) apt to the business of supporting a population of recovering commodity-addicts, after first ensuring that they can come resiliently through breakdown without being driven to any desperate doubling-down on their addiction?

Such a criterion insists (paceSoper and Kallis) that policies for the necessary transformation will not, except tangentially, be about routes to a redefined prosperity or alternative hedonism, nor even about the joyous embrace of self-imposed limits. Rather, they will be essentially about the retrieval of depth. They will aim to build or rebuild social arrangements which embody that sense of three-dimensionality in ordinary human living, absence of which constitutes the existential hole that commodity-addiction has arisen, prompted and seconded by global capitalism, in a doomed attempt to fill. That is also a measure of the difficulty here. Any politics which sets out explicitly to provide people with some favoured and pre-determined formula for life-meaning is well advanced, as all history warns us, on a short path to tyranny. Avoiding that path points to a profile of policy and social action for what I have elsewhere called existential resilience – “a kind of robustness required for being fully ourselves”.[16] It means reshaping expectations, institutions and practices across the board so that they do not obstruct but instead support the conditions of recovered meaningfulness, in the hope (which is all we are entitled to) that recovery will through them, and in enough people, creatively transpire.

Vanguard action itself supports one such condition, insofar as (if I may quote myself again) “the political issue in retrieval is…a matter of our re-learning how to hear authoritatively from our shared wholeness”.[17] As people are increasingly unable to ignore the biosphere crumbling around them, and also have it constantly hammered home to them how the unravelling of their consumerist expectations and life-patterns is directly implicated in this degradation, horrified recoil from human destructiveness can be expected to become a much more widespread emotion that it presently is. When that extension is combined with dawning recognition that those acting to oppose such destructiveness are doing so, as sketched above, not on any supposedly majoritarian terms but avowedly and confidently on the sole mandate of life itself, a situation may spring into being in which people at large begin to see clearly how the mechanical slogan-mongering and head-counting of the liberal-democratic paradigm have cheated and betrayed them, and turn embracingly towards that order of living political authority. Such a development cannot plausibly be predicted on any empirical grounds, only hoped for against hope; but that, as just noted, is now our best, indeed our only bet. And nothing could more decisively mark a collective recovery of the sense of life-depth in the human condition, than such an epochally transformative change of political mind.

More particular policy implications can only be suggested here by way of selective example and in the barest outline. The guiding principle, again, must be introducing or reintroducing into a wide range of social institutions themes, goals and procedures which resonate to human depth, and through which the authority of our shared wholeness can once again be heard. I offer a single instance under each of these heads.

  • In education, a central theme would be returning to a far greater emphasis on the arts and humanities at all levels than has been the case for many decades – ever since the educational system started to be perverted to the provision of ‘human capital’ for a technological economy. Retrieving it as an induction into being fully human would make central the arts, which record what has variously been made of experience, and the history which gives form to that record. In art in all its variety, as Dilthey noted, “life discloses itself at a depth inaccessible to observation, reflection and theory”[18] – and by the same token, reveals the presence of that depth and initiates the properly responsive audience into its recognition.
  • In health care, an explicit goal should become helping people to die well when that is the stage which they have reached, rather than pouring effort and resources into procuring for them successive increments of compromised and diminished life, as is currently standard practice. A scattering of humane practitioners do of course already adopt this goal, but they cannot do it overtly and medical culture seems to be set against it. In nothing is our civilisation’s two-dimensionality more evident than it its clenched and frightened assumption that the continuance in being of the mere perceiving ego in as many people and for as long as possible is an absolute value. This would not just be a matter of legalising euthanasia at the margins, as a few jurisdictions already do, but would require a much more general recension of attitudes and practices.
  • In governance, planning and technology policy and related areas, a fundamental procedural rule should become what I have called the ‘anti-hubris lock’, or a general strategy of deliberate underreaching.[19] This involves setting up systems to identify, at any important choice-juncture, the decisively smartest and most satisfactory win-win options, and ruling them out on that account. As I say in the piece cited (where I also note the relation of this approach to its more restricted version, the precautionary principle), such a procedure would tend to embed within any option-evaluation process the tragic awareness that what humans tend to aspire to when caught up in complex interactive systems (ecological or social) is to exert mastery, to control and manage – while their permanent liability to hubristic over-confidence and self-deception very typically results in their making a disastrous mess. Formal recognition of this aspect of the human condition in such fora would go far towards putting people back in touch with what Castoriadis was indicating by the “something other than humankind”, the unmasterable abyss, a reliable regime of practical deference to which is now one of our deepest needs.

These are, as I noted, merely examples to illustrate the broad approach which I have called ‘therapeutic politics’, as it might develop into ways of reconfiguring particular institutional contexts. It should be the work of a project of rethinking consumerism to amplify these hints, extend them to other areas and explore their more detailed implications.

To return, in conclusion, to the two books from which we started out: both Soper and Kallis, in their different ways, make plain how urgent it now is to break out of the consumerist travesty of human well-being and aspiration. Any socio-economic and political alternatives will have a difficult birth and will require much nurturing. I have been arguing that properly to foster these new directions and the retrieved understanding of the human condition which must underpin them, we need more insight into the nature of the travesty, and into the kind of hold which it exerts on the Western majority, than either of these authors can offer. But both their analyses remain fruitful places from which to launch the essential rethinking.

John Foster

April 2022

[1] Realism and the Climate Crisis (Bristol University Press, 2022), p.128

[2] “Addiction tricks people by sending them after things that can never meet their needs in the long run” – Jenny Svanberg, The Psychology of Addiction  (London: Routledge, 2018), p.2.

[3] Jenny Riniken, E. Shove and G. Marsden Conceptualising Demand: A Distinctive Approach to Consumption and Practice (Earthscan from Routledge, 2021), p.28.

[4] The Guardian provides a piquant illustration as I write, publishing on consecutive days a lament for the loss of wild garlic to commercial foragers and a recipe (in its posh food pull-out) for wild garlic macaroni (Guardian, 25th and 26th March 2022)

[5] Bruno Villalba and Luc Semal Sobriété Énergétique translation).

[6] ibid. – again, my translation.

[7] Cornelius Casoriadis trans. H. Arnold, A Society Adrift: Interviews and Debates 1974-1997(Fordham University Press 2010), p. 204.

[8] These figures are from Bill McKibben, Falter:Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (London: Wildfire, 2019), pp.176-7

[9] Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man  (London: Routledge, 1964/ 2002), p.11.

[10] Op.cit. p.199.

[11] See Carl Rogers On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Constable, 1961).

[12] If they don’t own it, we can’t be borrowing it; if they do, why don’t we?

[13] “We must live. And to live, life must be in us. It must come to us, the power of life…From beyond comes to us the power of life, and we must wisely keep our hearts open. But the life will not come unless we live.” – D.H. Lawrence, ‘Blessed are the powerful’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays (Heinemann, 1937), p.148.

[14] On this see Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire - and what lies beyond (Simplicity Institute, 2019).

[15] Op.cit. p.82.

[16] John Foster After Sustainability(Routledge, 2015), p.18.

[17] Op.cit. p.207.

[18] Wilhelm Dilthey, trans.and ed.H.P. Rickman Selected Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1976) p.220.

[19] See ‘Towards Deep Hope’, Green House think tank (2017).