This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I’ve just been reading The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, edited by Tim Jackson. Taken as a whole, the book makes a powerful case for the failings of our consumer society to make us happy (drawing attention even to evidence that “healthy psychological and social functioning may even be impaired by high levels of materialism”). But of course, it also examines the intimate interconnection between personal identity and consumption (in the context of the social construction of our sense of self); an interconnection that makes our demands for goods and services ever greater.


As Tim Jackson puts it in the last chapter; “consumer society is a cultural defence against anomie” (that is, the loss of meaning). He draws attention to the meaning-defence mechanisms which are incorporated into the rationale of the consumer society (for example, the “concept of economic growth – operating at the collective level to provide a sense of continuing intergenerational progress”).


But the Reader ignores one question, which is for me key: what if the threat of meaninglessness arises in part because our relationship with our environment is fractured? Then, if we are to address the causes of over consumption, we should begin with a re-examination of who we are in relation to the world.


I’ve no idea of the psychological or sociological merit of this question. But I was moved the other day by an anecdote told to me by someone I work with. It is anecdotes of this kind – and the power that I find they have for people – that make me want to keep picking at these questions.


A colleague was working in Southern Sudan with a community of women who had lost their men-folk in the civil war, and who had set up their own community in an area that I understood to be remote and arid. These traumatised women found some solace in planting, and tending, a garden of cultivated flowers around the perimeter fence of their compound. This was no trivial undertaking; the water they poured on the flower-beds was a precious commodity. (My colleague worked with them to grow tomatoes, too, but these met with less interest).


One day, the compound came under attack from the air, and the women fled to a gully as their village was bombed. Their over-riding concern, as testified by my colleague, was not for their houses or livestock, but for their flowers.


Is there any fundamental difference between gardening and the ‘cultural defence against anomie’ that we might pursue through relationships with material possessions? Is there any distinction, in psychological terms, between the way in which the flowers became incorporated into these women’s sense of self-identity (embedded in their social context and conferring purpose), and the way in which a consumer good might become incorporated into our identities – whether this is a badge of being green (a Prius, for example), or a badge of economic success (an SUV, for example)?