Consuming to find meaning?

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)?

Tom CromptonConsuming to find meaning?


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  • Francis - October 9, 2007 reply

    Good questions, which I’m assuming you’re asking rhetorically…

    I’d say yes, no contest, there is a clear distinction. Tending to a flowerbed and ‘maintaining nature’ thus – for little motivation other than mere appreciation – is surely be distinct from transforming our ‘more-than-human’ world into functional, synthetic products (which don’t necessarily biodegrade and re-assimilate into natural cycles easily) to serve our very human ends.

    That of the Sudanese widows is a heartbreaking, profound and beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it and your thoughts.

  • Ciaran Mundy - October 11, 2007 reply

    The impact on our health
    To put a topical spin on this, yesterday the Labour government announced that they would be putting around £130m towards providing talking therapies for treatment of mental disorders including depression and anxiety attacks. It is argued by some, such as the clinical psychologist Oliver James and author of Affluenza (2007), that the increasing incidence of these illnesses in this country is a product of our obsession with material possessions and exhibition of wealth.

    Where does meaning lie?
    Status angst is a term that has arisen to describe the unhappiness people often feel in a consumer culture where the symbols of value are material objects we may have no need for and often with no intrinsic worth, but only a brief relative value compared to other similar symbols. This is the essence of most branding. The rise, in consumer culture, of the ‘value’ of a brand has elevated symbols to the sacrosanct and this thinking now pervades many environmental organisations. The general acceptance of value through empty symbols is surely a fundamental error that is reflected in our massive over consumption and decline in mental health. While symbols of status and worth are inevitable, does disconnection from true intrinsic value lie at the core of our trouble?

    One simple idea:
    Maybe a simple campaign to give us back our peace of mind and freedom to think clearly would be to stop the majority of commercial advertising. We could then see and feel the true vale of things and lead very different, less damaging lives both in terms of our mental health and the legacy of a habitable planet.

  • admin - October 12, 2007 reply

    The impact on our health

    Yes, and the psychologically restorative effects of time spent in the outdoors, reviewed in a recent Mind publication, ‘Ecotherapy: the Green Agenda for Mental Health’ concluded that “[e]cotherapy should be recognised as a clinically valid treatment for mental health”, and “GPs should consider referral for green exercise as a treatment option for every patient experiencing mental distress.”

    Where does meaning lie?
    Are ‘status’ and ‘worth’ ever going to be dissociable from ‘true intrinsic value’? Presumably not. This was the continuum I was trying to highlight in the post: Is there a point a which ‘green consumption’, pursued for reasons of social status rather than as a result of an ecological identity, ultimately hobbles attempts to achieve the social changes that we need?

    One simple idea
    This has been tried in a catholic community – Nomadelfia – in Italy, where TV is recorded, and adverts (and sex and violence) edited out, and then the programmes are re-broadcast to the community. In writing about living in Nomadelfia in his book Utopian Dreams Tobias Jones writes:

    “Living amongst people so outside theorbit of consumer culture reveals how daft our ‘symbolic economy’ is: Jean-Joseph Goux once wrote that ‘to create value, all that is necessary is, by whatever means possible, to create a sufficient intensity of desire'”.

  • Jim - October 12, 2007 reply

    The Primary Review, published today, gives some useful insights into what fears and worries todays’ primary school children have, one being the increasing media driven exposure to consumerism and materialism. Many expressed concern about climate change, global warming and pollution, the gulf between rich and poor, and terrorism. On a positive note, the report found that “where schools had started engaging children with global and local realities as aspects of their education they were noticeably more upbeat.”

  • Dan Welch - October 28, 2007 reply

    I wonder if there is a category missing from this discussion which allows a more nuanced articulation of the problematic of consumer culture and desire – the aesthetic. In the story of the Sudanese women is the ‘naturalness’ of the flowers the pre-eminent category for their experience of them? Or rather is is their aesthetic value? Obviously the two can be articulated together but it strikes me that the fact that in the bombing their concern was not for their vegetables but for the flowers highlights the pre-eminent category is the aesthetic. It interests me that in the reponses to the post, however, the criticisms of consumerism take as a given that it is the non-utility of commmodities (‘no intrinsic worth’) that is problematic and that the meaning of the story is about the women’s experience of ‘maintining nature’. I don’t say this as criticisms of the writers but as an observation of common assumptions in our critique of consumer culture which I think may actually hinder it. What the story shows is not the women putting the highest value on ‘maintaining nature’ – or they’d be equally worried about their tomotos – but on their non-utilitarian, aesthetic, cultural enterprise of growing flowers. Similarly when we dismiss the meaning of commodities and brands in consumer society as ’empty symbols’ are we not simply dismissing the meaning which people attribute to them. We can criticise the boy racer revving at the traffic lights with his souped up car – but the meaning that he attributes to the car – ‘independence’, ‘virility’, ‘masculinity’, status – are very real. Absenting ‘independence’ these are meanings that young men invest in symbols across the vast majority of cultures and I’m not at all sure that the boy racers’ investment is categorically difference from the young New Guinea highlanders investment in symbol and ritual objects as we would like to believe. Of course I’m not saying that they are simply equatable but the grounds on which to draw a difference are perhaps more complex than we like to recognise. We need to take the symbolic economy of consumer society seriously if we are to understand it. Here also we need to drwa a distinction between brand and commodity – the built-in obsolescence of the commodity is often cited as the reason that the meaning or symbolism of the commodity is somehow inauthentic or flawed – and of course the obsolescence does mean that commodities, at one level, fail to maintain a psychologically fulfilling function. But there is often a failure to include in the analysis ‘brand’. Brands are the attempt to maintain meaning, to create a lasting continuing, relationship with the consumer.
    The discussion of advertising brought to mind a visit to Russia in the Gorbachev era – what was so immediately startling was being in a modern industrial society without advertising and the bombardment of images that it brings to the modern city. I was struck by how liberating this felt. Not long after my return I read an account by a woman reflecting on life in Eastern Europe in the sixties and she related her fetishistic delight in getting hold of Western magazines. It was the adverts, their colour, their promise of glamour and passion and liberation, that captivated her – for her liberation was technicolour. What for me seemed like freedom from bombardment by commodities was for that woman an absence – drab and oppressive – while what to me was the oppression of consumer capitalism was the promise of liberation.

  • admin - October 29, 2007 reply

    Thank you, Dan. This is very thoughtful.

    I’m sure that aesthetic values, and life-affirming values are somehow related. And when we lose sight of the intrinsic value of life (even of a tomato plant) we are perhaps in some way deadened to the aesthetics of that life (after all, tomato flowers can be very pretty). A preoccupation with the utility of something obscures the aesthetics; it often seems that we only appreciate something aesthetically when we have removed the distraction of its utility.

    So, yes, in the example of the Sudanese women, I think the story would have elicited a similar feeling in me if it had been artwork that they had worried about losing, rather than flowers. I suppose I imagine that life has an aesthetic, and that one of the reasons we respond as we do to artwork is precisely because good art surely causes us to reflect on what it means to be properly alive?

    And I am sure that part of what it means to be properly alive for an adolescent is to live out a myth (in the full sense of the word) of virility and masculinity. The problem arises not with these aesthetics, but with their expression in ways that are life-denying (in the case of boy-racers, anti-social and anti-environmental). And the problem with marketing is that it taps into our understanding of these myths to sell us things that are anti-social or anti-environmental (that is, that are in some way life-denying).

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