It is trite to say that the Western world has seen an exponential technological development since the middle of the nineteenth century; and it is no great insight to say that our intellectual development has not kept pace with the technological one. What strikes me as interesting is just how stagnant some of our thought has been during the last century-and-a-half.
Take for example the Leap Manifesto in Canada or Senator Sanders and his movement in the United States. The finer points of these phenomena may seem modern, sprinkled as they are with invectives against climate change and big banks. However, on closer inspection, the discourse as a whole is vintage socialist utopianism: an erudite if simplified diagnosis of our social ills and a conception of what type of society would be preferable, but no ascertainable roadmap from the former to the latter. This is pure William Morris.
The response to such necessary if imperfect “thinking otherwise” is equally well-worn. It usually strikes a condescending, puerile tone. It is usually something like, “These lefties would have us all dancing on sunshine and moonbeams,” followed by blithe denigration of the intellect of those “lefties,” and capped by some paean to the so-called real world that the left fails to live in. in other words, an out-of-hand rejection that refuses to even engage with the ideas proffered.
This pattern is especially poignant when the issue of fossil fuels arises. In such instances, one side invariably calls for the scaling back and cessation of fossil-fuel use while the other side retorts that doing so will render “our way of life” unsustainable. The greater issue here is that we make scant inquiry into what proponents of uninhibited fossil-fuel use mean when they invoke “our way of life.” It seems to me that they (or at least those in the Western world) are primarily arguing that limiting our use of fossil fuels will mean the demise of consumer culture. They are asking how will they power their cars, or light their homes and cottages and ski chalets, or have access to a robust selection of mass-produced goods.
By invoking “our way of life,” this crowd is proceeding upon a distinctly neoliberal worldview that demands an incessant production and consumption of goods. This crowd insists on the perpetuation of the modern capitalist system, which requires planned obsolescence and manufactured want for the surfeit of products so that economic growth may continue interminably.
For this crowd, “our way of life” is consumerism, and mass-produce goods in need of constant replacement are the necessaries of that life. Thus when that way of life and those things that sustain it are threatened by any ideas—elimination of fossil fuels being chief among them—the response is vicious and unrelenting. Such ideas cannot be allowed to gain traction, and so they are ridiculed and rejected out of hand. This both complements and supplements the fact that many have spent whole lifetimes being inured to see this as the only desirable way of life. We have been indoctrinated, propagandized, miseducated, and duped into believing that fable by those who stand to gain immeasurable wealth and power from its perpetuation.
As a result, the imaginations of many have atrophied and critical intellects have stagnated. This is distressing, for the neoliberal assumptions that consumerism wrests on need to be articulated and examined by those in favour of eliminating fossil-fuel use and other progressive reforms—and “our way of life” cannot be spared an incisive challenge. When those opposed say these ideas threaten “our way of life” the response should be that they do indeed: the ideology of consumerism and perpetual economic growth are in need of a rebuke. When those opposed say eliminating fossil fuels will not solve our problems the response should be that they are correct: our problems will only be solved when society and its priorities, now so heavily reliant on those fuels, are reordered from the bottom up.
One final thing should be said, though it may come across as pettifogging at this point. Those in the West have long acknowledged that theirs is a consumerist society, that the ethos of their society is consumerism, that the idolatry of material things has transmogrified into something of a religion and way of life. Yet ‘consumerism’ strikes me as not entirely accurate to describe “our way of life.”
The plain meaning and Dictionary definition of ‘consume’ or ‘consumption’ denotes that the thing being consumed is being used. The consumerist society certainly does use up raw materials, natural resources, and labour to produce the goods it relies on. Yet I would contend those goods are hardly used or exhausted. In nearly every home—from those of the poorest families to the richest—sit rooms and boxes full of idle goods that are neither being used nor disposed of, the inevitable detritus of a society saturated with trumpery.
In that sense, our society better fits the secondary Dictionary definition of ‘consumerism’: emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods. For good measure, the Dictionary adds that this use of the term is frequently depreciative, which it surely is. So-called consumerists societies are perhaps most concerned with acquiring new, modish products and in turn each member of that society is determined to appear au courant by myriad acquisitions. Actual use of the items acquired is often short-lived and irrelevant. Thus it seems it is more appropriate to call the Western world a consumptive-acquisitive society in the most wasteful sense of those words.