The new consumer

None of the trends I have identified could have occurred unless the consumer too had changed in some essential way. In the production society consumers were seen to have given tastes and the task of advertising was to persuade them that the product would satisfy their needs. In the consumption society marketers are now engaged in an endless process of creating and transforming, as well as responding to, consumer desires. Those desires are no longer merely the expressions of particular urges but grow out of the need to find and express a sense of self. The reinvention of the consumer has occurred in the context of broader social changes. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in the era of 'individualisation'. In place of societies in which people living in largely homogeneous neighbourhoods and communities formed their sense of self by unconsciously absorbing the cultural norms and behaviours of those around them, we became free to create our own selves, to 'write our own biographies' instead of having them more or less drafted by the circumstances of our birth.4 In a society saturated with the outpourings of the mass media, the symbols of achievement and the characters worthy of emulation appear on the screen and the magazine pages rather than in the local community or in handed-down stories of the saintly and the stoic. Individualisation created the social conditions for the flourishing of modern consumerism by providing the opportunity for the marketers of goods to step in and satisfy the desire to find and express a self.5 The desire for an authentic sense of self was pursued increasingly by way of substitute gratifications—external rewards and, especially, money and material consumption. Indeed, it is well established that those people with a more materialistic goal-orientation are more likely to engage in consumption for identity-related and emotional motives.6

The problem is that these substitute gratifications can never provide what we really need; one cannot find an authentic identity in a supermarket or department store. Yet this unbridgeable gap is precisely what the latest phase of consumer capitalism needed, a constant feeling of dissatisfaction to sustain spending. While economic growth is said to be the process whereby people's wants are satisfied so that they become happier, in the consumption society economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented. Economic growth no longer creates happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth.

The perceived gap between what we had and what we desired is the only explanation for the unprecedented consumer debt binge of the 15 or so years leading to the crash in 2008. In particular, the housing bubble—described by Economist magazine as the biggest bubble in history7—was driven by escalating desire, with buyers willing to commit larger shares of their future incomes to acquiring the houses of their dreams. In the United States, along with ballooning mortgages, the sizes of new houses also grew— 55 per cent since 1970—at the same time as the number of people in them fell—by 13 per cent.8 The same phenomenon occurred in Britain and Australia.9 Before the crash, among younger American home buyers, a third said that having a home theatre in their house was 'important' or 'very important' in choosing a house.

Of course, bigger houses must be carpeted, curtained, heated, cooled and filled with furniture. The supply of larger houses stimulated the demand for more stuff. But the link between bigger houses and more stuff has worked the other way as well. Despite the inflation in house sizes, the accumulation of stuff outgrew the capacity of houses and apartments to accommodate it. As a result, a new industry sprang up. Over the last two decades the fastest growing segment of US commercial real estate has been the self-storage industry.10 Driven more by residential than commercial demand, the number of self-storage facilities around the country grew by 81 per cent in the six years to 2006.11 (In Australia it grew by 10 per cent a year through the boom years, and in Britain by an astonishing 35 per cent annually.12) Nearly one in ten American households now rents self-storage space to accommodate the stuff spilling out of their homes.

Over-consumption also has psychological costs. One study found that four in ten people 'feel anxious, guilty or depressed about the clutter in their homes'.13 They say they feel overwhelmed and disorganised; some feel trapped by their possessions. Six out of ten women say there is a room in their house they are too embarrassed for visitors to see. The desire for more stuff has been so relentless that the market has responded by throwing up another new industry—home organisers, specialists who provide advice on how to organise our homes so that we are no longer oppressed by the clutter. Googling 'de-clutter your home' yields 36,000 responses, including links to books with titles like Put Your House on a Diet, Making Peace With the Things in Your Life and Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? Perhaps in the hothouse world of the next century an underground museum will display copies of these books as symbols of the world of excess that led to a transformed climate.

In the 1990s and 2000s spending more than you earn became almost a patriotic duty. In 2004 the Wall Street Journal lamented the unwillingness of Europeans to spend unnecessarily and their penchant for electing governments that introduced laws to restrict retail hours and limit the use of credit cards: 'Western Europe has only 0.27 credit cards per person compared with 2.23 in the US', the Journal complained. 'Moreover, many affluent Europeans just do not want to spend their free time shopping.'14 Those interviewed for the story said they preferred playing with their children, meeting friends and reading books. The Journal was dismayed that French television regularly warned viewers about the dangers of over-indebtedness. It even blamed European thrifti-ness for the US trade deficit. Whereas once debt was disreputable, by the 1990s in the United States refusing to shop on credit was a sign of poor character. Prudence had become uncool.

As a result of easy credit and escalating mortgages, the US household savings rate—the difference between household income and household spending—saw a dramatic decline from over 10 per cent in the mid-1980s to zero in the mid-2000s.15 (In Australia the decline was even sharper; net savings became negative in the 2000s.16) This was matched by a huge increase in consumer debt, from $10 billion a month in the mid-1980s to $25 billion in the mid-2000s.17 Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, US household debt as a proportion of annual income was stable at around 60 per cent. In the mid- to late 1980s it began to rise, accelerating in the late 1990s until it reached over 130 per cent in 2005.18

The huge increase in indebtedness was not for the most part the result of poorer households being forced to borrow to cover living expenses; it was the result of wealthier households splashing out on luxuries. In 2004 US households in the lowest income group had a little over 3 per cent of the income and a little over 3 per cent of the debt. Those in the middle 20 per cent of the population had a little over 12 per cent of the income but held 15 per cent of the debt, while the second richest 20 per cent of households had 19.5 per cent of the income but 24 per cent of the debt.19 Only the richest 10 per cent had a higher share of income than of debt.

The collapse in national savings and the blow-out in debt reflected an upheaval in the values that had defined the post-war era. Norms of moderation and thrift were replaced in the 1990s by a culture of impulsiveness. We wanted it now and once we had it we soon began to think about replacing it. Where once we took pride in making things last in order to get full value from them, now we have an urge for constant renewal. It was the era of the makeover. One study found that some iPhone shoppers are turned off by advertisements that emphasise the generous five-year warranty because it signals that buyers should commit to the gadget for a long time, when they would rather replace it in a year or two.20 Similarly, we don't hear much nowadays about the emblematic consumer complaint of the 1960s, planned obsolescence, because consumers often tire of a product well before it physically expires.

The point of all of this for climate change is evident. When we ask affluent consumers to change their consumption behaviour we are asking of them much more than we realise. The purpose of the shift in marketing from promoting the qualities, real or imagined, of a product to promoting brands as a lifestyle choice was to exploit the modern need to construct a sense of self. If we have constructed a personal identity in large part through our consumption activity, and consuming is how we sustain ourselves psychologically from day to day, a demand to change what we consume becomes a demand to change who we are. If, in order to solve climate change, we are asked to change the way we consume, then we are being asked to give up our identities—to experience a sort of death. So firmly do many of us cling to our manufactured selves that we unconsciously fear relinquishing them more than we fear the consequences of climate change. So the campaign to maintain a livable climate is in this sense a war against our own sense of who we are.

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