From Cargo Cult to Slowcialism


There was an interesting follow up last week to the UN’s research showing that UK children have the lowest levels of wellbeing in the EU.

The update suggests that these low levels of wellbeing are due to unusually high materialism levels. As one of the recommendations from UNICEF was a ban on advertising to children, the marketing sectors rag Marketing Week protested that this was unfair

It might feel unfair to marketers but they have to recognise that, as Brad Pitt in says Fight Club “The things you own end up owning you”. As Professor Tim Jackson says in his wonderful TED talk, we live in a world where ‘we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t even care about.’

And this ‘affluenza’ effect is all the more true for young people who are far more vulnerable to the influences of advertising and pester-power marketing. For proof of the intent of pester-power one only has to watch the chilling scene in the film The Corporation where the marketer for childrens’ goods talks about using child psychologists to understand how best to get in side our childrens’ heads.

Robert Kennedy perhaps put it best in 1968 when he berated our obsession on materialist growth and GNP saying that it “surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things…gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play… It measures  everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” And as Polly Toynbee points out in this weeks Guardian it’s the UK’s children who are set to lose out most from the Government’s current evisceration of the welfare state. If that doesn’t break society I’m not sure what will. And all to protect a rotten banking system at the heart of a rotten economic system.

Huxley parodied this rising consumerism in 1931 in Brave New World “I do love having new clothes. Ending is better than mending…old clothes are beastly.” This was prescient of Huxley as in those days the grip of mass consumerism had not yet got a hold of our psyche.

As we wrote in Citizen Renaissance, soon after Huxley wrote this, Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays set about creating what we now know as marketing and advertising. Robert Lane describes what Bernays and others created in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, thus –  “The appetite of our present materialism depends upon stirring up our wants – but not satisfying them.” And we now have very strong evidence from Welfare Economics and Positive Psychology that this materialism harms our wellbeing.

In Affluenza, Oliver James points to this distinction between wants and needs  “The Affluenza Virus …replaces our true needs with confected wants. We need emotional security or to be part of a community, we only want a newer I-pod or a car”. And as Doyal and Gough show in The Theory of Human Needs,  “There can be little doubt that much of the excess energy and resources use in the first world goes to support the satisfaction of wants, not of basic needs.”

So we, and our children, are locked into patters of behaviour that are eating up our one and only planet and actually damaging not improving our wellbeing. Research from two colleagues of mine graphically illustrates how consumption patterns in the UK over the last 40 years have massively shifted away from real needs to materialist ‘wants’ causing increased ecological footprints and flatlining wellbeing.

As if to rub salt into the wounds reopened by the UNICEF update, Newsweek has just run a six page special on ‘Grimsville UK’ depicting London as rife with a disaffected youth, poverty and rioters stealing TVs.

And as if we are not already suffering from too much ‘buyological’ urge, Westfield have kindly opened yet another ‘worlds largest shopping mall’ in the Olympics site. These temples to ‘stuff’ are not just rubbing our noses in ever more materialism but robbing our high streets of life and hastening the spread of Clone Town Britain.

With the economy grinding to a halt, possibly at the edge of a cliff, our current form of growth obsessed capitalist economics badly needs us to ‘get out there and shop’. Without our noses firmly in the materialist troughs, the crazy system starts to unravel fast. This despite the fact that most in the rich world long ago shot past the point where we gained any more wellbeing from more money and stuff.

And its not just in the rich world that we suffer from this materialism. Indeed ad agencies see the markets of the developing world as prime for more of the kinds of materialist messages we in the rich world have long been drowned in. Surely all those ‘undeveloped’ people need lots of stuff to improve their quality of life?

Anyone who has not seen wonderful film The Gods Must be Crazy really ought to rent it out as it’s a brilliant and funny parody of materialism based on a Coke bottle falling from a plane into a nomadic tribe. In a rich piece of irony, which predated Coke ‘happiness’ campaign, the bottle brings nothing but unhappiness to the tribe until they can rid themselves of it.

Cargo Cults have emerged all over the developing world and are the subject of numerous ethnographic studies. In Pagan Island in the Pacific there is a beach the locals call ‘the shopping beach’. They can find anything they want there washed up across thousands of miles. The island is about as far from ‘civilisation’ as you can get and yet its covered in waste plastic. It’s this kind of waste that floats thousands of miles killing albatros chicks and other wildlife and showing just how small and fragile our one and only planet is.

We talk of ‘cargon cults’ with disdain as if it’s all about ignorant primitive people with a fascination for ‘stuff’. The irony is that the lifestyles of ‘less developed’ societies brings far more wellbeing with far less effort and far less footprint as things like the Happy Planet Index show. And it’s our stuff which drifts to distant shores as the flotsam and jetsam of our greed. And evidence from the field of Wellbeing and Development shows that what people, and children in particular, in the developing world really want is not more stuff it’s the same sorts of aspects of wellbeing which bring flourishing lives to us all. Things like respect, community, a good education, connection with friends and family. Of course the developing world needs improved living standards badly. But that’s not an excuse for exporting the worst of our materialist excesses to them.

In any case our model of ‘development’ is proving itself near bankrupt. It seems that corporate-consumerist-debt based capitalism 1.0 is eating itself in front of our eyes. As market guru Noriel Roubini said recently “Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalisation, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labour to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct.”

So if uber-materialism and growth obsession are falling out of favour, what might replace them? Will it be some Big Society Cameron/Blond form of mutualism? Surely that’s just communism by another name? Didn’t Marx talk about the ‘fetishism of commodities’? Well if not communism then its socialism isn’t it?

Maybe we need a new name for the slowing down and tuning out from materialism? My money is on the new economy emerging from things like a local social enterprise I am involved in called Bath and West Community Energy.

I like the Slowcialism as a moniker. So lets hear a cheer for slowcialism. And lets dump cargo-cultism. And remember the words of the wise Henry Thoreau in Walden A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”



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