I’ve had a busy week. On Tuesday (the 18th) I was the speaker at Café Scientifique in Cheltenham where I managed to instigate a lively debate around the relationships between sustainability, consumerism and well being. It was so encouraging to hear so many people grappling with the question of ‘what do we need for a ‘well’ life?’ I posed the question ‘what lies beyond a consumer economy?’ I don’t know the answer to that one, I’m not sure any one does, but if you think about sustainability for long enough it is the one question you will always reach, as painful as it is for some, it is hard to ignore. My only hope is the more people we can get to the point where they understand why we have to ask that question, the more chance we will get of finding an answer to it. From Cheltenham I headed to Bath to give a presentation to the Centre for Research in Environmental Education (CREE) at the University of Bath. That was the presentation that I have been preparing to give since I started my PhD studies. I was, I think, received well and ended up by questioning and suggesting how EfS can contribute to the asking and answering of the same big question: ‘If not a consumer economy then what?’
This ‘big’ question is in focus now more than ever. As I travelled round, staying with friends, conversing with acquaintances and keeping an eye on the papers, the inescapable reality of redundancies, the economic downturn and the ‘end of shopping’ was everywhere I went. I have friends worrying about how they are going to tell colleagues that they need to clear their desks as well as friends who are suffering huge anxieties over how long it is until they get called into the bosses’ office for some bad news. The most obvious impact of the downturn (and driver of unemployment) is the drop off in the great British leisure activity of shopping; I wonder what people are doing for fun instead? Maybe they are finding other things to do with their time, something, dare I say it, less glamorous and shiny but ultimately more fulfilling perhaps? Or, maybe they are just wandering aimslessly, window shopping wistfully?
The economic downturn and the exodus from the high street seems to prove that shopping is a luxury activity, something indulged in during good times. Individuals can, it seems, live without it, but can society? Given the obvious links between shopping and employment, I wonder if there is a guilt attached to shopping less? Do people feel a duty to shop, is it in fact selfish not to shop? I don’t feel too guilty about it, it is good for me to see through the material wealth = happiness myth, but then again I don’t like seeing my friends losing their jobs. It might be painful in the short term but in the long term, this downturn could be the opportunity we need to re-think our cultural foundations. Maybe we can re-build our economy around something else, something more stable, something less tied up in a spurious belief that identity, happiness, fulfilment, love, friendship and respect can and should be bought and sold in the marketplace. Should we be trying to work out how to get people back to their consumerist ways (for example by implementing emergency VAT cuts) or should we be trying to find a more sustainable way of running the economy. But, if not a consumer economy then what?!