Pat Kane: The 'I'm-happy-I'm-green' consensus won't placate our lust for novelty (The Guardian)


This is the unedited text of Guardian Comment article of 26 April 2011, launching the "Radical Animal" book-net. All comments welcomed here (and there!) Update: here's the full PDF of the newsprint version of the Guardian article. 

A critique of consumer culture must answer both the human itch for excited engagement and the call of the damaged earth

The Guardian, Tuesday 26 April 2011

* * *

To see the deep roots of hyper-consumerism in our lives, take the average broadsheet newspaper (let's say, one dearest to both our hearts) and read the whole of each page - both editorial and display ads.

In elegantly typeset prose, we enjoy its cosmopolitan and concerned world-view: all points are weighed and considered. Yet inserted into these spaces are messages from a much narrower domain. I did a basic ad count on this very title over the last week. Consumer electronics of all kinds top the list; next come holidays, financial services, furniture, and cars. 

The story this tells about our consumer economy is stark: it's about discarding familiar arrangements of metal, fabric and plastic and buying new ones. It's about stretching towards the financial liquidity needed to attain or house the stuff, and softening the blow with brief overseas escapes from the treadmill of acquisition. If you were a climate-crisis guru, looking for evidence that big business understands the environmental urgency of reducing material consumption...well, you wouldn't look here. It's business very much as usual.

The recently deposed head of the Sustainable Development Commission, Tim Jackson, has tried to capture the green critique of consumer society in a one-liner: "We spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.” Among many academics and activists in the last few years, great efforts have been made to connect the psychological discontents of status consumption to the acute requirement for low-carbon economies.

In their argument, not only do your vanity-baubles make you much less happy than the strength of your relationships or the sense of purpose in your life, but your frantic pursuit of them is also crisping the planet. So a grand new political territory is slowly being forged - with outfits like the New Economics Foundation, the Equality Trust (founded by the authors of The Spirit Level) and the movement Action for Happiness as pioneers, with the current (and previous) government's interest in wellbeing indicators slowly settling down in the area.

And here's their claim: a whole range of sciences - neurology, behavioural economics, epidemiology - are telling us that our high-consumption economies are structured to satisfy only one half of our nature (the selfish, novelty-seeking part). Shouldn't we rearrange things to cater to the other half (altruistic and tradition-loving)? And in doing so, root our transition to a sustainable society in the most fertile of motivational soils - a character that values human relationships more than consumer transactions?

The Big Society immediately politicises all this. Ideas-hucksters like the Conservative MP Jesse Norman proceed from the same reading list as these organisations, and comes up with his ideal Big Society citizen as a "fizzing bundle of energy...an active, creative self" who will step into the civil-society gap left behind by a receding state.

Norman is half right, at entirely the wrong moment. In better circumstances, the Big Society (or its Good cousin) could answer the challenge of a low-carbon economy that took itself seriously. It implies a flourishing citizenry - active in social participation, increasingly self-providing their goods and services, coming together through festivity and conviviality - who would find such "busyness" an ample compensation for "growth", "wealth" and its mountains of stuff.

There's a glitch, though. This new centre ground of General Well-Being might try to preach the benefits of richness-without-trinkets, the satisfaction that comes from family and community, mindfulness and socially-oriented labours. But while the financial plutocracy cavorts freely, unemployment rolls burgeon, and the employed work too many hours to find the time to "voluntarily" re-build society, all this will fall on pained and deafened ears.

A strong and supportive state - confidently grasping issues like shorter working hours, citizens' income or lifestyle change, and helping people through what NEF calls "the great transition" - is in every one of the major green thinkers' scenarios. That the self-proclaimed "greenest government in the world" at Westminster also pursues an explicitly anti-state agenda is either stupidity, or ideology, or aristocratic disconnection - or all three.

Yet for me, there are unresolved questions in this emerging "I'm-happy-I'm-green" consensus. Will dissatisfaction, yearning and the human lust for novelty be so easily placated by mind science, soft paternalism and sententious life-lessons from government and charities? I have my doubts.

Look at the way we have embraced social networks and games platforms over the last five years. Of course, much of this is a straightforward amplification - some would say exploitation - of social behaviours we already perform. We expand our ideas of friendship via software tools. We render our idle day-dreaming and role-playing as warrior trolls in the gamespace.

But there is still something deeply attractive about these very objects and services that have amplified our natures. In their shapes and signs, they express beauty and ingenuity. The latest smartphone in our pockets is, undoubtedly, a toxic clump of hydrocarbons, rare metals and duplicatory design. Yet it's also a mystic portal in our hand: a gateway to instantly useful information (or even cosmopolitan and concerned journalism), a dream-catcher of our experiences and intensities, perhaps even a toppler of dictatorships.

One of the push-backs to eco-austerity in the developed west will always come from our sheer delight in the intricate innovations that our fellow humans serve up to us. We are radical animals - able to distance ourselves from our instincts, whether selfish or altruistic, sufficiently enough to shape the world according to our imaginations.

But we radical animals face the objective barriers of the planet's carrying-capacity. How to confine our illimitability - our creative and destructive capacity to reframe reality - within the toughest of natural limits? My studies of the power and potential of play over the last decade have shown that humans truly thrive when they are able to act freely, to master skills they choose to master, and can take non-fatal risks under conditions of ultimate security.

A green politics has to be thinking passionately about zones of creativity and innovation for human beings, as well as the constraints and duties of low-carbon living. Otherwise the transformative dimension of our own nature will end up repressed and frustrated.

As the happiness scientist Richard Layard and the Hong Kong futurist Chandran Nair both suggested at the RSA last month, the best minds of our era need not be working on discardable technologies, or "how to hide trillions of dollars on balance sheets". The brightest could be applying themselves to new forms of education or psychology, or experiments in "how we create those rules and norms whereby people live more collectively". We also need a revival in the joys of craft and repairable design - where hacking and engineering become as sexy as media or business studies.

No-one is suggesting we forgo interactivity, domestic comfort or mobility - we're modern creatures, here to stay. But might this coming citizenry of "playful makers" provide new, collaborative opportunities for those very same device hawkers, mortgage facilitators and autogeddon merchants that one finds in the average Sunday newspaper? Is there a new business model in supporting consumers to become mindful co-producers of services, way beyond the self-assemblies of IKEA or the free labours of Facebook updating?

Cultivating such an adaptive, practical exuberance could answer both our human itch for excited engagement, and the call of the damaged earth. Both are entirely natural, after all.

Pat Kane is a writer and musician. His forthcoming book is Radical Animal: innovation, sustainability and human nature (www.radicalanimal.net)

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