Naomi Klein is right in looking to capitalism, the slave-master of paid-up members of consumer society, to identify the true culprit of climate change and environmental decline. But capitalism, and the hugely excessive consumption of material goods on which it depends for fulfilling its primary motive of maximising profit just for the sake of maximising profit, has taken on the monstrous proportions and almost ubiquitous reach that it has because it taps into and exploits a common human inclination. This is our tendency to be attracted to material possessions, to comfort, convenience and the hollow social status accorded to wealth and possessions. Even among the still tiny proportion of people who recognise the direct relationship between their own personal purchasing choices and global ecological destruction and therefore consciously try and avoid over-consumption, there are those who feel the attraction of acquisition, as I found when I made a study of people happily living lifestyles of modest material consumption.While capitalism can surely be regarded as the fundamental cause of climate change, the perpetuation of capitalism requires us all to play its game. We do have the option of dropping the ball and walking away. The happily modest consumers in my study, like all voluntary simplifiers, provide plentiful evidence that we need not buy into lifestyles of mindless consumption, that are so much the norm or common aspiration, in order to live happily; indeed cultivating the non-material possibilities of life generally results in higher wellbeing. For the sake of the climate and of personal wellbeing, now is the time for human beings en masse to turn to more satisfying, less damaging ways of living.We need to learn to resist the undoubtedly powerful pull on us of things that we don’t actually need in order to live satisfying lives. This will be a great deal easier if we come fully to realise the greater degree of true and lasting wellbeing to be gained from the non-material assets of good relationships, a sense of belonging, of meaning and purpose, of creativity, of making a contribution, and of time spent in natural surroundings, than from shopping or an overflowing bank balance.
Hopefully there is a growing recognition that the kick we get as we take possession of yet one more pair of shoes, or a DVD that we may watch only once, or a shiny replacement for the still working but tired-looking gadget, is but short-lived. The satisfaction of handing over cash or completing an online card payment in return for the promise of ownership of what is likely to be the product of a complex and ecologically damaging process of extraction, manufacture, packaging and transportation is fleeting; the thrill of actual possession usually fades quickly as the new object of desire is absorbed into our stock of belongings. Neither can the sum of all those feelings of gratification at acquisition begin to compare in value with the accumulated moments of joy at the smiles given to or received from friends or strangers, of hand-holding or hugs with children or grand-parents, or a song sung; nor with the satisfaction felt at a problem solved, a worthwhile task accomplished, a skill mastered, a nesting bird sighted, or the other innumerable potential moments of emotional nourishment to be found in everyday life. While our collective pursuit of yet more instants of acquisition, multiplied inordinately, is destroying the planet with gathering speed, it is the moments of non-material fulfillment that accumulate and aggregate to generate personal wellbeing.
First published on the Huffington Post 13th November 2014