Scotland101 – our series of extracts from Commonweal’s Book of Ideas. #90 Set out a National Deconsumerisation Strategy
Me-first economics has created a cycle of work-to-consume. Saturation advertising and marketing continuously pushes us to spend money. But since me-first economics has also created long-term stagnation in wages, it has required us to borrow more and more to fuel consumption (personal debt in Britain is back to record levels). We are then trapped by our debt into maximising income in a low-pay economy, which often means excessive working hours (we work among the longest hours in Europe and have among the fewest holidays). And then we are actively told that if this makes us feel a bit down, we should lift our spirits and cheer ourselves up by consuming more.
The harmful effects of this cycle are well-documented. It creates stress and anxiety, generates low self-esteem, harms our physical health, damages our social relations (particularly inside the family), and harms the environment. But it has made a lot of powerful people very rich indeed and they have created a system where politicians and the media now routinely accept constantly increasing consumption as not only a sign of success but an essential driver of the economy. We need a different approach. Of course consumption is an essential component of the economy but we need to think much more clearly about what we consume, and how.
Scotland should set out a national strategy for deconsumerisation. The overarching aim should be to reduce the extent to which the value of its citizens is measured by their ability to repeatedly purchase short-life, disposable consumer goods and rely on the symbolism provided by these good to define their status in society; who they are and where they belong. Addressing these issues will reduce the destructive burden of consumerism on the environment, reduce the emotional burden of never ending insecurity on consumers, and reduce the debt burden required to purchase goods with little or no longevity or material worth.
Hobbies, sport, the arts, social life, entertainment, learning—all of these things make us feel better. They also all have positive economic impacts. But because they are much less effective at parting us with our money and transferring it to multinational corporations, they are seldom promoted and in some cases discouraged. It is in our common interest that we make that transition and so we need the commons to rebalance the power of advertising which pushes us in the other direction.
We must make activism and participation possible. A good transport system, proper systems of local democracy, reducing working hours, and creating supportive infrastructure such as childcare will make it easier for us to do things and get involved. Then we must make participation cheaper. All the facilities which are in the public realm (swimming pools, gyms, sports halls, outdoor activities in parks, museums) should be priced not on the basis of what the commercial sector is able to charge for the same activities, but on the basis of what will increase their use and open them up to everyone. They should not be seen as an income-generating device for cash-strapped local authorities. It would be much better to pay a little more in local tax and then let people do things inexpensively.
There are other ways in which the cost of participation can be reduced. Activities such as DIY need tools, but few people do enough DIY to really justify buying these tools (the average lifetime usage of a screwgun is less than 15 minutes, the rest of its lifetime, it gathers dust). We can create ‘share shops’ or tool libraries in which people can borrow tools or other creative goods for short periods, inexpensively or for nothing. These goods would be of higher quality and would be repairable, challenging the throwaway culture. From borrowing fruit presses for people who want to make their own cider to being able to access good sewing machines for people interested in dressmaking to borrowing mountaineering equipment to hiring a bike or borrowing a board game—the illogical and often prohibitive capital cost of being active can be removed.
Many of the things that people enjoy doing require space. For example, there are very big waiting lists for community allotments and many more people would love to be able to grow their own fruit and veg or flowers. Councils should make more land available for these purposes—and once a land strategy brings the cost of land down, more land should be purchased and dedicated to these purposes.
We have also lost many communal spaces such as football pitches, community halls or local sports centres, often in favour of one large, centralised, and expensive facility. This is bad planning and should be reversed. Some Community Sports Hubs, like at the Common Wealth Games site, seem to be more interested in getting people in from the wealthy suburbs around Glasgow to pay to play badminton and football than those who live in the East End. If we want people to take part in regular physical exercise through sport we have to make it affordable, and therefore local sporting facilities should be made as cheap as possible or even free for those living in the local area. We need to break down gender segregation in sporting activity as well. Women’s football is the fastest growing sport nationally and across the world, yet funding for this is paltry compared to that of the men’s game. Sporting activity doesn’t just improve physical health, the social activity involved in sport has been proven to make people happier and reduce mental illness.