Alternatives to the Consumer Society

Arthur Dahl's picture


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the PERL 2nd International Conference, Berlin, 19-20 March 2012


Consumerism is superficially attractive because it offers a purpose in life and social acceptance within a narrowly materialistic world view. This is cultivated through psychological manipulation and marketing, playing on physical desires and hedonism, to create passive consumers. It fills a vacuum in the absence of any deeper meaning in life. The alternative is to build a stronger sense of human purpose through education and community action, facilitating a process of maturation from egotism to altruism. Elements of that purpose should include: a vision of future society that is worth effort and struggle to build; a recognition of the importance of family, community and social relationships; an appreciation of the importance of work done in a spirit of service; an introduction to the rational tools of science and the value of knowledge and crafts; a connection with nature, beauty and the arts; and an understanding of the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of life that lead to the refinement of character. With these elements, cultivating a culture of change becomes possible while encouraging a diversity of local expressions of social advancement.


The rise of the scientific and technological civilization of the 20th century was accompanied by a dominant materialistic world view as traditional religions, cultures and values seemed increasingly irrelevant and unable to respond to the challenges of the modern world. Following World War II, the consumer society took off in industrialized nations, but within a couple of decades it was apparent that the economy and the environment were in conflict, as epitomized in 1972 by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, and the publication of the Club of Rome's report “Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972). Forty years later, as planetary environmental boundaries have become clearer (Rockstrom et al. 2009) and crises have shaken economic certainties, the dynamics of overshoot and collapse modeled in the “Limits to Growth” seem ever more probable as no realistic assumptions avoid it (MacKenzie, 2012). The institutions of society have proven increasingly unable to respond to the need for a fundamental transformation in the economy. In the absence of action from the top, the best hope for a response is through a bottom-up shift by individuals and communities towards more responsible living. This paper provides an example of one possible foundation for responsible living inspired by the values-based approach to rethinking prosperity and forging alternatives to a culture of consumerism developed in the Bahá'í community over several decades (Dahl 1990; BIC 2010). While still embryonic, its approach to learning through action, reflection and consultation has the potential to motivate change of the kind required to move society towards sustainability.


Most modern economies are driven by consumption, maintained if necessary by increasing levels of borrowing. As long as the growth rate is higher than the interest rate, it is possible to pay back debts with interest. If growth slows or stops, defaulting is inevitable. The consumer society was a necessary creation to keep people buying regardless of their real needs. This absolute imperative for economic growth in the present paradigm is running headlong into environmental and social limits. The rising price of energy, the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, shortages of essential materials, higher food prices, the health costs of pollution and aging societies, the costs of insecurity from social instability, are all brakes on the kind of growth the economy experienced in recent decades. Previous recessions in one region were compensated by growth elsewhere, but the economy has now globalized to the point where every country is affected simultaneously. Without adequate growth, the financial system will collapse. The head of European Central Bank stated in February 2009 that "we live in non-linear times: the classic economic models and theories cannot be applied, and future development cannot be foreseen." (Seager 2009). Many countries, particularly in Europe, are on the brink of insolvency (Spiegel Online 2009) because they can no longer afford debt-led consumption and growth.

For the individual, consumerism is superficially attractive because it offers a purpose in life and social acceptance within the narrowly materialistic world view. Buying status symbols confirms your place in the social hierarchy or your identification with a particular group. This is cultivated through psychological manipulation and marketing, playing on physical desires and hedonism, to create passive consumers. “Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite.... Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information.... Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride - even violence - acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value.” (UHJ 2005) While it reduces human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and objects of manipulation by the market (BIC 2010), it fills a vacuum in the absence of any deeper meaning in life.

People immersed in such a system take it for granted, and see no reason to question its fundamental assumptions and mechanisms. When confronted with environmental imperatives for change, they generally deny their reality, or make cosmetic changes in lifestyle to assuage their conscience. Even those who accept the reality of environmental problems and the unsustainability of their behaviour may simply be depressed or feel trapped in a system that they are unable to change. Alternatives may not be readily available or affordable. The inertia built into the consumer society is very powerful and creates strong resistance to change.


Faced with such powerful forces, efforts to build foundations for responsible living must reach down to the roots of human purpose and motivation. An alternative to the consumer lifestyle must be proposed that is sufficiently attractive to be worth sacrificing the superficial for something that is deeper and more fundamentally rewarding. It must motivate sufficiently to overcome habit and resistance to change.

For adults, the effort required might be comparable to religious conversion. Sensitization to the need for responsible living is more effective when coupled with involvement in community action in a mutually reinforcing process that combines individual transformation with social action. In education, the ideal time for impact is pre-adolescence (11-14 years) when inherited assumptions are questioned, values adopted, and life-style choices made while opening up to the world. Again, an action-oriented curriculum can reinforce theoretical understanding and build emotional as well as rational commitment.

At the root must be a rethinking of what our purpose is as human beings. Is our highest purpose in life to consume well and keep the economy going, or something more? All religions and many philosophical traditions offer answers that accept a higher spiritual or ethical purpose in life involving a process of maturation from egotism to altruism. We are faced with an apparent conflict between peoples' apparent want to consume more and humanity's need for more equitable access to resources. “How, then, can we resolve the paralyzing contradiction that, on the one hand, we desire a world of peace and prosperity, while, on the other, much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest? The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.” (BIC 2010)

The first level of transformation should thus involve a shift from a self-centred materialism to a vision of unity and solidarity with all the human family. That vision should see every human being as a productive member of society. This provides an excellent foundation for a sense of individual responsibility for the well-being of everyone on the planet and of future generations at the heart of the concept of sustainability.

The following are some other elements of that redefinition of human purpose for more sustainable lifestyles.

A vision of future society

Anyone who follows the news, and in particular the environmental, social and economic challenges facing the planet, is easily depressed and discouraged by the flood of bad news and negative trends. There is a feeling of foreboding (not totally unjustified) that we are heading with increasing speed towards catastrophe (Mackenzie 2012). Unfortunately, educational approaches based on the scientific reality of our present situation are so negative that they are counter-productive. We prefer to deny or ignore the unbearable. While being honest about the difficulties we face, it is essential to balance the negative reality of the present with a vision of the potential for a future world civilization that is worth effort and struggle to build. Today's problems are thus seen in this context as the inevitably-painful transition from a world of antagonistic nations, cultures and religions to a unified but diverse world society that the scientific, technological and information revolution now makes possible.

Since humanity is essentially one, each person is born into the world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity. This collective trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of human rights and environmental governance. The welfare of each country and community can only be derived from the well-being of the whole planet.

Globalization requires processes of governance to deal with problems that go beyond national sovereignty and can only be addressed at the global level. Ultimately there will need to be some kind of world federal system with authority over the vast resources of the planet, exploiting all available sources of energy, and ensuring their equitable distribution. The goal of development should be to fulfill the potential of each human being to contribute to society. The aim of the economy should be to support this by furthering a dynamic, just and thriving social order, based on values that are strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, providing meaningful employment for everyone, and helping to eradicate poverty in the world.

Accompanying this vision is an acknowledgement derived from this wider view of human purpose that humans are not essentially selfish and aggressive (Karlberg 2004), and that cooperation rather that competition is the best foundation for social and economic progress (Nowak 2011).

Social relationships

A second element of human purpose is the recognition of the importance of family, community and social relationships. Humans are social organisms, and human purpose is best fulfilled in extended family relationships, strong and united local communities, and functional institutions of governance, economic production, education and culture. The extreme individualism often associated with the consumer culture and economic liberalism is a distortion of human nature, not its fulfillment. Positive well-being is generally associated with dignity, friendships, having a respected role in a group, and community acceptance.

In the consumer society, these are acquired (quite literally) through possessions and other status symbols as defined by the media and advertising, but these are inherently ephemeral and transitory, as something newer and better is always on the horizon. Investing effort in building social relationships is more rewarding and sustainable, as the growth of social networking demonstrates in a superficial way.


Following on from the importance of social relationships is a renewed concept of work not just as a necessary obligation to earn a living but as an opportunity to be of service to society and to acquire human virtues. To be idle or unemployed is thus a denial of human purpose. Even the simplest or most menial of occupations makes a contribution to society and can be valued as such. It follows that society has an obligation to train everyone in some skill and to give them the opportunity to use that skill for the benefit of all. This leads to an appreciation of the importance of work done in a spirit of service as an essential part of individual development. It also provides the foundation for a more human and sustainable definition of wealth creation in which everyone participates.


Of the drivers of economic growth in the past century, exploitation of natural resources and the fossil fuel subsidy are reaching limits of unsustainability, and population growth has already ended in the most advanced economies and is expected to stabilize globally within decades. Only scientific and technological innovation remains as a driver of progress, with the capacity to evolve more sustainable ways to meet human needs. However the consumer society has used the tools of science and technology to impose cultivated wants while destroying local initiative and diversity.

The intellectual capacity of the human brain for rational and abstract thought is a distinguishing feature of the human species, embodied in our scientific achievements. Science has too long been restricted to an educated elite, but its tools of experimentation, rational proof and thinking in terms of cause and effect should be available to everyone. Alternative approaches are needed to empower local communities to apply science to develop their own culturally and environmentally appropriate solutions to their problems and priorities. This diversity will then enrich all social advancement and economic exchange. Lifelong learning should be a tool for social progress, and knowledge, crafts and skills should be highly valued.

Science and technology are instruments of social and economic change so powerful that they must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organized as to permit people everywhere to participate on the basis of capacity. The required education should be available to all who are able to benefit from it. Viable centres of learning should be established throughout the world to enhance the capability of the world's peoples to participate in the generation and application of knowledge. All of the earth's inhabitants should be able to approach on an equal basis the processes of science and technology which are their common birthright (BIC 1995).

Nature and beauty

The utilitarian approach to urban development, another symptom of materialism, has cut off an increasing part of the world population from contact with nature and from our innate desire for beauty. Any vision for future society should emphasize the arts and individual creative expression, cultivate beauty in our surroundings, and reconnect everyone with the spiritual and emotional benefits of direct contact with nature. This will have the collateral benefit of an appreciation of the natural world that will increase the sense of responsibility for environmental protection and nature conservation through lifestyle change.

Refinement of character

For the individual, then, the fulfillment of human purpose means to discover one's talents and capacities, to cultivate human virtues and refine one's character, and to use these qualities for the benefit of the community and to advance civilization. An understanding of the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of life opens up a whole new world for individual growth and development unhindered by concerns about sustainability or the guilt of consumption. Unlike the ephemeral rewards of the consumer society, the benefits from investing effort to acquire human virtues are cumulative. The path is never an easy one, as the temptations of ego, desire and pride are ever-present, and need to be counterbalanced by moderation, contentment and humility. For virtues to be retained and strengthened they must be tested and exercised. Those who succeed epitomize what it means to be truly human.


The transformation from a culture of unfettered consumerism to a culture of sustainability can be built on foundations of responsible living such as those above. We need to question the cultural frameworks driving institutions of government, business, education and the media in the light of what is natural and just, through a public dialogue among all sectors of society on the ethical foundations of the necessary systemic change (BIC 2010). The fragmented sectoral approaches of government, business and academia need to be complemented by a more integrated systems view (Dahl 1996). Our social order characterized by competition, violence, conflict and insecurity needs to give way to one founded on unity in diversity (Karlberg 2004).

The best hope for making progress is at the community level. By increasing local communities' and individuals' awareness of the needs and possibilities, and of their capacity to respond, they can determine their own innovative approaches based on their goals and priorities and their capacity and resources (BIC 2009). Such a cultural transformation requires deliberate changes in individual choices and institutional structures and norms as mutually reinforcing components of responsible living.

For the individual, the process of learning through action builds greater capacity to carry out collective action as an agent of change in the community, as a humble learner and active participant in the generation and application of knowledge (BIC 2010). With these elements, cultivating a culture of change becomes possible while encouraging a diversity of local expressions of social advancement.

Change at this level is founded on education. “The development of a global society calls for the cultivation of capacities far beyond anything the human race has so far been able to muster. The challenges ahead will require an enormous expansion in access to knowledge on the part of individuals and organizations alike. Universal education will be an indispensable contributor to this process of capacity building, but the effort will succeed only to the extent that both individuals and groups in every sector of society are able to acquire knowledge and to apply it to the shaping of human affairs.

“Education must be lifelong. It should help people to develop the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills necessary to earn a livelihood and to contribute confidently and constructively to shaping communities that reflect principles of justice, equity and unity. It should also help the individual develop a sense of place and community, grounded in the local, but embracing the whole world. Successful education will cultivate virtue as the foundation for personal and collective well-being, and will nurture in individuals a deep sense of service and an active commitment to the welfare of their families, their communities, their countries, indeed, all mankind. It will encourage self-reflection and thinking in terms of historical process, and it will promote inspirational learning through such means as music, the arts, poetry, meditation and interaction with the natural environment.” (BIC 1998)


Building a solid foundation for responsible living requires a redefinition of cultural norms reflecting the requirements of justice and sustainability, leading to a broader vision of human purpose and prosperity. Each community must find its own pathway to sustainability based on empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action, where every individual can make a contribution as a productive member of society (BIC 2010). The goal should be an organic change in the structure of human society reflecting our interdependence and our interconnectedness with the natural world at the core of sustainability.


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