Maurie Cohen

Unsustainable Consumption, New Values and Lifestyles in the Transition to Post-Consumerism

Variation and diversity of sustainability attitudes and practices are shaped by reactions to our dominant consumer culture and economic system. For nearly a century, explicit policy initiatives in the United States (and elsewhere to varying degrees) have encouraged lifestyles organized around suburbanization, automobile dependency, extensive material and energy throughput, and product obsolescence. These patterns have been amplified by ubiquitous advertising purposefully crafted to encourage status striving and ego gratification. A related driver of variation and diversity has been the prevailing economic system with an emphasis on continuous growth and disregard for ecological boundaries. Legitimation through neoclassical economics has comprehensively infused its underlying political philosophy into all facets of contemporary society. These commitments have propelled us closer to peak oil, exacerbated climate change, and provoked the financial “crisis” of 2007, while compounding societal inequalities. Concomitant veneration of a unique expression of the “American Dream” has led to dangerously high levels of public and private debt and created pronounced uncertainty about how to pay for healthcare, higher education, and retirement. This situation, in turn, has spurred excessive working hours (at least among the employed portion of the population) and incessant competition. Much of the variation and diversity surrounding sustainability that we see today can be attributed to these cultural and economic forces and to different individual and social responses to them. Of particular interest today are social experiments that enable people to sidestep—or more overtly avoid—participating in prevalent practices, such as the many collaborative forms of provisioning that we see taking root around the country. The agglomeration of these social innovations appears to be giving rise to nascent expressions of post-consumerism. Without understanding the wellsprings of these new commitments it is difficult to formulate meaningful policies to stimulate individuals and groups to consider more sustainable lifestyles.

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