Monday, May 17, 2010

Consumer Society: Who Really Buys It?

Recently I was having a conversation with a group of 13 year old youth from my neighbourhood on the effects that the media and marketing have on us. We wanted to learn how to use the media to share positive messages within our community, so we started by studying some typical examples. I was surprised at how conscious the girls were of the manufactured nature of the "beauty" being sold to them through luxury advertising in order to convince them to buy things. The importance of developing the habit of analysing and reflecting on the media's messages became clear. We concluded that in a world where it's too easy to become a passive recipient to these messages, this habit helps us make decisions about whether those values correspond with our own.

But of course being completely immune to a force that permeates our day to day lives is almost impossible. One of the youth, noticing the prevalence of female models in marketing campaigns, concluded that advertisements are geared towards men. "Women don't need to be convinced as it is natural for them to go shopping."

The comment certainly raises an interesting question in the world of rising consumerism, where both men and women increasingly dispose of their income for the acquisition of more material goods. Is this daily ritual really at the core of human nature? There are, evidently, powerful social forces at play that are shaping both our habits and our behaviour. Just how is the story of who we are being retold through the fictions of the media? And to what extent is our spiritual nature being worn away by a growing, pervasive materialism?

Last week, we posted a link to a document entitled Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, a statement of the Baha'i International Community (BIC). I really encourage you all to take a look at it if you haven't already. It discusses the challenges facing the realisation of a more sustainable development, citing consumer culture - a distortion of humanity's true nature and purpose - as one of several hindering factors to a lasting, shared prosperity.

Another interesting resource, Prosperity Without Growth, was written by Tim Jackson of the Sustainable Development Commission of the UK. As the title suggests, the document questions the sustainability of an economic model that has 'growth at all costs' at its centre, so that the pursuit of economic growth pushes forward at the expense of sustainability and well-being. Jackson asks us to consider what a new model for prosperity could look like.

Chapter 6 deals specifically with consumer culture. Jackson introduces the idea of a "language of goods." In this "language", material possessions say something important about who we are, turning objects of no value into objects of status and competition. And as the BIC document points out, this in turn "reduces human beings into competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and objects of manipulation by the market." Is marketing using this same language to create the 'shop-a-holic' image of women?

Jackson also explains how not only do we buy these possessions, but we also become attached to them. Citing examples like our CD collections or our favourite pieces of clothing, he describes how we come to think of these objects as part of the "extended self." If he's right, then it shows just how quickly our spiritual nature can become encroached by a material one. If these objects define in part who we are, then what room does that leave for our inner reality?

Both documents urge us to think about new models of prosperity and sustainable development - where the endless production and consumption of goods is no longer the purpose of life nor the cause for further social inequalities and environmental destruction. And where traits like competition, greed and apathy cease to be rewarded over behaviour that promotes unity, justice and sustainability. As it turns out, the link between the consumer urge and our current model of development (powered by a ruthless economic growth) is very strong. The system actually depends on this excessive consumption as both a driver of growth and a marker for progress as it at once reinforces and feeds off a human addiction to spending. In Jackson's words:

On the one hand, the profit motive stimulates newer, better or cheaper products and services through a continual process of the same time, the market for these goods relies on an expanding consumer demand, driven by a complex social logic...taken together, these two self-reinforcing processes are exactly what is needed to drive growth forwards.
People of all ages aspire towards bigger, better, newer things, even when their current versions work just fine. Marketing is the science of creating 'needs' that never existed. And of selling dreams. And precisely because this material acquisition will always fail to provide the ideals that the language of marketing promises us, we keep wanting more. "Consumer culture perpetuates itself precisely because it succeeds so well at failure." It's no surprise that these dreams allure us. In a world of increasing injustice, economic crisis and unprecedented environmental distress, having something to hope for is important. In a secular world, consumer culture is nourished by the human need for hope.

Both the BIC document and Jackson make no secret of the scope of change required. Jackson writes:

It is also vital to recognise that this pathology is not simply the result of some terminal quality in the human psyche. We are not by nature helpless dupes, too lazy or weak to resist the power of manipulative advertisers...rather, what emerges from this analysis is that the 'empty self' is a product of powerful social forces and the specific institutions of modern society...we need to identify opportunities for change within society - changes in values, changes in lifestyles, changes in social structure - that will free us from the damaging social logic of consumerism.

And the BIC document:

The transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body - as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it.
So it seems that change necessitates an entire restructuring of the way we conceive of both human nature and modern society, notwithstanding the institutions that join it together, and a reconceptualisation of the 'growth at all costs' paradigm within which we currently live. It also seems that the consumer society promotes a culture of lethargy. Rather than creating protagonists of change, it specialises in manufacturing passive, distracted beings, chasing after glittery ideals that forever elude them.

The BIC document asks us what happens when we think of individuals as having "a contribution to make to the construction of a more just and peaceful social order." What happens when we step out of our role as 'producer' or 'consumer' and rephrase both our reason for being and our reason for exchanging with others? When we see ourselves as being capable of making valuable contributions to our community and society at large? When bonds of love are built and nurtured with those who are working with us? Where has this definition of human relationships, of the human being gone?

Do these values have to be at ends with a stable economic society? I don't think so. I think they can even be a motor towards the type of sustainable prosperity that both the BIC and Jackson - and I daresay most of us - hope for.

* * *
Clearly, the scale of change being called for is much greater than creating the right media campaign. However, those thirteen year old youth feel like it's a good place to start. And why not? The media is their voice to the world, it can be used to provoke thought, to rewrite what being human means and also to remind individuals that they do have a choice in all this. If the media tells us who we are, then we need to create images of the human nature we believe in.

So as part of their desire to learn about changing the neighbourhood, they have created posters that ask their neighbours to think about the characteristics of their ideal community. In a sense, they are reminding those neighbours that they too have a role to play in its realisation. This weekend we're going to stick those posters around the neighbourhood, in local shops and apartment buildings. Perhaps it won't change so much too quickly. But it's their opportunity to act, and to give voice to their approach to transformation.

So now there are some questions we'd like to throw out to you, our readers:

How would this conception of the human being change the language of the media: the messages we share and the people we portray?

Do you have any examples of work being carried out in your community that illustrates the nature to serve humanity, to serve as an actor for change?

Building blocks for the new model of a post-consumer world, we could call it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

How do we measure gender equality?

"We Measure what we Value."

I really like this creed. It's being thrown around a lot lately, with the wave of soul-searching that has swept over us in the 'aftermath' of the financial crisis. It makes a lot of sense. After all, the indicators that we choose to measure progress ultimately describe how we define that progress. Very often I hear this creed being used to raise questions about the relevance of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a tool to measure a nation's progress. The Economist just recently closed a live online debate on this subject, which I think squeezes the nuts and bolts of the wider discourse into one compact, accessible discussion. You can check it out here:

As a part of this same wave, I recently attended a workshop on measuring the progress of societies and gender equality, hosted by UNESCO and the OECD's Development Centre in Paris. The context? Gender equality and development. The aim? To consider the link between what we choose to measure, and how this can help us to create lasting change.

Persistent injustice against women rears its head in a myriad of ways. I'm sure you all have examples. At the workshop, one woman talked about being empowered as an actor working for social change in the public sphere, yet subordinated behind the closed doors of her home, because her husband had been taught that her value as a woman didn't equal his as a man. Others expressed disappointment at an economy that valued their work so long as it generated an income, forgetting the hours they consecrated gratuitously for the benefit of their families and communities.

We've lived through an era where economic solutions have been the social scientist's lab test of choice for solving complex social problems. Maybe the time is ripe to concede that the solution to gender inequality does not lie in simply legislating to give women greater access to land or building more schools to educate more girls. These structural inequalities are but symptoms of a more profound injustice. This is not to imply that material solutions are futile; rather that the prevalence of this injustice, in spite of longstanding attempts to eradicate it, suggests that we cannot remedy these inequalities without understanding the reasons they exist in the first place. The desire to set a process of genuine transformation in motion begs the question: what's going on beneath the surface? What should we be measuring when we talk about gender equality as an aspect of development?

One of the tools presented at the workshop was the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). Rather than measure outcomes (e.g. how many girls go to school, how many women have a place in parliament, how many women receive health care...), the index measures the prevalence of social institutions that promote gender inequality. Social institutions are defined as long lasting codes of conduct, norms, traditions and informal and formal laws, and are considered the building blocks of human behaviour and social interaction. The SIGI indicators range from violence against women or inheritance rights to the practice of female genital mutilation or women's lack of access to land, and is being pitched as a new way of thinking about gender equality. And it's an interesting premise. Instead of asking, how many women are going to school, the SIGI asks: why aren't women going to school? Let's measure that, find out more about it. It's an inquiry that aims to drill deeper and this to me seems to be the SIGI's strength: it attempts to embed culture and the economy within society, and recognises the organic link between social conditions and development. No quick bandaid solution here. And it does feel like a genuine attempt to get to the heart of the barriers preventing true social and economic development by pushing us to think more profoundly about the root causes of injustice, and the beliefs, values and cultural norms that vindicate this injustice.

Earlier on we discussed how the eradication of all injustices is an indispensable part of development - an enabling aspect even, for both social and economic progress. Yet perhaps this injustice permeates deeper than these social institutions - as deeply as the eyes and minds of the human beings who created them. For how can both men and women become truly empowered when the sources of disempowerment rest primarily in the relationships and expectations of their own families and communities - and within themselves?

Once we start measuring in this way, it becomes clear that the solution to gender inequality must lie in raising consciousness of the nature and capacities inherent in every human soul and empowering each individual to set off on a path of learning to discover their social implications. Conceiving spiritual education as an integral complement of material education opens up the possibility of unleashing human potential to become active champions of justice. Such education could offer humanity a nobler vision of how the world should be, and thus empower it to take action to implement justice in the institutions and structures of the world.


The I Can Bug can be viewed as a direct reaction to contemporary conceptions of work reduced to "gainful employment aimed at acquiring the means fort he consumption of available goods" (Prosperity of Humankind). This program enables junior youth to learn what it might mean to address work from the perspective of service to humanity. More importantly, it allows them to analyze the needs of their community in a humanitarian manner as opposed to market demands.

Money quote from this article in Newsweek a couple weeks ago: "Much as Washington is still captured by Wall Street, the economics profession remains captured by the false idea of rationality - the "religious belief" (as Stiglitz calls it) that science can fully explain human economic behavior."

A new document from the Baha'i International Community "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism"

Herman Daly explores steady state alternatives to monetary policy. Good article if you're trying to learn a bit more about how the use of money has evolved... especially if you're interested in alternative methods.

Friday, May 7, 2010

BACK! (Hopefully)

We apologize for our hiatus the last month or so. There have been a few aberrations in our schedules, which have caused us to shift priorities on other projects in our lives, but it seems that we will be able to slowly balance these out and thus apply more effort towards the blog.

We are also hoping to experiment with a couple new features. One basic feature we'll be introducing is a link-sharing post which will introduce other writings/media that are relevant to the type of discourse we hope to engage in as we rethink the policy framework of economics and prosperity.

Second, we hope to introduce a more practical element to our posts. We would obviously not prefer for our musings to be devoid from action in fear of seeming hypocritical, so the collaborators of this blog will start writing "community profiles" of work that we engage in in our communities that might shed light on the more theoretical ideas we've been toying with. Hopefully, this will serve as somewhat of a diary/reflection space for the community building activities we're engaged in. We hope all of our readers will also contribute towards this learning via site comments!

We hope to hear from you soon! Thanks for your support!