The trouble with consumption moralism and climate action

This blog post was inspired by a twitter debate calling for a ban on advertising of conspicuous and luxury consumption. The conversation rather predictably evolved into moralizing consumption itself. It is a topic I have recently thought of quite a bit and this post is aimed at clarifying my stance on the issue. I believe moralizing consumption is problematic with a lot of unintended consequences that hold back the political will to make systemic changes.

The belief that if people become “woke” about their consumption choices and adjust accordingly, then the world will be saved has an understandable intuitive appeal. But the empirical evidence against this idea is starting to pile up (for those skimming this article, see links below). It has to do with sociological factors, and particularly issues relating to social class and its relationship to consumption. I will explain this through Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who is also a central figure in the overall emergence of consumption studies. Bourdieu is one of the central theorists in debates on social class, and especially how social classes are perpetuated through patterns and categories of consumption.

One of Bourdieu’s best-known theories is field theory where he demarcates between three primary forms of capital: economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital (there is also a fourth, symbolic capital, but I’ll leave that be for now). These forms of capital are, as a gross simplification: what you have, who you know, and what you know. All three capitals have value (not always equal) within singular fields (like the field of art: a refined person owns art, understands art, and is connected to influential people in the art field) as well as across fields (a high standing in the art field can be leveraged in the fields of politics or education, for example). The three forms of capital have a certain degree of interchangeability: social capital gives you access to learning opportunities that increase your cultural capital, and economic capital gives you access to the right circles and social capital.

For Bourdieu, the concept of struggle is essential: people within fields are constantly vying for better position within the field by accumulating capitals (acquiring the “latest new things”, getting to know the right people, familiarizing themselves with new valued knowledge and skills). Society is the totality of these fields and their hierarchical relations. The elites usually possess greater stocks of capital across more relevant fields than those at the bottom (higher education, more refined tastes, better connections etc.). Access to these capitals also allows them to maintain their elite positions by restricting others’ access to these capitals and related fields.

So what does this have to do with consumption moralism and climate change?

Much of the current debate and diagnosis on what is making consumption unsustainable has to do with its material impact. And rightly so! It is undeniably the way we produce goods that is the cause of our current ecological crisis. Yet the problem with consumption moralism and the blaming of consumers, I find, easily becomes a field struggle where those with high cultural and social capital delegitimize those whose only means of playing the societal status game is through economic capital. In other words, I see a lot of progressive and left-leaning thinkers and activists poo-pooing contemporary culture as overtly materialistic and obsessed with buying new things.

Now, I really want to emphasize that my point is not to argue against the material impact or the objectively too-fast churn of goods. Clearly they are a problem, but they are a systemic problem and should be solved as such. My point is this: these morality critics should take a good look at their own societal position and ask themselves whether the moralistic stance is indeed the most effective or even most legitimate way of making change happen. From a Bourdieuan perspective, I interpret a lot of these activists engaging in a classic form of field struggle where one seeks to delegitimize one form of capital (in consumption moralism, economic capital) and thus elevate other forms of capital (cultural and social capital). It de facto means that we have educational and cultural elites (usually in urban areas) with high social and cultural capital telling those who lack the means to accrue these two forms of capital that they should not look to improve their social standing by accruing economic capital. It is essentially saying: your way of playing the societal status game is wrong, ours is right.

I am not the first to make this observation. My colleague Eric Arnould remarked already in 2007 that one of the biggest problems with sustainable consumption is that it quickly turns into a class-based status game that breeds resentment from those who lack the means to access or knowledge to buy the “right, green stuff.” Another colleague, Douglas Holt, has taken an even more pessimistic view on the potential of green consumer moralism and writes that the inherent polarization it creates actually results in a bigger uphill climb for green initiatives (Holt has since shown that this same dynamic played into the Trump election). He has since become a strong advocate of more inclusive political strategies that circumvent these class resentment issues. (I had the opportunity to listen to his talk on this in Boston in 2014 which became a real wake-up call for me on the unintended negative aspects of consumption moralism). Lastly, my good colleague and friend Laurel Steinfield did her doctoral dissertation on the topic of materialism which further confirms that complaints over materialism since the concept’s birth have been a means for cultural elites to deem the consumption patterns of those below them illegitimate and wrong. For so-called progressives, this type of class-based domination should give pause. To quote Steinfield’s dissertation abstract:

I find that accusations of materialism rise in discourses during moments of intense social dislocations. It is wielded by social groups as part of a play for status. In this analysis, concepts of power as per Foucault and social distinctions as per Bourdieu, are used to explain the motives residing behind the use of the word. These motives, which reflect sociocultural dynamics and geo-political agendas, manifest in the meanings attributed to ‘materialism’, and the directionality of the allegation.

Thus I argue that ‘materialism’, at its essence, is an epithet used to advance or demobilise a set of interests. This is what I term, delegitimizing discourse—words used to debase other social groups. Studying ‘materialism’ as a case in point, I note that groups use delegitimizing discourse either an assimilative measure—rhetoric geared towards indoctrination—or as a defensive mechanism—rhetoric used to debase threatening elements and behaviours.

So what is the solution? My modest proposal is to move the conversation back to where it belongs: on the system of production rather than consumption. Progressives need to rally behind systemic initiatives like carbon tariffs, meeting recycling and buy-back mandates, circular economy initiatives and the like. The only viable way is through regulation that affects as all, not by elevating My Consumption better as Your Consumption. Regulation on production will change the way economic capital goods are produced for all of us and, yes, this may also elevate the status value of social and cultural capital, which may breed some resentment. But it is much better than the kind of tribal resentment that you see more and more especially online.

The consumer-to-consumer blame game is inherently counter-productive and creates blindness to one’s own societal advantages. We also need to recognize that material consumption has been a sort of societal crutch for less-than-privileged social classes. These are not the types of consumers who are transitioning towards experiences from possessions. For them, this transition is an identity threat. If these consumers feel that these “things” are merely being taken away from them, they will resist, because they know and sense that they lack the cultural capital to navigate the new societal reality as easily as the elites. These consumers need to be made aware that a more sustainable future means that we will stiff have “stuff”, but this stuff will be different. This is not an easy solution, I know, but it is an essential part of the puzzle.

We should also be aware that the Nordic model and especially its educational system has been the “great equalizer” in disseminating cultural and social capital across the social classes. This is something to consider if we want to dematerialize consumption and lessen the importance of economic capital.

Lastly, as a further discussion point, I urge you browse through this excellent presentation from anthropologist Rick Wilk on the complexity of consumption and climate change.