The joylessness of shopping

Leo Johnson Leo Johnson says shopping doesn't make us happy

Somewhat in the manner of a therapist directing his patient towards a profound inner truth, Leo Johnson asked us to close our eyes and recall a time and a place when we we'd been "totally in the groove, really happy".

We did.

Then, he asked how many of us had found that totally groovy happy experience when we'd been shopping.

As far as I could see, no hands went up.

"We've been living a big fat lie," he said. "We know that consumption doesn't make happy lives."

The "green" message, he said, wasn't best expressed as "self-flagellation", about having less; but about "having more of the stuff we care about".

The event at which Mr Johnson was speaking was one of many that have been held in London over the past few months in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit, which is now less than a month away.

This one was convened by the UK parliament's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and the Hard Rain project, which documents environmental and social issues through photography.

Several hunded people went along; and like others I've been to, the mood of speakers and audience was an amalgam of Obama-style "yes we can" and austerity-era "I'm afraid we won't".

And that's quite rational. Anyone aware of what the UK's chief science adviser Sir John Beddington a few years back termed "the perfect storm" of population growth - growing demand for food and other resources, and environmental factors such as climate change - must logically be optimistic that Rio+20 will do something to change humanity's unsustainable trajectory. The signals coming from the preparatory talks, however, suggest it'll be a wiggle rather than a volte-face.

Bedouin around well In some poor countries, water supplies are being affected by businesses supplying export goods

While much of the Rio agenda focuses on the developing world and people's rights to water, food, energy, education, health and so on, there are implications for rich Western countries as well.

The link is obvious. For example: if a company somewhere in Africa chops down a forest to grow food destined for Europe, and that deforestation wrecks the water supply used by villagers, who's to blame - the Africans or the Europeans?

Hence the notion of sustainable consumption.

As photographer Mark Edwards, a founder of Hard Rain, put it at the EAC event: "We have to change our minds, from wanting as much as we can get of everything to wanting the right amount."

Understandably, not everyone is keen on agreeing measures on sustainable consumption, in Rio or elsewhere.

It smacks to many of the "self-flagellation" of which Leo Johnson spoke; it smacks of interference in people's freedom to spend their hard-earned cash as they choose.

And in these economically straitened times, there's a conflict with the way many politicians and businessmen see the immediate future and the need to "grow" our way out of recession.

Statements such as "we need to boost demand" rarely carry caveats saying that demand (and the resulting consumption) should be "sustainable", or should take note of ecological concerns, or be equitable.

I couldn't help wondering whether this conflict plays itself out in the Johnson household when they convene for a family dinner, with Leo - founder of Sustainable Finance and a partner with accountancy giants PwC in sustainability and climate change - at one end of the table, and his brother Boris, Mayor of London and a potential future Conservative Party leader, at the other.

Does Boris tells everyone how great the beef is to stimulate demand, while Leo takes a small portion and urges sustainable consumption?

You might think that's a trivialisation of the issue; but it encapsulates the dilemma facing those Western politicians who care about the developing and natural worlds while also battling recession.

In the very early days of preparations for Rio, the idea of discussing sustainable consumption was mooted, even leading to the notion of setting sustainable consumption goals.

George Bush at Rio President George Bush told the 1992 Rio summit that the American way of life was not negotiable

That didn't win through as a separate entity, though it's still implicitly alive in the form of sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The idea is that these would come into play around 2015, the target date for most of the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); but unlike the MDGs, they would be relevant to every country, not just poorer ones.

For these goals to be meaningful and comprehensive, many would argue they have to cover consumption patterns in rich nations.

Yet reducing consumption means reducing growth; so would politicians go for it?

One way of squaring the circle would be to measure economic output (and therefore growth) in terms other than simple GDP.

This would mean taking "natural capital", the services that nature provides for free, into the equation; but it would also mean being more acute about distinguishing where and how growth occurs.

As a briefing document for another pre-Rio event this week put it: "Increased consumption by those whose basic needs are not met would be considered progress by most.

"On the other hand, increasing the competitive consumption of luxury goods among the rich would only be considered progress by a few."

Leo Johnson put it another way, talking of capitalism that did not pursue "the American dream where you serve the same billion people nine times... rather, you serve the nine billion once or twice."

And Claire Foster-Gilbert, a former advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury and founder of the Ethics Academy, had a blunter take: "Could we devise a model of society that did not depend on us becoming ill with our fatness?"

These models exist already - in books, academic papers and the imaginations of many planning to take the road to Rio.

The bigger issue is whether Western governments will choose to bring them into reality.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Are we going to be told what to spend our money on next?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I don't think thre is much wrong with consumerism where there is a reasonable need to consume. Where consumerism is more about saying something about yourself then it gets a bit pointless. Why pay £30K for a prestige car when you only go the shops once a week in it. Something much more modest would get the job done, but it wouldn't say hey everyone look at me, this what "success" does for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    #23 AlexWassal
    "can anyone here think of a way to control population?"

    Stub79 is right. Educated, empowered women have fewer children.
    As affluent lifestyles spread across the world the demographic transition from high to low birthrates is reducing population growth rates..
    We will stabililise at about 10 billion, the maximum our hi-tech agriculture can support.
    For a while.........

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Mark_from_Manchester - I have a PC on my desk, but it is way too old for the marketing men to be happy about it :) Consumerism doesn't make for the high standards of living, technology does. Consumerism is just one way of paying for the development of that technology. A way that makes some people very rich, but tends to ignore the needs of many others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    It is true that stuff doesn't make you happy but it is also funny how the anti-consumersists all have PC's on which to make their comments!

    Mans ingenuity has meant we have always developed a solution to our problems and that consumerism has delivered the highest living standards in history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Voters choose politicians who promise growth through economic activity. The "bread and circuses" model has worked in an era of abundant cheap resources.
    The depression started by the subprime mortgage fiasco is likely to be prolonged as scarcity pushes up oil, metal and food prices.
    In the long term, how we will cope in a a depleted world is anyone's guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    If company somewhere in Africa chops down forest to grow food destined for Europe, & deforestation wrecks water supply used by villagers, who's to blame - Africans or Europeans? This is an excellent question with an obvious answer: Europeans. Without the demand for wood, forest would remain standing. Now with water despoiled, forest gone, who gets left with nothing: Africans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Research has shown on several occasions that the most effective method of population control is the education and empowerment of women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    If it's not material things that make us happy, it explains why we are so hammered by commercialism's advertising. Advertising must create a need where - most likely - none existed before: Just got to have those Cocoa Puffs! So, in a sense, commercialization makes want, & want comes with its own set of problems - like the difference between the haves & have-nots where the only GREEN is jealousy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    No6: Providing a viable solution not involving some level of extermination doesn't seem to be in their mindset.

    No disagreement from me, but I am interested, can anyone here think of a way to control population without resorting to enforced contraception/sterilization, extermination or child quotas?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    There's a (possibly apocryphal) story that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you heat up the water slowly, the frog can't perceive the gradual change and will eventually boil to death. I think my son's generation (and the one after) are in for one helluva bad time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Albert - in a way I'm glad no politician is thinking about population reduction, their usual method is large scale war! Providing a viable solution not involving some level of extermination doesn't seem to be in their mindset.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Try getting a woman to read this article. With 50% of the population hell-bent on new everything, every 5 seconds, we are doomed. Doomed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Until politicians, the media and the wider public understand that it IS NOT the economy, stupid and that the environment and the sustainability of the human race on the planet is a little more pressing, I'd have to agree with the doom-mongers. I have yet to see a western politician come up with a credible plan for population reduction, without which we are in serious trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Im afraid I can only see only a rather bad event happening before we change the way we live globally. It will not happen fast enough through politics and talk based on a happy medium for all...

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I think it's fair to say we're doomed. Evolution/god hasn't equipped people with the ready ability to assess individual actions in a global context and people don't take kindly to having their toys taken away so there's little elected politicians can do. If I could bail out I would but there seems to be a shortage of earth-like planets to go to :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    9.Aduphanel If everybody on the planet lived like an American we would need 10 planets to support us, birth control is important but we need to look at our consumption

    Green policies reflect what they see as important, if you really think movement over boarders is more important than protecting the planet you're entitled however I have a feeling future generations will take the more global view

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

 “It wont happen.”
    Fatalism! Don’t you believe that we have any control over our fate?
    “Enivronmentalists denying their own behavior”.
    No! Admitting it and realizing it has to change.
    Or maybe you think the planet has infinite resources?
    Check for a ‘Physics For Dummies’ book.
    Oceans and Space are the only answer?
    Oceans are all dying. No useful local planets!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Aduphanel: no policy on immigration yet they policies would cut the amount of power we can produce by quite a lot.

    that's not true, MG100 to MG454 on the green policy website (google: green policies) are Immigration policies, and I don't see anything regarding reducing the amount of power available, only being more efficient with what we have

    Have you actually read the site?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.


    Windmills are not being proposed as a resolution to the population problem..but it is a blatant strawman.. as to risible suggestions that Space exploration is the solution (with a predictable lack of detail as to how exactly its the 'only answer' in a relevant time frame).. this is not Bladerunner and there are no off-world colonies..wishful thinking from technocultists will not change that..


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