Confronting consumerism for a safer future

Among the many challenges we face this decade is how to achieve radical decarbonisation in a way that does not entirely alienate the public. This is no mean challenge. After all, we are all bombarded with constant advertising and promotional messaging telling us “we’re worth it” and encouraging us to forge our self-identity, even our self-worth, via the things we buy and the things we consume.

As the retail economist, Victor Lebow famously wrote in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption”.

Now we see all too clearly that consumption is itself consuming the natural world, yet changing course means first of all, acknowledging and then confronting these forces profiting from nihilistic consumption that goes far beyond meeting our fundamental needs, and in so doing, threatens us all.  In a recent article in the Business Post, I teased this out in a little more detail.

A FAMOUS pair of photos were taken several years apart on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The first was shot in 1900, and shows a street scene crowded with horse-drawn vehicles. Pictured amongst the melee was a solitary automobile.

The second picture, taken from the same position in 1913 shows an equally busy streetscape. This time, however, there isn’t a single horse to be seen. In just over a decade, a radical transition was largely completed that would come to reshape the modern world.

Ironically, a major impetus to replace horse-drawn vehicles from urban areas was pollution. The 100,000 working horses in New York in 1900 were producing 1,200 tonnes of manure a day, which presented a public health hazard.

Having dominated human transport for centuries, the era of the horse ended in a matter of decades. No one then could possibly have foreseen just how profound the unintended consequences of that transition would turn out to be.

We now stand once more on the cusp of transformational change, potentially on a greater scale than anything undertaken since the foundation of the state. Ireland has committed in the decade ahead to radically transform almost every aspect of our society and economy in order to halve total national emissions by 2030.

Speaking at the Green Party’s recent annual convention, its leader and climate minister Eamon Ryan set out the challenge in stark terms. “It is a transition requiring such scale and speed that it needs every person and every place to be involved”.

Party colleague and minister with responsibility for media, culture and the arts, Catherine Martin concurred. “The old system is built for the old world. It cannot be business as usual”.

Fine words alone will not effect sweeping changes. As the recently published survey by consultancy firm Kantar has confirmed, few people in Ireland have any real conception that we are even in a climate emergency.

Two thirds of respondents felt they are already doing “all they can” to address climate change and that any further actions would be for “others” to take. This is despite the fact that we, as a country, have done virtually nothing to reduce emissions.

While a majority of the Irish public say they want to do more on climate change, most worry about the costs involved. Given the obsessive focus on costs rather than benefits of climate action among economists in particular, this is hardly surprising.

Astonishingly, only six per cent of people surveyed think the climate crisis is the biggest issue they face. It is hard to believe that only a month ago UN secretary general Antonio Gutteres told the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow that we are collectively “digging our own graves” by failing to confront the deadly threat of climate collapse. Nor was this a figure of speech. “Either we stop it, or it stops us”, Gutteres warned.

In May 2019, Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Since then, we have been engaged in a sort of a Phoney War, one dominated by rhetoric rather than concrete action.

Some of the key building blocks, such as the Climate Act and the Climate Action Plan, have however now been put into place, but without strong public support based on a clear understanding of the dangers of doing nothing, there is little chance of any of our climate targets being met.

And, as recent efforts in the Seanad to resuscitate peat mining have shown, political cynicism and opportunism continue to undermine national resolve on climate and biodiversity protection.

Imagine for a moment that in March 2020, as the covid crisis unfolded, the government had simply not bothered rolling out an integrated media plan to forcefully communicate the nature of the threat and to win public consent for the painful actions needed to limit the pandemic. Our measures to contain the virus would almost certainly have failed and thousands of people alive today in Ireland would have died.

A senior government source accepts that a strong, all-of-government communications plan would be the difference between success or failure on our 2030 targets, adding that “resources and a (communications) plan for 2022 are now in place”.

They were unable to provide me with details on the exact budget, but it is expected to be initially moderate and to grow over time. Moves to bring climate literacy into the school curriculum are also being finalised.

Meanwhile, anachronisms abound in the system. State broadcaster, RTÉ, which comes under the remit of minister Martin, remains in business-as-usual mode, running fossil fuel and dairy industry sponsorship of its weather forecasts. Car and airline advertising and sponsorship is widespread in both state and commercial media outlets.

In the era of rapidly shrinking carbon budgets and with irreversible climate breakdown almost within touching distance, the public is bombarded online and in print and broadcast media with hundreds of messages every day encouraging ever more consumption. Small wonder most people still have absolutely no conception of how close we are now to the very catastrophe this relentless consumption is fuelling.

It is unlikely that this deluge of advertising is going to spontaneously stop, or be regulated out of existence. The state must therefore use these same media channels to pump out powerful, consistent messaging setting out the reality of what we face but also the clear opportunity to build a fairer, safer future for all.

In the 1920s, our forebears struggled to shape a new Ireland from the ashes of empire. The challenge for the 2020s is no less formidable. A low carbon revolution this decade is genuinely possible, but it requires steely political resolve and public and media buy-in to make it happen.

The story of who we are and what we value has for decades been commandeered by corporations and marketeers eager to define us as atomised consumers.

Now is the time to create a new narrative, one built around communities of citizens engaged with one another and reconnected to the natural world around us. Is a better, simpler future really so hard to contemplate?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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