Consumerism and the importance of values

October’s Open Meeting was about “Consumerism”: Why do we consume so much? And is it really all that bad?

We started with a Think-and-Listen exercise to reflect on how we each see the consumerist society we live in. At the end, everybody was asked to write down on a post-it something negative and something positive we associate with consumerism. The word cloud below shows what was written (positives have a plus sign in front).

The answers seem to reveal our dilemma: we know well what’s not good about consumerism but the problem is big and we are worried about our economy (mentioned equally as positive an negative) and, most of all, about employment.

We then watched the film “The Story of Stuff” with Annie Leonard. If you weren’t there or want to see the film again, you can view it on YouTube here (it’s a short film, only about 20 minutes)

Tracking our “stuff” from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to disposal, the film explains how running a linear system in a finite world, focusing on producing ever more stuff in a manner that neither respects the environment nor the majority of people, is causing a range of environmental and social issues. And ever increasing consumption sits at the heart of this system, as the engine that drives it and keeps it going.

The message was clear: we are facing a big problem, a system in crisis.

However, as Annie concluded the film: “the good thing about such an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention, and there are already many people working to reclaim and transform this linear system into something new, a system that doesn’t waste resources or people.”

“Because what we really need to chuck is this old-school throw-away mindset. There’s a new school of thinking on this stuff and it’s based on sustainability and equity: Green Chemistry, Zero Waste, Closed Loop Production, Renewable Energy, Local living Economies. It’s already happening.”

“Some people say it’s unrealistic, idealistic, that it can’t happen. But I say the ones who are unrealistic are those that want to continue on the old path. That’s dreaming.”

“Remember that old way didn’t just happen by itself. It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it. And we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

After the film, we had a discussion about how we can transform our culture of consumption and waste into a culture that prioritizes social and ecological wellbeing.

It’s difficult to summarise what was said in the discussion, but one of the things we seemed to agree on was the importance of values as guides for our behaviour, and the need to shift our values to create the lasting substantial behavioural change required to address peak oil and climate change.

It so happens that several NGOs (WWF, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam ea) have commissioned research on values in recent years, and several interesting reports were published on this subject last year. We didn’t discuss this in any depth at the Open Meeting, but those interested can find links to the most recent reports in the Resources section below (see Common Cause Report and Handbook).

Resources:

  • Watch “The Story of Stuff” via our YouTube Channel  (ironically, Google/YouTube sometimes adds an advert before the movie)
  • The website storyofstuff.com website has lots of supporting material, including:
    • a referenced and annotated script of the film, i.e. the full text of the film with footnotes  with links to the journals, newspapers and websites that were used to research it
    • suggestions on what to do to address the problems identified in the film
    • resources for facilitating learning and action
    • links to NGOs.
  • The storyofstuff.com website has evolved since 2007 into “The Story of Stuff Project” and now offers further movies on more specific topics like cosmetics, bottled water etc.
  • For information and research on the importance of values, see the valuesandframes.org website, especially:
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