As the global pandemic continues to reshape whole economies and the lives of populations, normal consumer behaviour has been suddenly altered. The focus has been on maintaining provision of only essential goods and services to reduce infection rates, burdens on health services and to save lives. With even online shopping affected by workplace restrictions normal consumer culture has hit pause. In doing so, it presents huge economic challenges, but has also spurred many people to seek satisfaction in other ways, seeing a shift from passive consumerism towards being more active cultural producers. What are the implications for rapid transition in a post-pandemic world?
The search for human happiness is part of the human condition and famously forms a basis of constitutions, not only in the US, but in nations as diverse as Japan, Korea, Bhutan and France. Throughout history and across cultures, once the basic needs of food and shelter have been taken care of, people have sought enjoyment, satisfaction and connection through a range of activities we call culture. Traditionally these were music, dance, art, singing, craftwork and playing games. More recently, they have included consuming a huge amount of products made outside our homes and for which we must work ever longer hours in order to pay for. Constant shopping has become a passtime – resulting in what psychologist Olive James calls “The Affluenza Virus” – an activity that feeds anxiety and creates dissatisfaction. Our modern industrial society has successfully placed the acquisition of possessions at the top of the pyramid, driving consumption up and generating what the authors of Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth call “the deeply unsatisfying hedonic treadmill”.
Governments have actively encouraged this. Indeed, in the wake of financial crises of 2007-8, one of the first responses is to drive a new wave of consumer spending, driving up personal indebtedness. Likewise, corporations encourage it through advertising to create new ‘needs’ and desires and generate demand for new products.
This has left us in an unsustainable position, where rich countries have reached “peak stuff’ and are struggling to remove the mountains of waste they cannot recycle, while poorer nations wishing to emulate this wealth are now being discouraged – unfairly but understandably – from wanting the same. Disposable fashion is one of the largest industries in the world with annual revenues of around 1.5 trillion dollars, creating carbon emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year, which is more than the total for aviation. Its environmental impacts go further, including over 92 million tonnes of annual waste and the use of 1.5 trillion litres of water, plus chemical pollution. And many people are so far beyond food as a basic need, that one third of all food produced gets wasted. Food waste is now responsible for an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions globally, equal to the amount from tourism. This heady consumption has failed to stem unhappiness, discontent and mental illness such as depression. In fact, quite the contrary. Inequality seems to be increasing in many societies, creating a feedback loop that erodes trust, increases anxiety and encourages more superfluous consumption.
To transition rapidly to a low carbon future, shifting away from consumption at today’s levels will be hard to avoid. With many economies re-geared during the coronavirus crisis to focus on the delivery of only what are considered ‘essential goods and services’, volumes of road haulage dropped dramatically giving a glimpse of a world with changed consumption patterns but leaving businesses in need of bail outs. Long term reductions would need to be planned around converting industries and protecting the livelihoods of workforces.
However, this does not necessarily mean a hair shirt or retrogressive step; instead it could mean taking the best from our interconnected world and using this to enhance our daily lives. There is much to learn from existing examples that might help us shift from being consumers of stuff to producers of culture; from passive consumption to an engaged creativity that is far more accessible to all. Early examples of how this is already happening range from the return of craftwork (now called crafting which has several manifestations, some explicitly about being more sustainable, others hard to distinguish from other forms of consumerism), to a process of ‘re-skilling’ highly visible in learning from others via Youtube (although internet access is not available to all), the increase in local food and culture festivals (literature, music and art) and community choirs.
Recently, the way in which COVID-19 has forced people to literally turn inwards and look for entertainment at home has amplified this trend, leading to an outpouring of free art classes, singalongs and free concerts, craft activities, shared storytelling and baking together.
In Nigeria, international footballer Desire Oparanozie has developed an entire workout using just four pairs of shoes in a hallway.
Around the world, street artists made the most of the silent streets to make art commenting on our isolation and supporting the public health messages to aid communication. In Senegal, a collective of graffiti artists have offered up their spray cans to the cause of public health. Black and yellow block letters on city walls spell out the message “Together against COVID-19,” and “A big thank you to the caregivers,” is drawn out next to the government’s health hotline on a high school wall. Lists of how to keep sane in isolation appeared online, with everything from practical ideas such as making your own washable toilet paper and servicing your pushbike, to writing poetry or hand-carving an avocado stone.
The Marsh family of six in the UK set their own coronavirus words to a song from the stage show, Les Miserables, receiving 7.5 million hits on Facebook and bringing joy to many.
The family received some 62,000 comments, with many from front-line health workers and even people in hospitals who say it helped cheer them up. A UK community choir moved online, using the mute button on meeting software to enable everyone to sing along in their own homes, despite the slight delay caused by the technology. This enabled them to maintain social contact – one of the most important benefits of joining a choir.
People are once again generating cultural activities together in a way that was normal until perhaps the mid 20th Century and is still the norm in many cultures around the world. The internet is allowing people to share ideas and experiences about how to spend time together at home – and many of these do not involve spending money. This opens the opportunity for us to change the emphasis of how we spend our time from once-in-a-lifetime experiences that usually involve polluting travel overseas, to making an experience from what’s to hand.
People are re-learning from this crisis how powerful and joyful it can be to make low-budget fun with friends and family. Will we slide back into bad old ways once the restrictions are lifted and the full force of marketing and merchandising returns?
Perhaps the biggest threat to our future landscape is the way the crisis has consolidated the dominance of large delivery wholesalers and retailers like Amazon and the supermarkets during this current crisis. Amazon has taken on an additional 100,000 staff in the US alone to fulfil the additional orders it is receiving, presumably from people who would usually purchase these items in person at shops. If this trend continues after the crisis is over, towns and cities across the world will be hollowed out as high street retail struggles to return. There have been many calls – amid the constant TV monitoring and lauding of supermarkets – to remember your small, local firms who may still be producing and even delivering. Many firms who have not previously delivered to customers may decide to continue, developing a new local delivery service that used to be normal until the rise of supermarkets in the 1980s.
This example of culture as something participated in by a broad swathe of the general public in an active and largely unorganised way, using music and mass participation, is not a new idea. According to historian Barbara Ehrenreich, the human race has for at least 10,000 years, abandoned the hard diurnal grind of work at regular and officially sanctioned intervals, and taken to the streets. Accompanied by drums and pipes, people donned masks and costumes, and sang and danced, even whirling faster and faster in circles, until a climactic state of shared bliss was attained. Much invigorated, they would return to work and their everyday life. In the West, this habit persisted until around the 13th and 14th Centuries; it was finally stamped out by the 17th Century, largely by the church as it turned toward more puritan beliefs at the same time that wider economic changes saw the beginning of the rise of capital and industry and the relegation of more household and smallholder production. Ehrenreich goes so far as to describe Christianity as originally a “danced religion” until church officials drove these chaotic and sensual festivities into the streets. Protestants criminalised carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, and European colonisers wiped out native dance rites. Ehrenreich claims that melancholy (depression) grew fourfold at least partly as a result. Western Christian missionaries enacted this same process on conquered peoples across the globe, suppressing the tribal song and dance practices that effectively maintained psychic and social balance. The very phrase used by the South African Namaqua tribe for “one who converts to Christianity” was “one who has given up dancing”.
Ehrenreich posits that the elites were fearful such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies – and that perhaps this was justified: she suggests the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and uprisings from the Caribbean to the American plains. The state’s fear of group revelry persists, from responses to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion, the criminalisation of rave culture in the 1990s and the recent on-street celebrations of Extinction Rebellion. Many of these movements have quickly been co-opted; capitalism is good at spotting what people love and making them pay for it, so free festivals have become very pricey festivals and dancing in the street has become paid entrance to an exclusive and expensive club. But global movements such as Transition Towns, local food festivals and the Slow Food movement have continued to demonstrate the joy in simple, shared – and often free or low cost – activities.
The coronavirus stay-at-home regime has taken things much further by forcing people to look to their own resources in a radical shift. This is the kind of social experiment that could never happen in normal circumstances because who would be willing to live under such constraints for such long periods? For many, structured work has gone overnight (along with formal school), and although some people are frustrated and bored, it is possible that they are also becoming more creative and imaginative. After all, there has been much research linking boredom – provided you are not constantly flicking through your phone looking for stimulation – to increased creativity.
It will be interesting to see if the effects of this profound social change will be lasting or whether we will revert quickly to the norms of pre-coronavirus times as soon as the restrictions are lifted. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. Depending on how long people stay in “lockdown” could have some bearing on whether new habits form. For example, shopping only for essentials rather than constantly browsing, mending something rather than simply buying a new one, or going out for food and drink and entertainment rather than seeing friends and family at home. The restriction on going out for exercise could actually result in people exercising more or more regularly than normal too.
We have long known that happiness and health are connected, and that material consumption is not the answer. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, wrote about the importance of a “life well lived” – a concept hard to define but one that many people feel they understand instinctively. It speaks to more than comfort and desirable possessions, and includes a sense of greater purpose outside of oneself. In 1943, Abraham Maslow described in detail his “hierarchy of needs”, in which physiological needs are met first and the pinnacle is “self-actualisation”, including such indescribables as creativity and spontaneity – not commodities that can be bought off the shelf.
However, modern capitalism worked hard to convince us first that happiness will come as a result of acquiring commodities. And then, as we began to realise how quickly the sense of satisfaction from acquisition fades, marketeers focused on convincing us that we can buy attributes – either through training and educating ourselves (this is usually the result of an exclusive and expensive courses) or by experiencing something incredible. An endless shopping list is now available for those who already have everything they need; swimming with dolphins, going on a luxurious retreat, altering your own body with plastic surgery, or flying through the mountains strapped to a jetpack – even going into space is now an experience that can be bought. Moving from the consumption of products to experiences is not necessarily a lower carbon result if the novel, extraordinary nature of the experiences involves long-haul travel, invading isolated places, endangering species, driving high-octane fossil fuel vehicles and consuming rare materials.
The arrival of coronavirus has created extraordinary conditions in which people in many countries are in “lockdown’ – unable to leave their homes or meet anyone from outside their household without standing at least 2 metres away from them, and going out only to shop for food or to take exercise. The presence of the internet has allowed us to see a great deal of what normally happens behind closed doors, with people from heads of state downwards working from home and relying on virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and Skype to work and carry out social activities with those outside their household. Where it was once a novelty to see inside someone’s home office – such as the time, much shared on social media, when an expert, Robert Kelly, was interviewed by the BBC at his home office in Busan, Korea, and being interrupted by his children – this would be completely unremarkable today. Presenters are regularly working from their own dining rooms and famous footballers are doing workouts on their kitchen floors.
Of course, cameras can mislead, and many people are suffering as a result of the current circumstances, but it will be surprising if there is no legacy from such seismic shifts in our collective ways of operating, with even key lobbyists for the car industry predicting long term shifts with travelling for work much reduced. During the Second World War, patterns of consumption changed enormously as a result of rationing and blockades of imports. People changed their behaviour in line with the broader aims of society and to share resources more fairly. Although they were delighted and relieved after the war to enjoy foods and other luxuries again after such a long drought, that generation retained a pattern of making do and mending, not being wasteful, being grateful for small things and sharing for the communal good. These behaviours were normal and they could become so again.