We are not materialist enough

While reading Juliet Schor’s book “Plenitude”, I was struck by a quote that she presents in part in the book. The quote is from Raymond Williams’ “Advertising: The Magic System”:

“It is often said that our society is too materialist, and that advertising reflects this. We are in the phase of a relatively rapid distribution of what are called ‘consumer goods’, and advertising, with its emphasis on ‘bringing the good things of life’, is taken as central for this reason. But it seems to me that in this respect our society is quite evidently not materialist enough, and that this, paradoxically is the result of a failure in social meaning, values and ideals.” [1]

Of course, when most of us refer to materialism, we are thinking about an orientation toward consumer goods, often with a obsessional focus on their symbolic values. But Williams raises a critical point, one that is key to our inaction on climate change. Although we are clearly fixated on consumer goods, we are so completely disconnected from their production that have nearly lost sight of their materiality.

The idea that we are disconnected from the means of production is in no way a new idea, of course. In the 1970’s Wendell Berry wrote that “specialization” in our societal roles was responsible for many of the problems, environmental and otherwise, that arose in the industrial era and beyond. As Michael Pollan wrote about Berry’s work:

“Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.”[2]

When we consider the activities of humans in totality, each of us as individuals is responsible for only a tiny fraction of the knowledge and skill required to complete those activities. For example, few of us know how to fly a modern commercial jet airliner. But even those who do, have only a rudimentary idea of how the engines are put together, how the fan blades are cast, how the metal from which they are cast was mined, and so forth. The more complicated our built world becomes, the more disconnected we become from all of the details that comprise the “big picture.”

Specialization is what allows to have jet airliners and all of the other wonders of modern civilization. But Pollan and Berry point out that the unintended consequences loom large. Pollan writes:

“Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.”

Pollan goes on to write that cheap energy is what allowed us to achieve and maintain this degree of specialization. Inexpensive fossil fuel allows us to pay others to produce our food for us and ship it long distances. As a thought experiment he asks us to consider what happens when the power goes out. Immediately we begin to think of all the things that we need to do for ourselves. We also begin to think about whether our neighbors are experiencing the same problem. In short, when energy is withdrawn from the equation of our daily lives, our connection to the community zooms into clearer focus. By artificially manipulating the cost of fossil fuel, we are making it so cheap that we can afford to hide from view the enormous costs of production.

f*ck Shell

What is the solution? Ultimately, perhaps there is no systematic solution given our planet’s overpopulation with humans. How can billions ever agree? It may be that as Wendell Berry said specialization is a “disease of modern character” and the solution lies in each of us becoming just a little less specialized and a little less dependent on consuming in a way that ignores the real costs of production.

  1. Williams, Raymond. “Advertising: The Magic System”. The Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader. Eds. McAllister, Matthew P., and Joseph Turow. New York: Routledge, 2009. 13-24.

  2. Pollan, Michael. “Why bother?”. The New York Times 2008 April, 2008. Web. 15 Jun. 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/magazine/20wwln-lede-t.html Link