Searching for happiness at the bottom of a shopping bag

It’s a Saturday afternoon in March, and tens of thousands of citizens gather at the Amnesty International Action Centre to consider the insidious issue of overconsumption. Meanwhile, across town 450 consumers are doing what they do best on Oxford Street.

Okay, so I got those numbers the wrong way round, but I can dream. I also got the sense that the 449-ish others with me at the ‘Buying Useless Sh*t’ talk, shared this dream. The subtitle of the talk was ‘Why we do it and how we can stop’. Our speakers Neal Lawson, Kate Soper, Patrick Bond and Kate Pickett did their best to enlighten us on this matter.

The reasons why we do it are numerous, and complex. We are being told to consume everywhere we look and it is a very seductive option. We work long hours, we are stressed, and we believe that retail therapy can assuage this. We define each other using judgements based on the material. We also have a high level of inequality of income in the UK and this drives us to consume more. But this way of operating isn’t sustainable. Especially not within society as a whole. As the population grows and grows and we consume more and more…it doesn’t look as though it will end well, does it?

So, how in the name of Nike can we stop?

Well, we could downsize, use local currency, walk not drive, get involved in a skill share program, seek more fulfillment in our relationships with friends and family. If you’re too busy for all that then perhaps a reduction in the working week would help.

We also need to make consumerism distasteful to those who worship at its altar. One way of doing this, it is suggested, is using art. I would argue that one very famous artist, Banksy, is already well known and loved for doing this. But in this contradictory world we live in, he is also a commodity. There is also the artist Barbara Kruger. But she herself got in bed with the big boys in a collaboration with Selfridges. So we’ve been out-double-thunk again. It’s a wicked web they weave!

But I digress. Our speakers go on to tell us that a shift isn’t going to be easy. And it’s made all the more difficult as mainstream thinking is in denial about this problem. What we need is a vision, and not one dreamed up by an advertising agency for evil means. We need an alternative model of prosperity. We also need to go to the mode of production itself. It’s beginning to sound trickier. Like ‘turning a tank in a goldfish bowl’ in fact. And one of the issues staring right back at us in the reflection of our shiny appliances, is that we ourselves are a huge part of the problem. So the change needs to start with each and every one of us.

As we near the end of the talk, Kate Pickett tells us that she would happily exchange a jar of her home made marmalade for a Thai massage, when a member of the audience states he possesses that particular skill to share. Well, I think to myself, it’s a start.

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