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Alternative Hedonism

Environmentalism can aim for both a ‘simpler’ and more pleasurable post-consumerist life

alternative hedonism kate soper

Although we accept that we are responsible for climate change, we refuse to see the opportunity it provides for creating ways of living that are both better for the environment and more enjoyable for us.  This is not just true of the general public but also of economists and other ‘experts’ who take global warming very seriously but cannot think beyond the technical fixes that might allow us to continue with our current ways.  Most politicians and business leaders seem likewise incapable of thinking ‘outside the box’ of consumerism.   

Obsessed as they are with economic growth and GDP,  they do not invite the electorate to think about other ideas of progress and prosperity, and are more than happy for advertisers to retain their monopoly over the imagery and representation of pleasure and the ‘good life’.   

Even the left-wing critics of capitalism have been more bothered about the inequalities of access and distribution it creates than about the ways it confines us to market-driven ways of living. Labour militancy and trade union activity in the West have  been largely confined to protection of income and employees’ rights within the existing structures of globalised capital, and done little to challenge, let alone transform, the ‘work and spend’ dynamic of affluent cultures.  

Even when the left has addressed issues of need and consumption more directly, it has tended to opt for patronising and ‘simple life’ accounts of human need and fulfilment, rather than think  more imaginatively about the complexities and potentialities of human pleasure, and the baroque and enriching directions these might take in a post-capitalist society. 

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"The presumption that more sustainable consumption will always involve sacrifice rather than improve well-being needs challenging."

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But the presumption across the political spectrum that more sustainable consumption will always involve sacrifice rather than improve well-being needs challenging.  

Our so-called ‘good life’ is now recognised to be a major cause of stress and ill health.  It is very noisy, polluting and wasteful.  Its work routines and commercial priorities have forced people to gear everything to job-seeking and career, and mean that many, for most of their lives, begin their days in traffic jams or suffering other forms of commuter discomfort, and then spend much of the rest of them glued to the computer screen, often engaged in mind-numbing tasks.  

A good part of our lives’ productive activity is designed to lock time into the creating a material culture of continuous home improvement, urban sprawl, ever faster production turnovers and built-in obsolescence. In other words, to exclude more worthy, enduring or entrancing forms of human fulfilment. Our current system also profits hugely from selling back to us the goods and services we have too little time or space to provide for ourselves (consider here the role of the fast food, leisure and therapy industries or the gyms where we pay to treadmill walk because the car-culture has made walking elsewhere so impossible or unpleasant). 

Greens get dismissed as regressive kill-joys bent on returning us to the Stone Age, yet the work-dominated, time-scarce and junk-ridden ‘affluence’ of today is itself in many respects puritanical and sensually offensive. Nor does much of it correspond to an innate desire in ourselves to constantly work and consume more.  If it did, the billions spent on advertising and grooming children for a life of consumption would hardly be necessary. 

Growing numbers of people are coming to realise this, and find upon reflection that there is more to life than ‘work and spend’. Disenchanted with their high-stress lifestyle, they are beginning to revise ideas of what they most value and desire. That we hanker after something else, and would enjoy it more, is supported by recent research which shows that  more wealth does not necessarily make us happier, and suggests there is something inherently self-defeating in the pursuit of ever more consumption. 

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"Greens get dismissed as regressive kill-joys bent on returning us to the Stone Age, yet the work-dominated, time-scarce and junk-ridden ‘affluence’ of today is itself in many respects puritanical and sensually offensive."

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It is true that the research needs to be treated with caution.  What we report about our degree of satisfaction is not always the best guide as to how we are actually faring.  Nor does the lack of a correlation between higher income and increased reported life satisfaction always mean that more consumption has not improved well-being.  This is because the standards we use assessing our level of satisfaction may themselves become more stringent as our life experience changes with increased income.  Experience and education can improve our sense of freedom and personal potential precisely by generating discontent with our existing life situation. As we learn a new skill, it often makes for new forms of frustration and demands on the self (the better we become at a given sport or playing a musical instrument the more aware we are of what is lacking in our performance).

What, then, should count in the estimation of the ‘good life’ – the intensity of its more isolated moments of pleasure or its overall level of contentment?  The avoidance of pain and difficulty or their successful overcoming?  And who is best placed to decide on whether personal well-being has increased:  is this entirely a matter of personal report, or open to more objective appraisal?

Such issues have long been at the centre of debates between Utilitarian and Aristotelian approaches to thinking about well-being. Where the emphasis of the former is on pleasure and its quantification (what should count in estimating happiness is the number of pleasures experienced or pains avoided), the Aristotelian  focus has been on the overall course of a life (what you have been enabled to do with it, and hence on capacities, functions and achievements rather than more immediate feelings of gratification).  

In defence of their stance, Aristotelians will argue that  people are not always the best judges of their own well-being and that much immediate pleasure can be had from behaviour that is self-destructive.  Moreover, if we disallow any objective assessments of the ‘good life’ we shall also be deprived of grounds to criticise selfish and environmentally vandalising forms of pleasure seeking. It has also been claimed, relatedly, that a ‘happiness’ conceived or measured in terms of subjective feeling discourages the development of the sense of citizenship and inter-generational solidarity essential to social and environmental well-being.

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"The alternative hedonist perspective seeks to open up a post-consumerist optic on the ‘good life’"

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Yet the more Utilitarian approach need not exclude the civically oriented forms of pleasure that come with consuming in ways that are responsible to others and to the environment. After all, the pleasure of many activities, like riding a bike, includes both the more immediately personal sensual enjoyments and those which come from not contributing to the danger and pollution of car transport. Moreover, it is difficult in the last analysis to legitimate claims about someone’s well-being without some measure of endorsement from the person in question.

There is, then, a tension in discussions of hedonism and the ‘good life’ between the Utilitarian privileging of experienced pleasure and the more objective bias of the Aristotelian tradition.  Where the former risks overlooking the more objective constituents of the ‘good life’ and the ‘good society’, the latter does justice to those constituents but runs the risk of patronage, even of condoning the superior knowingness of ‘experts’ over individuals themselves.  

But to accept the complexity of gauging claims about the quality of life and personal satisfaction is one thing.  To deny that there is any evidence today of the self-defeating nature of ever expanding consumption would be quite another, and both sides to the hedonist debate are, in fact, in general agreement that happiness does not lie in the endless accumulation of more stuff. And although it cannot – and does not – aspire to resolve the philosophical issues in this area, the alternative hedonist perspective highlights the narratives about pleasure and well-being that are implicit in the emerging forms of disaffection with affluent culture. It thus seeks to open up a post-consumerist optic on the ‘good life’ which can hook up with the feelings of consumers in the here and now.  

‘Alternative hedonism’ in this sense tries to avoid moralising about what people ought to need or want (although I accept it maybe can’t be avoided altogether…) while relating to new forms of anti-consumerist response.  Its main interest is thus (to invoke a concept of the cultural critic Raymond Williams,) in an emerging ‘structure of feeling’ that is at once both troubled by forms of consumption that were previously taken for granted, aware of former pleasures gone missing, and sensing for the first time the summons of another way of living.  

As the planet heats, we need a political response that appeals to this ‘structure of feeling’. Its support will challenge the stranglehold of the work ethic on the Western way of life, and campaign for a socio-economic order in which work and income are more fairly distributed, co-parenting and part-time work become the norm, and everyone has the means and time for sustainable forms of activity and life-enhancement.

If we were to shift to a less work-intensive economy, it would reduce the rate at which people, goods and information had to be delivered or transmitted, and the impact on resource attrition and carbon emissions would be matched by huge benefits for ourselves.  We would reclaim time for personal and family life.  We would commute less and enjoy healthier ways of travelling such as walking, cycling and boating. Supermarket and online shopping would cede to a resurgence in high street retailing, thus avoiding the ‘clone town’ syndrome and boosting local communities in ways that could reduce crime and foster new forms of conviviality and inter-generational exchange.  

All this would transform urban and rural living, especially for children, and provide more tranquil space for reflection, and opportunities for sensual experience denied by harried and insulated travel and work routines.  And the costs would be negligible relative to those incurred by current provision, especially if one factors in the medical expenses to be saved through better public health and fewer accidents.   

There are, of course, some conveniences and pleasures that would have to be sacrificed in a low carbon economy:  creature comforts of various kinds; some of the thrills of fast-paced living; the ease with which we have recently gratified the passion for foreign travel.  But constant comfort can dull as well as gratify appetites.  Human ingenuity will surely contrive a range of more eco-friendly excitements. Even far-flung travel does not always live up to its promise of providing exceptional experience, and the differing rhythm of holidays taken closer to home can also prove the source of unexpected forms of enchantment and escape from mundanity. 

Shifting to a post-consumerist way of living is a daunting prospect given the integrated structure of modern existence and the subordination of national economies to the globalised system.  Yet it is also unrealistic to suppose that we can continue with current rates of expansion of production, work and material consumption over coming decades let alone into the next century. Greener technologies will help to counter global warming.  But the implementation of alternatives to the growth economy has to become a more central concern of planning and policy making, rather than be ignored or dismissed as unworkable fantasy. And in a climate of financial turmoil and extensive cynicism about government commitments on global warming, more honesty about this might well win greater cooperation and respect on the part of the electorate – especially if it were accompanied by imaginative representation of the fullfilments of living in a sustainable society.  These revised ideas of the ‘good life’ might also figure as ideals through which less developed countries could reconsider the conventions and goals of ‘development’ itself and thereby avoid some of the less desirable consequences of the currently dominant model.  

My argument on alternative hedonism is frequently rejected as utopian.  But there is also something quite unrealistic about the ‘business as usual’ projection of the future.  And given the urgent need today for a politics of prosperity that dissociates pleasure and fulfilment from resource-intensive consumption, it is important to avoid fanciful  assumptions about what would constitute globally sustainable forms of industry and lifestyle. We surely cannot today advocate equal, universal access to Western affluent standards of living.  Demands for full employment, the end of austerity and economic security for all have to be coupled with demands for the expansion of free time, the slowing down of the economy, and the establishment of an order based on an essentially reproductive form of material consumption. The reconceptualisation of ‘progress’ along these lines should now provide the frame in which to think about the work arrangements and political institutions of a socially just and viable future.  

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