Dr Maurie Cohen, Associate Professor, New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA: The role of cognitive dissonance in the transition to a post-consumerist future
This talk was given at the Consensus Conference 2012 - for further information on this research project, which is a cross-border analysis of Consumption, Environment and Sustainability in Ireland, see http://www.consensus.ie/
Maurie began his presentation by arguing that post-World War II fordist consumer society was, more than anything else, built on several fortuitous sociodemographic trends, including a relatively youthful and growing population, decreasing income inequality due to relatively progressive apportionment of economic growth, increasing metropolitan decentralization (suburbanization) and expanding automobile utilization. However, he then argued that this tide was shifting. The financial crisis and its aftermath have indicated that sociodemographic trends are now shifting. Increasing income inequality and associated decline of the middle class, ageing populations, declining suburbanisation and increasing urbanization and declining automobile utilization signify the decline and fall of a Fordist consumer model. The coalescence of these trends prompts Maurie to question whether they signify the end of consumerist society and the move towards an era of postconsumerism?
In relation to the political and economic landscape in the aftermath of the financial crises, Cohen highlighted that while it is common to hear that the Irish case is idiosyncratic, similar experiences are manifesting in other economies such as Spain, Portugal, Japan and the US. At what point do we acknowledge that all of these cases in combination constitute a common trend where we can assert with some confidence that the post-World War II consumption regime is nearing its end? What insights does Japan—a country grappling with the challenges of economic contraction for a generation—hold for Europe and the United States? Might Japan be the leading edge of a more expansive process of economic transition? Reflecting on lessons learned, Maurie argued that in the absence of political efforts to invigorate stagnating wages and to restore full employment, public investment, and progressive taxation there is little prospect of reverting back to the preexisting mass consumption system. "Sustainable" consumption (in the strong sense of reductions in resource throughput) is more likely under conditions of privation than of affluence. At the same time, he warned that we should not underestimate the extent to which the weltanschauung of consumerism is embedded in contemporary culture.
Concluding, Maurie promoted researchers to consider the following questions: How much scope is there to shape an emergent era of postconsumerism? Is it possible to avoid nostalgic idealizations premised on romantic repeasantization? How might we envision a conception of progressive postconsumerism? In the absence of the financial means to participate in marketized economic activities, non-market modes of exchange are getting activated. Do these initiatives have potential to scale up and endure? What is the relationship between the existing (global) market economy and the emergent (local) non-market economy? Noting that the ingredients of postconsumerism are likely to be urban agriculture, self and communal provisioning, labor reskilling, infrastructural retrofitting, low-carbon technologies, carbon rationing, and hyperconnected modes of social interaction, he highlighted that future efforts should formulate imaginaries of how these pieces could be constructively assembled.