Of community and consumption


A lot more hygge, please…

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This blog was sparked by an article by Shamubeel Equab in Sunday’s Star Times, aptly titled in the print edition “A little more hygge, please”.  Eaqub is always worth reading – he is that rare beast, an economist who can think clearly.

He notes that New Zealand scores very highly on the UN’s “World Happiness Report”.  (He also leaves Australia out of his list of the top ten, presumably out of respect for a country currently in national mourning along with its senior cricketers.)

He goes on to say that, to maintain this state, while it is important to keep investing in key social services, we also need to think about how we can develop our own, New Zealand, “hygge”.  “Hygge” rhymes with “cougar”, more or less.  It is a Danish word for high quality social interaction – even “cosiness”.  Eaqub says that hygge “can overcome a tendency for individualism to make people isolated, lonely or divided”.

If you want to read more about this, and about the other reasons Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries regularly rank very highly in well-being and happiness measures, you might enjoy “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”, a funny, often disrespectful, but finally supportive, description of some of their attitudes and behaviours.

It is my contention that increasing individualism, or decreasing hygge if you like, is our greatest cultural scourge, not only in New Zealand, but across much of the affluent world.  And it is intimately linked with our great environmental and economic scourge, over-consumption.

Over the last three decades we have been relentlessly sold two key neoliberal myths, that life is a competitive race for individual domination, and that maximising individual ownership and consumption is the route to happiness.  Our television screens are flooded with win/lose programmes – talent, quiz and “reality” shows where we are encouraged to cheer on our favourites, and to scorn the weaknesses of the others.  We have been made addicts to individual consumables – alcohol, sugar, fuel for private cars, smart phones and more – by corporations preying on our weaknesses in pursuit of  their own profit.  I call the effect of all this the “comfort trap”, and you can read more about it here.

Facebook, which claimed to be helping us build community has been shown to be an acquisitive, intrusive, lying, thief of our information.  Its “communitarianism” is shallow and incomplete – while it clearly helps people to communicate and form communities in some sense, it also encourages narrow and self-serving behaviour by allowing us to pick and choose how we present ourselves far more easily than if we actually spend time with others.  Its main aim is to get us to commune with it.

And don’t get me started on smartphones as an “aid to community”.  Of course, they give us instant communication and great access to information.  But you all see the daily reality of their use in the affluent world – the individuals focussing on their phones and not the world around them, the groups sitting together making love to their phones instead of conversation with their friends – and studies are beginning to show that they are actually addictive.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is still a massive amount of positive community interaction and activity – it is what holds society together – and some of it is through information technology.  But it is being eroded, and in the United States (already the most individualistic country in the world), its erosion is showing more clearly than elsewhere.  What was community (us working things out together) is becoming tribalism (us against them) and alienation (the world against me).

And the balance doesn’t have to shift a long way before it has irreversible effects – we don’t need to all become extreme individualists for society to change dramatically for the worse.  Military “decimation” gives a graphic example of this – most people think it means “near-complete destruction”.  It actually means “loss of one tenth of your forces”, which is considered the tipping point for loss of a battle or war.  You don’t need to completely destroy a thing to change it substantially – just move it past a tipping point.

There are plenty of signs that we are getting closer to tipping points into a much less desirable society, one which is increasingly divided and aggressive.

We each and every one have to make a conscious effort to become, or remain, highly community focussed.  We have to wear the badge of “communitarian” proudly.  And, as a basis for this, we should invest in a lot more hygge.

The photo above is of a Maori “hangi” – food prepared in a covered pit of heated stones, and then shared, usually among large numbers of people at social events.  Eaqub suggest that hygge is “a bit like the Kiwi traditions of gathering round the barbecue or getting together at the beach.”  The hangi is the ultimate New Zealand barbecue (and by the way, [a] I have never eaten hangi food that wasn’t melt-in-mouth delicious [b] Maori  remain far more community conscious than Pakeha).

This doesn’t mean we should stop or avoid confronting and challenging the obvious wrongs in our society – the risks of “too much hygge” are that we retreat entirely into the comfortable world of barbecues (or, for the suited, wine and cheese), and/or go tribal against those outside our immediate circle.

But hygge creates social cohesion and comfort, which leads to a sense of personal safety and certainty, which can increase community engagement and give us space to engage as citizens rather than individualistic consumers.  Lots more of it, please.

…and less consumption.

More barbecues (or wine and cheese), yes.  But less of pretty much all other consumables.

It was a crucial moment for me when I realised that the world’s current problem with sustainability was the consumption of the affluent societies, the 1.5 billion living largely in Europe, North America and Australasia.  If all 7 billion of us lived at the affluent world’s standards, it would take three Earths to sustain us.  The poorer 5.5 billion consume far less, well within the Earth’s capacity.

So population is a problem ONLY in the sense that the Earth could only sustain about 2.5 billion living at our current affluent standards.  Yet our current model and narrative is economic growth for the poor, towards our standards, while maintaining our own growth.

There are only two possible solutions to this problem – eliminate 4.5 billion (and the poor might have something to say about which 4.5 billion should be eliminated – eat the rich first, perhaps?), or accept a lower level of consumption in the affluent world.  My estimate is that a standard of living roughly equivalent to 1960s New Zealand is sustainable for 7-9 billion people.  If we achieved that, population growth would slow to nothing or even negative very rapidly (virtually all population growth comes from the bottom billion).  So it’s not beyond us to support our entire population at a reasonable level of material comfort.

Not possible, you say.  I won’t give up my hard-earned 2010s standard of living.  I myself have struggled for a long time with the reductions I believe I should make in my personal consumption, and have made only limited progress.

The peculiar thing is that we would probably be happier if we did, particularly if we also invested in a bit of hygge.  Research clearly shows that increases in happiness tail off – and can even go negative – after reaching a certain not particularly high standard of living.  And, according to the World Happiness Report, the people of South America show a very significant “happiness bump”, out of proportion to their material standard of living, because of their emphasis on community.

But most of us are captive to the myth that “greater consumption brings greater happiness”.  It doesn’t, but it’s very hard for us to see this.  And for a sustainable future, we actually need to reduce consumption.

Of course, the changes need to be not only in personal, but also in public, consumption.  Throwaway goods, movement of food unnecessary distances, development of vanity infrastructure, spending on war and “defence” of the state – all these and more need to be addressed.

But change starts at home – if we can make the necessary changes to our own consumption, it makes it easier for us to call for them elsewhere.  And a week ago, a speaker at an information session before protesting the NZ Oil Barons (“PEPANZ”) conference, Ihaia Puketapu, gave me the two words I needed to make better progress on this problem.

With my friend Juanita McKenzie, I am about to form “Consumers’ Anonymous”, a group dedicated to helping each other recover from our addiction to unnecessary consumption.  We have little idea yet where this will take us, but both believe it is a smart and probably very enjoyable way to address our issues with personal consumption.

And we will make sure we do it over barbecues (or wine and cheese).  I will keep you posted on progress in future blogs.

More community, less consumption – the only formula for a sustainable future in the affluent world.



One thought on “Of community and consumption

  1. fencesittersblog says:

    From Bruce: I have received a couple of fair criticisms of my portrayal of information technology, and amended the text accordingly.

    First, that I appeared to say that community could ONLY be in-person – this was not intentional – I was pushing back against the crowding out of inperson communication, which has subtleties and complexities that infotech cannot substitute for – I have added the words “and some of it [positive community interaction] is through information technology.”

    Second, that my criticism of smartphones was too simplistic, and I have added that they do give us instant communication as at least a partial response to this.

    Keep those comments coming in!

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