Is it a ‘throwaway society’? The questions Frank Trentmann raises in his celebrated book “Empire of Things” take us to his penetrating analysis of the rapid transformation of the world – the way these days the culture of consumerism has created a non-sustainable mode of living and lifestyle. Here is an excerpt from the book that inspires us to question the lifestyle associated with the market-driven/techno-centric consumerism.
We need a more honest public debate about how standards and habits have come to be what they are, a keener appreciation of changes in the past and alternatives for the future, and a recognition that, even today, in rich societies the most materially intensive practices are not distributed evenly. One lesson from history is that we are wrong to take our current standards as given or to assume that our lifestyles will and ought to continue into the future, just more efficiently serviced. Air-conditioning, hot showers, fast fashion and budget city-breaks are not an inherent part of human civilization.
The high-flying, multitasking consumer lifestyle, in particular, which requires so much coordination and with it mobility ad resources, has been a quite recent phenomenon, driven by the highly educated professional middle classes, who have taken standards of productivity from the world of work and injected them into the world of leisure, radically intensifying it in its own course. It is easy to forget that, even sixty or so years ego, the same kind of people lived more sedentary, relaxed lives and that other groups continue to enjoy fewer, less hectic and less mobile pastimes.
‘Slow living’ advocates have tried to counter this trend, but for the most part they have been marginal and ineffective. Society as a whole continues to tick to a faster rhythm. There has to be a more general appreciation of the pleasures from a deeper and longer-lasting connection to fewer things.
Our lifestyles, and their social and environmental consequences, should be the subject of serious public debate and policy, not left as a matter simply of individual taste and purchasing power. There are plenty of opportunities for intervention, from shared housing and different standards of heating and cooling to more sustainable forms of mobility, all the way to public-information campaigns about the damage done by ever more frequent showers and changes of clothes.
Such a debate has to be bold and envisage different lifestyles and the concomitant changes to housing, transport and culture. It will need more people to remember that, as consumers, they are citizens and not just customers. And it will need historical imagination.
SOURCE: Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things, Penguin Books, 2017