The Politics of Consumption: A Critical Evaluation

Our consumption choices exist at the interface between nature, culture, politics and economy. From the perspective of neoclassical economics, consumption constitutes the final purchase of goods and service by individuals. A sustainable development interpretation would suggest that purchase of those goods and services can be made within the bounds of resource constraints. Broadly defined, consumption relates to the action of using up a resource and indeed it is axiomatic that purchases of goods and services in effect use up resources, considering the energy and materials embodied in the entire production chains underpinning those goods and services. Some level of consumption is inevitable as a pre-requisite for existence, given that we cannot survive without consuming energy and resources in the satisfaction of our survival imperatives.

So what, then, is the problem with consumption? A serious critique of consumption calls us to scrutinise some deeply held assumptions dominant in western capitalist societies, including perpetual economic growth, the acquisition of material goods as key to human welfare and happiness, the linkage of consumption to identity and social status, and liberal values of individual freedom.

In this lecture I explore the problem of over-consumption in our contemporary consumer culture, highlighting critiquing the commodification of human sources of well-being and our alienation from productive processes as drivers of the over-consumption and associated environmental degradation. I conclude by evaluating the possibility of a sustainable consumption agenda.

Boxing Day sales insanity.

Boxing Day sales insanity.

This lecture was delivered to students enrolled in the undergraduate subject Global Environmental Politics at La Trobe University.

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