Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Decline and Fall of Consumer Society?

Maurie Cohen

I am grateful to John Ehrenfeld, Bill Rees, Emily Huddart-Kennedy, and Julian Agyeman for their perceptive feedback. All four commentators have prompted me to dig deeper into my proposition of a putative post-consumerist transition. For all of the debate surrounding processes of social change, history is replete with evidence that we are not very good at distinguishing moments of transition in real time. For instance, few observers initially recognized the early phase of tumultuous upheaval during the middle of the eighteenth century as a precursor of a new system of social and economic organization. Indeed, only in 1837, when the French radical socialist Auguste Blanqui articulated the idea of an “industrial revolution,” did that awareness begin to take hold. Similarly, otherwise astute witnesses have tended to dismiss the early outcropping of ultimately transformative innovations—from the automobile to the telephone to the computer—as inconsequential and of little enduring value.

The unfortunate truth is that we lack prescient capacity to comprehend change, even when it is staring us in the face. The development of ostensibly rigorous scientific methods has not markedly enhanced our ability to extrapolate from the present into the future. Part of the reason for this paradox is that these techniques are inherently conservative and hamstrung by skeptical bias. Standard approaches entail studying large datasets and are prone to misconstrue embryonic social changes either as bothersome “noise” or as variation that does not satisfy statistical tests. In short, we lack resolve to sound the alarm until well after the smoldering has turned into a state of full combustion.

Newness generally coalesces out of experiments at the margins, in relatively isolated niches where there is flexibility to deviate from customary routines. These small movements are obscured in large aggregations because they are invisible against a much wider and deeper background of “normal” activity. To catch a glimpse of change, we need to dampen our fear of misconstruing initial signs of genuine inventiveness and fleeting fad. And perhaps a little hopeful expectation is not an altogether bad thing. After all, anticipating alternative futures is an essential part of nurturing them into existence.

Our hesitancy is, though, not only attributable to overreliance on statistical methods. To chart a post-consumerist pathway, we will likely need to dispense with conventional discipline-based procedures more generally. Social scientists of different stripes have long argued about the moving forces behind epochal change, but such debates are ultimately academic, if not pedantic. If we adopt a systems perspective, trying to disentangle demographics, economics, politics, and culture quickly becomes futile. These dimensions are tightly entwined and co-evolve in complex and mutually dependent ways. Moreover, the lines of demarcation among them are largely manifestations of either conceit or historical accident.

I do not mean to suggest that we should selectively cherry-pick favorable indications and ignore contrary markers. Indeed, there is already reason to suspect that proponents of a “sharing economy” have been overtaken by their enthusiasm. Much of what is heralded as sustainable expressions of collaborative consumption is neither sustainable nor collaborative. When I pick up a Zipcar or similarly provisioned vehicle at the curb, I am partaking in a well-worn ritual of renting a vehicle on a short-term basis. From the standpoint of “sharing,” how is the Zipcar that I collect in the central city any different from the Avis car that I get at the airport? Moreover, the fact that both vehicles are now owned by the same company would seem to dissolve any superficial distinction that might have previously existed.

One could say the same about several other prominent archetypes of an emergent “sharing” economy. As Tom Slee has argued, the vast majority of listings on Airbnb are not placed by hospitable locals with a spare room but rather by owners of second homes seeking travelers willing to pay a portion of the carrying costs. Another celebrated example, Task Rabbit, is little more than an employment broker for casual labor. Given the positive valance that has in recent years come to surround sharing, there is no shortage of clever entrepreneurs fashioning ways to exploit the possibilities of pretense. Because collaboration has popular appeal, all manner of activities are being opportunistically crowded under the sharing tent. To the extent that sustainability is a priority, we need to be attentive that any novelty that drops the cost of an activity will almost surely encourage us to do more of it.

The challenge going forward, if we accept the provisional idea that our familiar consumer society is starting to break down, will be to formulate strategies that enable us to assess the degree to which a transition might be stirring. Standard measures of commercial well-being like changes in retail square footage are unlikely to be sufficient because customary shopping alternatives are already giving way to Internet-propelled commerce. Brick and mortar video shops were the first victims of online commerce, soon to be followed by bookstores and a host of other specialty retailers, especially those geared to youthful shoppers. None of these developments are themselves indicative of a transformation toward post-consumerism.

A most effective strategy for discerning such a shift is likely to entail getting in the streets (and cyberspace) and adopting the practices of guerrilla marketers who canvass communities deemed to be on the sharp edge of social and cultural innovation. I previously drew attention to Williamsburg as one possible locale, but there are surely others in the United States and elsewhere. In conducting this work, it will be important to be attentive to opportunities for scalability and who will take on the task of growing new ideas beyond the incubators where they incipiently take hold.

Maurie Cohen
Maurie Cohen is Professor of Sustainability Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, editor of the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy, and author of Sustainability.

Cite as Maurie Cohen, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society," Great Transition Initiative (May 2014),

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