William Rees

Maurie Cohen argues that “[s]trong government intervention during the years after World War II facilitated the rise of fully-fledged consumer society in the US and other affluent nations” and later “reinvigorated household consumption in the US, prompting a new wave of acquisitive social striving and overspending.” This may be true, but I think it underplays the role of the corporate sector in using the tools of public relations and advertising to deliberately construct and subsequently promote consumer lifestyles. To break people of their habit of “underconsuming” (a habit induced by the depression and wartime rationing), American industry organized in the post WW-II period to encourage a throwaway society and embrace consumption as an end in itself. In a 1955 paper, retail analyst Victor Lebow explained that Americans were to “make consumption their way of life” and that if they succeeded in making the buying and use of goods into a kind of ritual, they would find “spiritual satisfaction and ego gratification in consumption.”

This was no trivial transformation. People remain largely unconscious of the extent to which they have been shaped and manipulated by the purposeful construction of consumerism-as-way-of-life. The two most recent generations of North Americans are arguably the most successfully socially-engineered generations of people ever to walk the earth. And a multibillion dollar advertising industry remains in place, dedicated, in part, to extending the game by creating an unending flow of artificial needs that an equally unending stream of new or improved products claims to meet.

Industry’s triumph did not end with sophisticated public relations. The capstone was the subsequent deep infusion of society with market capitalist values, the erosion of the public sector, and the weakening of people’s sense of the public good. It would be cause for celebration if, as Cohen suggests, this political consensus is in fact collapsing. The nature of mass consumption may be changing, but its aggregate scale and ecological footprint are still in excess of Earth’s regenerative capacity.

Moreover, although Cohen notes that novel economic structures cannot “spring into existence in whole form,” but rather “emerge out of the prevailing system in a halting and partial manner,” his closing thoughts introduce a disquieting ambiguity. On the one hand, he seems to assume a more or less smooth transition to the next phase of human civilization during which novel social forms gradually “displace the customary institutions that support and facilitate contemporary consumerism.” On the other hand, he notes, “Rather than leaving consumerist lifestyles completely behind, ongoing changes might progressively destabilize the dominant system as it continues to lose the capacity to deliver satisfactory livelihoods.”

The notion of “progressive destabilization” here fires my imagination and not necessarily in the divining of a comfortable steady-state society or some other similarly welcoming scenario. Let’s assume that Cohen is correct that the global system will continue to experience “several types of resource scarcity.” Let’s also assume that governments remain unmotivated to address the widening income gap. Now, put all of this in a broader global context—continuing population growth, growing material demand propelled by a cultural narrative rooted in competitive individualism, deregulated markets in an era of accelerating climate change, and increasing distrust of both corporations and governments. In these circumstances, sustained efforts to maintain business-as-usual in industrial countries, and to continue the transformation of the developing world along similar lines, may well be fatal to prospects for global civilization. They are certainly likely to generate a future of widespread civil unrest/insurrection and geopolitical conflict—including resource wars and territorial conflicts—exacerbated by the mass migration of millions of climate refugees.

So much for a smooth transition to sustainable stability.

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William Rees
William Rees is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning since 1969. His research focuses on the public policy and planning implications of global environmental trends and the necessary ecological conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development, and he is best known as the originator of “ecological footprint analysis.” He is also a founding member and former president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics.

Cite as William Rees, "The Decline and Fall of Consumer Society?," Great Transition Initiative (May 2014), https://www.greattransition.org/commentary/william-rees-the-decline-and-fall-of-consumer-society-maurie-cohen.

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