High Price of Materialism, as well as other useful writings such as a great chapter in the State of the World Report 2009 about consumerism and climate change. The interview raises some fascinating areas for research and thoughts about Transition and psychology, and I think you’re going to enjoy this one….

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Tim Kasser on Consumerism, Psychology, Transition and Resilience. Part One

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Here is the first part (Part Two to follow tomorrow) of an interview I did with Tim Kasser a couple of weeks ago while he was at Schumacher College. He is a psychologist, author of the seminal High Price of Materialism, as well as other useful writings such as a great chapter in the State of the World Report 2009 about consumerism and climate change. The interview raises some fascinating areas for research and thoughts about Transition and psychology, and I think you’re going to enjoy this one….

What brings you to Totnes?

I was invited to teach a part of the course at Schumacher on Economics and Happiness, and I’ve given a talk sponsored by TTT and Schumacher College.

Can you give a potted overview of what you’ve found and what you teach?

My work started about twenty years ago when I was interested in people’s values and goals. And I was interested in that as a psychologist because values and goals are a part of how we intentionally construct our experience of life and that’s how we construct our lives. Lots of other things make our lives happen, but our values and goals are one of the things that we do to make our lives go in one direction and not in another. And I was interested in that because values and goals influence the experiences we have and I was really interested in what kind of values and goals lead to what kind of experiences.

In doing that kind of work when I was a young graduate I stumbled across the finding that individuals who focus their lives more around things like money and image and status, which are of course the core values that consumer capitalism needs people to believe in in order for the system to keep working, people who care about those materialistic values were reporting lower personal well being. They were more depressed, more anxious, they were less satisfied with their lives. They were reporting more headaches and stomach aches and drinking more alcohol, smoking more cigarettes, etc.

I got more interested into materialism and people’s personal quality of lives and why it would be that despite the fact that we’re told that materialism is the pathway to a happy, successful, meaningful life, why does it seem to be associated with being less happy? So I explored a lot in that thread and as time went on, I became interested in other outcomes besides personal well being, because our values don’t only affect our lives, but they affect the lives of those others around us, and further too, in our globalised world as we have now.

We started to take a look at social outcomes and ecological outcomes too and we started to find that materialistic people were behaving in ways which were undermining the quality of social relationships in [ways] that tend to be less pro social, more anti social, more competitive less cooperative, less likely to contribute to the public good because they’re more focused on themselves and their own good.

Then relatedly that the more people cared about materialism, the more they were likely to engage in ecologically degrading behaviours, to live unsustainable lifestyles etc. It became clear that not only is materialism associated with less happiness, but it’s also associated with less social cohesion and more ecological degradation, all of which are problems in today’s world.

As I’ve seen those data start to come in from me and my colleagues and other sources, especially in the last five to six years I’ve asked well why is this? Why does materialism lead to these kinds of problematic outcomes and what’s leading people to take on these materialistic values? Why do we act in more materialistic ways and what can we do about it? What kind of interventions on a personal, community or national level could be used to decrease people’s materialistic values and materialistic behaviour and then hopefully improve those outcomes: make people happier and more pro social and more pro ecological.

That’s led me in all kinds of different directions, from mindfulness meditation, to alternative indicators of national progress to time affluence to advertising to children to really starting to think a lot about capitalism and consumer capitalism and how that promotes materialism, including relocalisation too. That’s the historical and conceptual overview of how I’ve come to this spot and where my understanding is.

What’s consumerism done to us? How have we been changed by fifty or sixty years of that?

I think what consumerism has done to us is turned us into consumers. Which sounds like a silly answer but we all have roles in our lives, and we have multiple roles: I’m a father, and I’m a professor, a teacher, I’m an activist and I’m a consumer too, and our roles like our values end up influencing what we think is important in life, they influence our behaviour and how we treat other people. I think what’s happened over the last fifty/sixty years is that in order for our economic system to maintain itself, it requires people to enhance the consumer role – to think of themselves more as consumers and I don’t know how it is here in the UK, but when you’re reading the newspaper in the US you’re much more likely to see people referred to as consumers instead of citizens.

To be a consumer has a very different set of implications than to be a citizen. To be a consumer is to think about “what is it I want to buy?” So first off there’s a selfishness already involved in the role and there’s a set of behaviours implied by the role. There’s this sense that as that role comes to dominate more and more of how we think about ourselves and how our policy makers think of us, it leads potential solutions to problems or potential decisions to be “well what’s good for consumption, or what’s good to make a citizen?”, as opposed to what’s good for people. If you think about what a citizen’s role is, it’s to think about the whole of the community and “what’s my role in the community?”

You’re obviously still thinking about yourself, but you’re not thinking about yourself and what you’re going to buy, you’re thinking about yourself and who you’re going to be in relationship to others. There’s sort of a transcendent characteristic or aspect to that role. That I think leads us to behave in very different ways. I behave very differently when I’m being a consumer to when I’m being a citizen. The way that our economic and thus our political system is oriented now, is very much attuned to people as consumers and less to people as citizens and therefore it develops all kinds of policies that end up maximising the consumer role and not too much for the citizen role.

I think that’s part of why it makes it easy for people to think about “Do I want this?” instead of “well, how is it made, and how does my buying this impact people?”, and to think, “well it’s Friday and I’m going to stay home and watch TV”, rather than “I’m going to go out enjoying my fellow citizens cleaning up the river bank”, or having a meeting to help determine town policy about zoning and whether Tesco’s is coming in.

Consumer society tells us what the optimal ways are to live our lives. That’s what any social system does, there’s nothing special about consumerism with regard to that. Christianity tells us how to live our lives, fascism told us how to live our lives… the particular way consumer capitalism tells us to live our lives is this way and through consumption and the maximisation of economic growth. Through working hard so you can have a lot of money and then you can spend it on stuff that you want to buy. Whenever you believe something’s important something else has to become less important and the value of consumerism and materialism crowd out other important things.

Has consumerism left us more or less able to respond rapidly to change? Are we less resilient? How can we know that?

I think to the particular kinds of changes which we’re likely to face here in the near future if climate science is right and if everything we read about what’s happening socially is right, I really think it’s left us less able to respond to those challenges and I think there’s a couple of different things that goes back to: one of them is that consumerism leads us (this is true of any social system) when we have a difficulty to think about certain ways to solve that difficulty and to not think about other ways.

If you take a look at people who accept that there is climate change or climate disruption and then they try to figure out how to solve that problem, consumerism says: “well, consume in a green way”, because that’s a very reasonable solution to the problem from a consumers’ perspective – we just need to consume different things and we need to decarbonise and we need to keep economic growth, but just have carbon clean economic growth. So we get locked into that set of solutions when we think about the problem of climate disruption from a consumerstic view point.

All the climate scientists I talk to and everything I read suggests that that’s important, but it won’t get us anywhere near the way to solve those kinds of problems. Plus, it’s not going to help habitat loss or the other environmental problems we have to do those things. That’s one issue – it tells us solutions which are far too partial.

Another issue is that because we know that materialism and consumerism and materialism in research is associated with behaving in less cooperative and more competitive ways and less empathic and more manipulative ways and less pro social and anti social ways. What all that suggests is that when push comes to shove, and there are significant problems that we face, we will have lost some of the interpersonal, social skills and community skills that are really needed in order to come together as a group and solve the problems and instead I think we’ll be more likely to continue our competitive mindset in ways that end up damaging us at the very time we need to work together to solve the problems. Because we don’t think about consensus and we don’t think about building a group and listening to everybody and treating other people like people instead of other objects to be manipulated when we take on that materialist mindset.

So that scares me. If things get really bad here we may have lost some of the important skills that we need to manage that and the aftermath. We have milk goats and my wife wanted someone to teach her how and there wasn’t anyone. A hundred years ago there’d have been all kinds of people to teach her. But we’ve lost a lot of the self sufficiency skills that we need. Instead we go to work to earn money so we can hire somebody else to do it because that’s good for the economy.

We’ve lost a lot of the skills that ultimately we’re going to need if we live in a more localised way and we live not in a self sufficient way, but in a group sufficient way.

What does a resilient community look like to you? What are the qualities that people have in that context that they don’t have today?

For me as a psychologist how I approach things is that there are four basic needs that people have to have satisfied in order to function well. The first is that they need to feel safe and secure. People don’t do well if they’re worried about where their food’s going to come from or they’re worried about being cold tonight or that somebody’s going to kill them when they cross the street.

The second need is people need to feel competent – they need to feel good at what they do. A third need that we all have is a need for relatedness, connectedness because we’re social animals and we always have been. We need to feel that we’re part of a group, that we’re loved and that we have a network. The final need is for autonomy. To feel that we’re choosing what we’re doing as opposed to being coerced into what we’re doing. If you think about a time when you were unhappy and things weren’t going well for you, you’ll find that at least one of those needs was not being satisfied.

Whereas what most of the research shows is that when those needs are being well satisfied people tend to be fairly happy and they tend to like the situation that they’re in. Just as an aside, in the research what we find is that the more people focus on the materialistic, consumeristic goals, the less well satisfied those four psychological needs are. Whereas when people focus on intrinsic values – for contributing to the community and affiliation and having good relationships and having good self-acceptance – growing into who you are – those people tend to have those needs better satisfied and thus are happier.

From my perspective, psychologically speaking, the only way a resilient community is going to be resilient is if it can maintain itself for a long time and if people want to live in it and they want to live in it more than they want to live in the regular communities that are currently out there as the dominant alternative. So for me the issue is the characteristics of a resilient community would be a community which provides the vast majority of the people to satisfy those four psychological needs and to enact their intrinsic values. To enact growing as a person. To enact family. To enact contributing to the community in their day to day life and their life in the community.

I think that suburbia and inner city life obviously don’t do a very good job of satisfying those needs a lot of the time. There’s a lot of inner city life that doesn’t satisfy our need for safety. A lot of suburban life doesn’t satisfy our need for relatedness, a lot of the way that cities are set up force us to do things that we don’t really want to do like drive sometimes when we don’t really want to drive because of the way that they’re planned – you’re only allowed to build a house here and stores there and no side walk in between and no bus so you only have one option. A lot of those places don’t let you really be a part of the community and figure out how you can contribute to that community which is important for competence needs.

To me and what I understand of the Transition Town movement and the resilient community movement is that what was required is to build a community that satisfies those needs and I’m sure that’s not explicitly what you all talk about, but ultimately that’s my interpretation of why it works. When I look at these communities it seems to me that they make people feel pretty safe because there’s a social network there and people know they can rely on each other and usually those kinds of communities have opportunities to help those who fall on misfortune and there’s a lot of opportunities to build competence usually because there’s meetings all the time where you can come and contribute to this action or that action or lots of chances to learn stuff.

Usually there’s lots of chances for relatedness because you know your local shop keeper and you’re working with people you know, or you bump into people in the street and get together and chat with them. It seems that there’s a lot of freedom and autonomy in those kinds of places. To voice your opinion and to get the chance to be heard and from what I hear about the TT meetings there’s a lot of chance for autonomy there. Don’t get me wrong, we need practical things too, like solar panels etc, but if you don’t meet people’s psychological needs it’s never going to be a resilient community.

Part Two follows tomorrow….

Editorial Notes: More info about the book at MIT Press. UPDATE (Feb 25). Part 2 of the interview has just been posted at Transition Culture. -KS and BA

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