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

What can local government do to promote those four things because clearly in our consumer society people tend to feel less safe and are becoming less and less competent? Relatedness is breaking down and people feel they have less control over the democratic process.

I’m not a political scientist, I’m a psychologist, but my sense is that what has to be developed are structures in the political economy and in the social system and the way that decisions are made that ask people what are the things in our community right now which are barriers to the satisfaction of these psychological needs and I’d imagine that different communities are going to have different barriers, but somebody there in your community knows the answer and if they can say what it is and put their finger on it, probably other people are going to say yes, and add to it.

So I would say, I’d begin by building from the ground up and talking to people about what these needs are and asking them what’s standing in the way of them living in ways that satisfy these needs? Ultimately the problem is that what we haven’t figured out to do on the community level, or the personal level, or the societal level is how to make a life which facilitates the satisfaction of those needs. Instead, we think that we can facilitate the satisfaction of those needs by buying something. That’s what consumer society tells us to do.

You know – people don’t love you, it’s the wrong shampoo, or want to feel free – buy this car. But I think if we can get past all that junk, and really have a conversation with people about what is it about this community that does and doesn’t satisfy these needs? Once you can identify the barriers and those things that are promoting satisfaction of the needs, then ask why do we have these barriers, which ones are surmountable and controllable at this community level and which ones have to do with something happening at the next level up, such as the council or government?

And focus on what we can do in this community to satisfy the relatedness needs, given that there’s this barrier? Is it because that’s the way it’s always been done or is it because of some law in the book or policy? What can we do to facilitate these other things? If you can get the people and the policy makers and the other leaders of the community all to think in that way and to have a conversation around that, then the solutions to the problems, at least at the community level will emerge. And of course that’s the easiest place to solve a problem, maybe other than at the individual level. If the problem is at a higher level then the community needs to organise with itself and other communities and say, well you’re the one blocking us, how are you going to change it? This is a more general idea that then you apply to wherever you’re at.

Are those four psychological needs set out in one of the books?

Yes, in the middle chunk of The High Price of Materialism.

How would one measure individual’s ability to bounce back – individual resilience? Are there ways to measure so that you can come back to the community yearly to see if they are more or less resilient?

Again, a very simple answer is not quite the same as the bouncing back necessarily, but one of the things I’d be very interested in – and there are community social indicators out there, eg. The International Society for the Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS). If you go there, there are all sorts of community quality of life indicators. If I wanted to measure the progress of a community and how it’s moving along, what I would focus on is whether people felt that their psychological needs were well satisfied within the community, and there are measures for that that could be adapted at least. So, how safe do I feel in my community? How much do I have the chance to feel competent in my community? How many barriers do I encounter in my attempts to satisfy these needs within the context of my community.

If my intuition about what a resilient community is, is correct then what you would hopefully find is that as time goes on, people would be experiencing more and more satisfaction of their needs and that their community is providing them with more and more opportunities to enact those needs, and to enact those intrinsic values, and that they’re experiencing less and less barriers to enacting the intrinsic values and satisfying the needs. So on a psychological level, that’s what I’d be looking at within individuals, is that occurring as time goes on. If that is occurring you would be having a resilient community in the terms that I described earlier.

I think some of the other things you’d obviously want to be looking at are attendance at meetings and actual social networks within the community. How much cohesion and interaction is there? How many neglected people are there? You’d expect fewer neglected people and you’d also expect fewer of the shining star people – you’d want more egalitarianism. Also, energy use and all the rest. But even funny things like obesity rates. If people are walking more they’d probably be losing weight and be healthier.

In terms of how we move beyond being a consumer society, can we? Will we? Is it a process that we can make happen or is consumerism just another pulse and then we’ll have something else? Is the end of consumerism inevitable, or do we need to take to the streets to bring it about? How do we get out of this?!

The end of everything is inevitable, right?! The question is how long will this go on and will it be so destructive that what we have after consumerism is very unpleasant? Well, to be pessimistic first, the more I learn about consumer capitalism, the more impressed I am with it as a very well designed social system. What I mean by that is fro my perspective a well designed social system is one that’s maintains itself over time and which can expand and incorporate other social systems and take them over, in a way.

I think clearly you have to accept by that definition that consumer capitalism is a remarkable social system and it’s internal logic, the more I understand it the more I see is that once you begin with the assumptions that it begins with and then the practises that it has been able to develop over the decades in order to facilitate people’s entry and maintenance into that system and to solve problems in ways that help the system rather than hurt the system, even if it hurts other things – it’s really a very remarkable system. Because it does appeal to something very real to people and it takes that appeal and magnifies it times a hundred at this point. It has worked to create enormous wealth and then tells people that that’s all that matters, so that when people take a look and try to decide whether the system is good or not, they say, well it’s done great because it’s made a lot of wealth and that’s what’s important! So the internal logic and the overall functioning of the system is really remarkable.

For that reason, it will be difficult to dislodge at one level – I’ll come back to that though. Of course the other difficulty is that to succeed in the system you have to follow the rules of the system and then you end up the one in charge of the system and then the system is the dominant thing and you set the rules and you can decide who’s going to play and who’s not going to play and therefore it’s easy to pick out the people who don’t like the system because you set the rules as to whether or not you get to speak.

I find that all the time talking to reporters. Five companies own ninety five per cent of the media outlets and they’re all for profit, so if you try to critique capitalism in a for profit system, you’re never going to get in the media. And that’s part of its brilliance, to me. It makes it hard to change. One possibility is that the system is going to continue on and ultimately because it’s trying for infinite growth in a finite system it’s going to do such ecological ands social damage that it begins to fall apart, or some internal logic means that a huge depression happens and then you’ve got all kinds of social unrest and you’ve broken down the commons so instead of coming together during this social unrest people fight each other over the few scant resources that are left and it all falls apart. That’s one feasible outcome of what could happen. The rich are on high ground, and have enough food, and the poor on the low ground don’t. And then you’ve got social unrest. I think that that could happen.

I think that it’s quite possible that if things start to break down, if we have really good alternatives to key into people at that moment, and say, well rather than continuing that, let’s try this instead. I think there’s a good possibility (I don’t know if it’s better than fifty-fifty, but a good possibility) that at that critical juncture people will be able to reorganise in a healthier way. I’ve written about this in a recent State of the World report piece (in 2009) on how people respond to trauma. Most of the time after trauma people go back to baseline. Sometime after trauma they never recover, and sometimes they grow.

The way I look at it is if the trauma comes and we don’t have those alternative models in place then there’s no way that we’ll go towards those alternative models. So we need to have them in place so we can offer them to try. All that said, I do think that it’s quite possible that we could change things before the traumas occur. There are so many solutions that are quite possible. That’s what we’ve been talking about at Schumacher and what a lot of my writing has been about lately. Relocalisation is one of those solutions, but my feeling is that relocalisation is never going to be enough by itself. Neither is ethical consumption or voluntary simplicity and neither are alternative indicators of progress. No one of those things by themselves is going to be sufficient to bring about the kinds of change that ultimately I think could lead to broader social community and individual change before collapse.

But, I think, tether them together and the more I read and think about it and talk with people, those things can work together and they have their own internal logic that’s different to capitalism’s logic and is a new kind of social system. From everything, all the research I’ve seen and all the thinking I’ve done, and all the people I’ve talked to, suggests to me that it will do a better job of meeting people’s needs and they’d be happier and people will live in a more socially cohesive way and live more sustainably. Or at least it will encourage all those things.

So, I think what we really need to be doing now from my perspective is developing and fleshing out and thinking through the multitude of options, not because we think we’re ultimately going to chose one of those things from the menu, but because we recognise that we’re actually going to have to chose the whole buffet, and implement them now, as soon as possible. Once we get one implemented people will be more open to the next one and the next one and then you can affect that kind of change reasonably quickly. And that’s what gives me hope.

What’s your take on the Transition Movement as a part of that? What’s your sense or experience of it and its potential?

My sense of its potential is that it is to me a necessary ingredient in that whole buffet. Ultimately what we’re going to have to do in order to promote social cohesion and people’s well-being and sustainability is to relocalise and to do what we can at a local level and what we can’t do at a local level, take to the next level up, and what we can’t do at that level we do at the next level up. But right now it’s all at the global level, seeping down. The more that I understand the Transition Town movement and relocalisation are that they hold promise for promoting the kinds of things that are needed in order to get to these outcomes that we’re interested in. And they provide a very nice model for both what it looks like and how to get there. One of the things I like about the Transition Town Movement as I understand it is that it really is a grass roots, building up from within, helping people to figure out how to build the kind of community that they want to create, that is going to meet certain requirements that we’re going to have to deal with.

So I definitely think Transition Towns is part of the answer. Maybe it’s the case that if every town is a TT then all the other things would fall into place too?! Because maybe the only way for every town to be a TT is if all of those other things happened also. The thing I know is that all people can do is what they themselves can do. If what you’re good at is TT then go and do it. It’s part of the solution and you have to trust that someone else is doing another part of the solution.

Editorial Notes: Part one of the interview is here. -KS

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