It’s a no-brainer to be attacking consumerism. “Zero waste” is a concept that even massive city departments are embracing. “Unshopping” is no longer unfamiliar. People are finally beginning to get that the “Reduce, reuse, recycle” jingle has more than just the final element. Hooray!
Meanwhile, within the Transition movement, we understand that we must change not only our outer, physical world, but our inner landscape as well. That means the psychological and spiritual aspects of this great turning within society. We are faced with changing our outlook, our world view.
I have been inventing, scheduling, and organizing public events for 20 years, 5 of those years in the topics of the Transition movement. And consumerism is a huge issue — Consuming events. I’m not talking about how low-waste your events are. (At this point in time, striving for low-waste should be second nature. Striving for powerdown events whenever possible is necessary too.) Now I’m shifting to the inner landscape: Do your audiences “consume” your events?
What is Intellectual Consumerism?
Audiences consume your events when they show up, basically to be entertained, then go home and nothing happens. They are consuming the ideas, sometimes in great volume, but not putting them into real, hard practice.
Within a society where physical consumerism has been the norm, consuming events — we might call it intellectual consumerism — is a real issue. I see it a lot in my native Los Angeles, particularly within the old-style environmental circles. People show up for a meeting or a movie or a political rally, but it doesn’t scratch the surface. There’s no lifestyle change, or there’s negligible lifestyle change to go with it. They show up for the meetings but then go home to same-old, same-old. It’s revealed by their small talk, by the THINGS they admire and coo over. There are some people who are massive consumers of environmental events.
This problem is particularly frustrating when you’re working with circles which tell themselves they’re politically progressive. Participants seem to think that because they voted green, or campaigned for a green candidate, they’re An Environmentalist. And meanwhile that somehow makes their mainstream five-planets-worth-of-consumption lifestyles ok.
In my view it’s like an outsourcing thing — someone else will take care of it. Our political leaders will take care of it (“stopping” global warming if only they could agree on a treaty), I did my part by voting him into office.
Within the Transition movement, our Cheerful Disclaimer proclaims our view on it:
What we are convinced of is this:
If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Note how in that brief passage, the word “act” is prominently featured 3 times. At this point in human history, politics alone is entirely insufficient. We also see intellectual consumerism in university circles. Lectures and studies and conferences alone are similarly insufficient. We need action to go with.
Intellectual consumerism is also revealed by people who shift their allegience to green consumerism. Technology will take care of it (renewable energy, to enable my five-planets-worth-of-consumption lifestyle), so give me my electric car and my solar-powered cell phone. Green business will take care of it — I’ll buy organic at Whole Foods (regardless of whether that pepper was imported by airflight from Chile; regardless of whether Whole Foods participates wholeheartedly on the NYSE within the grow-grow-grow paradigm). Sorry, I can’t help, I’ll be off on my “eco-travel” vacation (consuming oil and emitting greenhouse gasses, but that’s ok, I bought carbon credits which should cover them … right?).
It’s a way of sidestepping responsibility, foisting that responsibility for change onto someone else (politicians, business, the education system, etc.). In many cases, the intellectual consumer reserves the right to complain about how nothing meaningful is getting done.
The roots of intellectual consumerism
In the first Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins used an addictions model to explain it. Intellectual consumerism enables us to stay (comfortably) in the pre-contemplation stage, continually “thinking about it” or “learning more.” It is a device for telling ourselves we’re doing something about the problem, when what we’re really doing is perpetuating avoidance of change.
I’m not a psychologist, but my bet is that intellectual consumerism comes from psychological discomfort with change, or unwillingness to make big change, or simply unwillingness to give up what is comfortable. It might simply be unwillingness to let go of the lifestyle that we know.
My partner-in-environmental-crimefighting, Peter Rood, would say it’s a spiritual issue. That they haven’t yet glimpsed the interconnectedness of all. It’s about seeing that politics and polar bears are just other pieces of a much, much bigger puzzle, a puzzle which non-negotiably demands massive root-level change in every single realm. (The Permaculture Flower of David Holmgren)
The Transition movement understands that we need to act. We need to change our lifestyles. No matter how many votes or rallies or meetings we attend, we’ve absolutely got to make the rubber hit the road.
The Transition movement knows that we can’t wait for government (or anybody else) to tell us what we have to do. We have to figure it out, and that means grassroots. We have figure it out fast, because we have to get action going if we’re going to meet the brisk timeline set by climate change, the end of planetary oil supplies, and our crumbling economies.
This focus on action is one of the things that attrached me to Transition. Yes, there is considerable thought, design, and planning behind all the action. Bu there is real, hard, physical, kinesthetic, tangible, cleansing action. Some of the things we do within the Transition movement are obvious: we have to get going on growing much more food in urban spaces where the people are, before peak oil and transportation issues take down the food supply. So we get digging. Other things aren’t so obvious, like how to restructure the business world’s growth paradigm. That one is demanding much more in the way of up-front meetings. But there is still solid action that we can begin, as the essential pieces of the puzzle reveal themselves — local bartering networks to be set up, time banks to establish, local currencies to get into circulation, social enterprises to start.
Consumerism is dead. Not just the big-box-store physical consumerism, but also intellectual consumerism. Intellectual consumerism helps perpetuate the same-old lifestyles which are part of this mess. Instead, we must become producers of change.
What We Can Do about it
For almost six years, Peter Rood and I have been designing events. We have found that the most successful events are ones where people get their hands dirty. Kneading bread. Digging a garden. Pickling daikon radishes. Greasing a bicycle chain. Cutting cardboard to craft a solar cooker. Peter and I have noticed, time and again, how something happens to people when they get their hands dirty, particularly when they touch the earth. It changes them.
As a home-educator I know that there are many ways people learn. Visual and auditory are the primary ones; movies and lectures and discussion circles all operate exclusively within those modalities. But something marvelous happens when you throw kinesthetics (movement) in there. You bring out another dimension with tactile (touch) activities. And I dare say, it rips people out of their comfort zone and drives the message home.
Baking bread together as a community group hits people on multiple levels. Seeing the demo (visual). Hearing the instruction and the reasons home bread-baking is becoming an essential skill (auditory). Touching the velvety, soft dough (tactile). Feeling the long pull of the knead motion (kinesthetic). Together with the eager chatter of people around you (social interaction).
How to take your local events multi-dimensional:
1) Include a kinesthetic and tactile element. Even when I have to use lecture and powerpoint format, I try to bring something in to pass through the crowd. A container of live compost, crawling with earthworms and galloping pillbugs. A potted strawberry plant they have to hand down the row neighbor-to-neighbor. I’ve been known to heave rolls of recycled toilet paper into a crowd for people to catch (you should see them try not to!). My trademark is to toss five globe-printed beachballs out to the audience as I describe five-planets-worth-of-consumption. They don’t forget it.
2) Send it home. Have a handout which lists low-tech, powerdown, “What You Can Do” lifestyle tips. After a session that details our societal water waste, the handout might be about bucketing, using a broom instead of a hose, limiting shower time, or how to build a low-tech garden sink for washing dirt off homegrown vegetables. Rather than high-level, high-brow theoretical stuff, make it personal, about their real lives, things they can try today.
3) Keep it fun. Instead of shock value and dark news, go for punchlines. People remember more and they’re more likely to change if they’re having fun. They’re more likely to connect when they’re laughing with their neighbors.
4) Connect the dots. Showcase the trio of issues at every gathering. Newcomers to my vegetable gardening classes don’t know it, but they’ll get a dose of peak oil consciousness. When we talk about solutions of any kind, they always involve reuse, minimizing new purchases, and money saving — not just for immediate “recession” reasons, but because of economic contraction, the new normal.
5) Connect people. Invent a reason that strangers have to practice working together. Name tags are insufficient anymore, you have to go extra steps. Use group exercises, perhaps from Joanna Macy. Rather than Q&A of the speaker, in our smaller sessions I will facilitate people within the crowd answering each others’ questions. In our early years, we would open each session with a segment where people could stand up and report on what they had done (item #2 above). “I set up my compost” would gain a round of enthusiastic congratulations.
6) Ask for help. Admittedly, I’m not so good at this one, but it really does work. When a fabulous new project shows up, ask the people who are right there in front of you in the moment if anyone can help with it. Even if they can help with some small facet, embrace it. Fold them in to the overall action. Design many places for people to plug into the action, at all kinds of skill levels. Don’t forget the kids and teens — they have lots to contribute, they can really inspire adults, and they are just itching to get their hands into real, alive action.
Joanne Poyourow is the initiator of Transition action in Los Angeles and is part of the core team at the Transition Los Angeles city hub.