Consumer Society, its Dangers and its Future

Halina Szejnwald Brown, April 22, 2020

This is an invited opening essay for a special issue of the Polish monthly Kultura (a sort of Atlantic Monthly with a more academic bend). It is published in Polish. The topic of the special issue is economic growth and degrowth, and my contribution is to link growth with consumption, with a personal touch. The essay may still undergo small editorial changes. Please do not distribute it until the final version is approved by the Editorial Board.

When I was forced to emigrate from Poland in 1968 I left behind a country of scarce consumer goods, gray-looking objects on store shelves, poorly designed clunky soviet electronics, and an unmotivated sales and service staff. Twenty there years later, when I visited Poland in 1991 for the first time, the picture was not much different. In the communist economy of scarcity there had been few incentives to foster or expand consumer markets. What a difference a decade or three of capitalism has made!

By the early years of the millennium the country became flooded with consumer goods. Essentially everything could be bought if one only had the money, and advertising relentlessly assaults one’s senses from all directions. During my numerous visits to Poland since 1991 I have watched how the entire society increasingly focused on “catching up” with the West. This term, which I often hear in conversations with
Polish friends and acquaintances, essentially means increasing consumption as manifested in material possessions and personal comfort.

To me the most striking changes in the Warsaw area, where I spend most of my time, are: the beautification of this lovely city, the rapid spread of US-type suburbs, the proliferation of shopping malls, the rising tempo of life, and the leisure travel to distant places around the globe. It seems as though the pent-up demand — built during the four decades of enforced living in dreary-looking soviet-style apartment blocks and restrictions on international travel — has simply exploded. And where once upon a time people spent their abundant leisure time on social gatherings, cinema and theater, books and strolls in the glorious Warsaw parks, there is now constant rush. So many things to do, so many people to outcompete, so much money to be made,
so many goods to acquire, and so little time to get it all accomplished!

The educated Polish middle class indeed uncannily resembles its U.S. counterpart: helicopter mothers and their rushed, over-enriched children, the fear of kidnappers and sexual perverts, the relentless barrage by children advertising, the positional consumption. In my sad wisdom built on the U.S. experience I point out to my young Polish friends moving to suburbs that they will spend the best years of their lives chauffeuring their children; that their and their children’s social life will have no spontaneity; that they will lose the community of neighbors, that low quality mass produced merchandise in shopping malls is boringly the same across the world. My words fall on deaf ears. More and bigger is better. And why not? This is a seductive vision, the price of which – in the growing wealth and income inequality, in the loss of spontaneity, leisure time, freedom to quit a job one hates, and in greenhouse gas emissions— become apparent only years or decades later. Furthermore, freed from central planning and government ownership, the newly capitalist Polish economy has flourished, and Warsaw has become a beautiful city with gleaming white sandstone of the 18th and 19th century buildings, gorgeous parks, skyscrapers,
and lively street life. How can I argue with that?

But the economy so highly dependent on household consumption is very vulnerable, as we are in the process of discovering at the time of this writing. In the U.S. in barely five weeks since the middle of March 2020 the Covid-19 lock-down has led to about 20 percent contraction of the economy, 22 million unemployed (14 percent of the workforce), and created the need for more than three trillion dollars in federal government help to businesses, institutions and individuals alone (not counting the expenditures on the state and municipal levels). It is widely predicted that much more will be needed. This gigantic government debt will take years or decades to pay back, affecting our collective wellbeing for a long time to come.

While the politicians and mainstream economists have recognized all along the symbiotic relationship between mass consumption and economic growth- and in fact intentionally constructed the consumer society in the US and Western Europe after WW II – the earliest academic studies of consumption in the 1980s and 90s took primarily the psychological and sociological perspectives. The former focused on individual behaviors by consumers while the latter on culture and institutions. Little attention was given to the macroeconomic aspects of consumption. But in a parallel development, ecological economists, a rebellious stream within the mainstream neoclassical economics, have since the 1970s sounded the alarms that infinite economic growth and consumption are impossible on the finite planet; therefore the society
should aim for a steady-state or contracting (degrowing) economy. They also argued that the economy should be conceptualized as residing within the ecological system rather than outside of
it. A robust political and intellectual movement – degrowth — arose in the 2000s around these ideas, initially in France, followed by Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, calling for radical social and political changes. But these economics did not study consumption as a cultural and sociological phenomenon. So, for decades these two areas of study existed in separate domains.

In 2008, Philip Vergragt, Maurie Cohen and I founded the Sustainable Consumptions Research and Action initiative, SCORAI. Our goal was to interconnect scholars and practitioners who were trying to understand, from several disciplinary perspectives, how consumer society functions; and to create a better understanding of and how to shift toward less consumption. We had no funds and no idea who else might be interested in these questions out there in the huge American landscape. To our delight, about three dozen well-established scholars and institutional
entrepreneurs showed up for the first workshop at my home institution Clark University. Since then, the field of sustainable consumption studies has emerged as a legitimate recognized area of scholarship, teaching and policy discourse as manifested in the number of professorial chairs, funding streams for doctoral research, and publications; The concept has even made it to the Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Today the SCORAI network has approximately 1400 members, an active exchange of ideas on its listserv, and provides advice to policy makers. Several major insights have emerged over the years about how consumer society functions and sustains itself, ultimately showing the symbiotic relationship between household consumption and economic growth. In the summary of the 2009 workshop at Clark we wrote that consumption is a collective activity of individuals embedded in culture and dominant institutions. That
realization resulted in a shift of focus among researchers from psychological to more systemic drivers of consumption. Yes, individuals acquire material goods in order to express individuality, signal their place in social hierarchy, share and express love and belonging, but there are also powerful systemic drivers which exploit these fundamental human needs. The drivers include the advertising machinery which generates desires, wants, perpetual dissatisfaction with the present, and aspirations (always in the direction of more), and the structure of the employment landscape. The result is the creation of a circular treadmill in people’s lives:
want > work > earn > spend > want… and so on. And the economics of the real estate market, where houses are not just dwellings and status symbols but also important debt-driven financial investments, leads us to purchase ever larger energy-hungry houses full of stuff. Research conducted by sociologists interested in the link between technology and human behaviors enriched this systemic view of consumption by demonstrating that technological advances can drive consumption by establishing new social practices. Social practices are the rituals and routines widely adopted by individuals and society in every day without much conscious thought given to them. Well-known examples of social practices include daily showering, frequent laundering and attitudes toward personal cleanliness, all relatively recent and driven by wide access to indoor plumbing, washing machines and dryers, and invention of showers (in place of baths). Their longer term impacts include greater demand for hot water and an upward-creeping definition of what constitutes a basic level of comfort: increasing numbers of bathrooms in family homes. Social practices can be understood through the lens of institutional theory, especially their “invisibility” to those practicing them, and their stability, resilience and resistance to change.

Once the drivers of consumption were exposed the obvious question arouse: does all this consumption make people happier and societies better off? The answer came from another well established research field: on human happiness and well-being. And it was unequivocal: while being better-off than those with whom a person compares themselves is a sources of personal satisfaction, on an absolute scale material consumption does not increase individual happiness or
a social well-being once the basic physical and psychological needs are satisfied. That would imply that competitive positional consumption has a detrimental effect on well-being and that people in less unequal societies are better off. And this is exactly what empirical research has shown.

The introduction of the ecological and carbon footprint accounting to the study of consumption expanded this systemic view in several directions. It showed that household income is a strong predictor of ecological footprint; introduced the concept of embodied energy of manufactured goods; and quantified the contribution of housing, personal mobility, food, and leisure travel to the overall footprint. It showed that consumption is not only about shopping for more clothing, appliances and household goods, as commonly assumed, but also about the lifestyle choices and aspirations, such as where and in what size and kind of a house to live in, how to spend leisure
time, and what kind of a community to aspire to be a part of. Additionally, the introduction of carbon footprint accounting showed that consumption is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate threats.

And what of the change agents? Can people voluntarily change their behaviors and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Here, extensive studies of various small scale social and cultural innovations showed their limited potential. The voluntary simplicity and ecovillage movements are very much fringe activities. The promise of collaborative consumption, alternative currencies and the sharing economy dissipated with the discovery of their failure to reduce ecological
impacts or change dominant practices and cultural norms. And the study of environmentally responsible citizens showed that their footprint is hardly smaller than their uninterested counterparts.

In his landmark 2010 book “Prosperity without Growth” Tim Jackson at University of Surrey pulled all these bodies of knowledge about consumption together and linked them to economic growth. At the time of this writing it is clear that consumption has much to do with the existential issues of the day: the economic growth ideology, international trade, fundamental
structure of the economy, growing inequalities, and power relations. Yes, much can be accomplished to reduce consumption through changes in infrastructure, pricing of energy, local taxation and land use, and various economic incentives, but the economic system will always pull in the direction of more consumption. The financialization of the economy and its dependence on paying off debt are powerful drivers of growth and the attendant consumption.

With political power currently in the hands for the rentier class, which greatly benefits from this system, is a shift toward a steady-state or degrowing economy feasible? Or are we to travel on the current trajectory of growth until the earth’s ecological boundaries are exceeded so far that the economy collapses altogether? What would happen if we all decided not to consume?

I never thought that I would see the day when the answer to the latter question materialized in all its dimensions. But here we are, staring at it, during the Covid-19 crisis. The greenhouse gas emissions are down but at a great price of tremendous human suffering, the future of which is highly uncertain. The forecasts range from the “we shall jump-start the economy and soon recover” to dire predictions of human dislocation, irreversible damage, and future galloping inflation.

The familiar adage says: “never waste a good crisis”. And indeed, as I write this essay the blogosphere and webinar sphere are full of opinions on how to take advantage of this crisis toward social and economic reforms. No doubt this will continue exponentially in the near future. In this essay I want to add some of my own thoughts on how we might be able to flourish in a post-consumer society.

The Covid-19 crisis has abundantly shown that in a consumer society a sudden reduction of consumption is associated with unemployment, business bankruptcies, and a lot of human suffering. Therefore, any attempts at reducing consumption need to be carefully planned.

First, the economy needs to be rebalanced in the direction of less dependence on household consumption and toward larger spending on social welfare, including healthcare, education, public housing and transportation, environmental management, and other elements of social welfare. The concept of Universal Basic Services, popularized by Anna Coote at New Economics Foundation, provides a conceptual framework for this goal (this contrasts with the concept of Universal Basic Income, which seeks to increase household purchasing power).

Essentially, after five decades of neoliberalism I advocate the return to the principles of the West
European welfare state, but with a fundamental difference: this time the economy must be viewed as being embedded in the ecological system and has to respect its natural boundaries. The doughnut economics, introduced by Kate Raworth at Oxford University, is a helpful visual metaphor for that kind of a society. It says that society needs to function within the boundaries of two concentric circles (which form a shape of a doughnut). The smaller circle represents the floor of a thriving society: ecological impacts of meeting the society’s basic needs, from nutrition, shelter, education and health to gender equality, justice, others; while the outer circle defines the ceiling not to be transgressed, the planetary ecological limits.

The ecological economics community needs to aid this transition by developing macroeconomic models for a steady-state or even contracting economy. Peter Victor, a Canadian economist, has been modeling a low- and no-growth economy for his country and has shown that social prosperity with substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a steady state economy while securing full employment, economic security, less inequality, more leisure time, and control of national and personal debt.

To achieve such an economy, we would need a political will and forward-looking national government policies regarding taxation and investments in infrastructure and institutions. After five decades of unchallenged reign, the neoliberal ideology needs to be set aside. But such an economy will also require a bundle of decentralized policy initiatives aiming at disincentivizing large footprint lifestyles. These will of course be country and locality specific. In the US, for example, local land use and property taxation policies as well as cooperative or otherwise community land ownership arrangements (such as land trusts) would turn the middle class away from wanting ever larger houses in distant car-dependent suburbs. Such structural changes would
over time also de-emphasize the culture of consumerism.

By all indications, the Covid-19 crisis is giving rise to political mobilization on several fronts. In the US these include movements against growing inequality, privatized for-profit healthcare system (and increasingly the educational system), growing economic insecurity of the workforce, and the assaults on science and evidence-based policy making. These movements can open opportunities for a push toward a non-growth-oriented economy which would provide for collective and individual wellbeing.

Finally, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that a smaller footprint lifestyle of taking walks and bicycle rides, less air travel, more engagement with the immediate family, cooking family meals, gardening, and a slower rat race have great benefits. This is the time to reflect on the meaning of good life.


  1. Anna Coote and Andrew Percy “The Case for Universal Basic Services.” Polity Press 2020.
  2. Tim Jackson “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. Second Edition.” Routledge 2017.
  3. Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. ” Chelsea Green Publishing 2017.
  4. Peter A. Victor “Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster. Second Edition.” Edward Elgar 2019.

My Parents: Three-time Refugees

My mother came from poverty and struggle in a shtetl of Poland. Born in 1914 in Lask, a small town near Lodz, she was the youngest of eight children and her father died when she was one year old. That pushed the family into poverty; she often went hungry. They moved to Lodz in search of employment. In that industrial city each sibling went to work in one of the many factories there when they turned 14 years old, and my mother was no exception. As a young adult she joined the communist movement, inspired by the ideas of a better society than the one she experienced. This is how she met my father.

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When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, her political involvement allowed my parents to grasp the threat that Hitler represented for Jewish people. The other family members did not want to think about it, did not believe it. As communists, my parents would be the first target of the Nazi occupiers, a and it was clear that they had to run. As soon as  my father recovered from an almost fatal wound he received as a soldier in the Polish Army, they crossed the border to the Soviet Union and became one of the tens of thousands Jewish refugees in Ukraine. Although crossing the border was dangerous, once they were in the Soviet Union, they were safe. They became employed in industry and started making some kind of life for themselves until June of 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. They were refugees again, this time landing in Uzbekistan. Everybody suffered terrible hunger, some people, especially infants, perished from starvation. With all the Stalinist terror and other atrocities that took place within the Soviet Union, I always remind my friends and acquaintances that this was the only country that gave shelter to tens of thousands of Jewish people fleeing the Nazis. This perspective made me rather unpopular in my local temple.

Two years ago, my husband Philip and I traveled through Uzbekistan and I saw these cotton fields where my mother once worked. I also met in a small synagogue in Bukhara, where an old rabbi told me stories about the waves of Jewish refugees from Poland and the German-occupied soviet territories. I am grateful to be able to speak Russian to hear these stories.

When the war ended my parents repatriated to Poland. They found only  death and ruins. They were refugees again, with nothing but clothes on their backs. It is hard to grasp the incredible movements of people in that part of Europe during the first post-war years. Millions of displaced people: by war, by retribution and fear, by the redrawing borders of Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, the soviet-dominated and allies-occupied territories. Not a single member of my parents’ large extended families was alive. I do not understand how one moves on after such a tragedy. But move they did, and built a new life again, starting with having two children in quick succession, to focus on life rather than death. I was born in the German city of Breslau, which was renamed Wroclaw after it became a Polish city in 1945.

Our life in Poland was in many ways good. My parents became the new intelligentsia, my mother was like a sponge for catching up on all the formal education she had missed. Our life was cultured and interesting, my father was an executive in a large industrial state enterprise in Warsaw. But it was also bizarre. There was no family: no grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, like my friends. I was usually the only Jewish child in any school situation. We were secular people in a profoundly homogenous catholic country. I knew nothing of Jewish traditions and rituals, which my parents viewed as religious and therefore not quite for them; yet I was deeply Jewish (what else could I be in the xenophobic catholic Poland?).

And then came the year 1968. There was a political power struggle in the highest echelons of the ruling communist party, which required scapegoats. As it has been for centuries in that part of Europe, Jewish people became the convenient scapegoats. Within two months, totally out of the blue, we lost everything: my father’s position, our comfortable apartment, our dignity, our future. Staged demonstrations on the streets called for Jews to go where they belong: Palestine. The unrelenting official media called us the “fifth column”. After listening to a major speech by the First Secretary of the Party on TV, my mother turned off the TV and quietly said: this is the end, we must pack our bags. She was 54 years old and my father was two years older. They were going to be refugees again.

This time, I made the first move. More about that when I write about my life. This essay is about my parents.  They came to America a year after I made it (my older brother came somewhat later). We landed in Saint Louis, not out of choice but accidentally (that is another long story). The suburban America, and especially the South, was a terrible landing pad for urban and urbane Europeans who did not speak English and did not drive, and who were used to seeing people and life on city streets. My father became a caretaker of the Hillel House at Washington University. It was a beautiful old mansion, and the job came with a small apartment. For my mother this decline in their social position was a deep shock. I think that she was ashamed. But not my father, who considered any honest job to be fine. In 1970 I moved to New York and within the next two years my parents and brother followed me. New York made sense to us, and we did not want to see Saint Louis again, ever.

And this is where this story becomes a true American immigrant story. At the Washington University Hillel, my amazingly resilient father reinvented himself as a specialist in building maintenance at Jewish Community Centers. He found such a position at the Forest Hills JCC in New York. This man, who has never seen air conditioning before coming to America, took charge of the HVAC system, the swimming pool, and all the other engineering systems. He was also in charge of the facilities for weddings, bar mitzvas and all high holidays. Since he had a gift for organizing working teams of people, he hired young Russian engineers immigrants who had just barely arrived in America, and who knew how to do these jobs. After all, he spoke fluent Russian. He helped them with settling in the new country and they helped him become a great success.

And he brought home tips: from happy fathers of the bride, from happy fathers of bar and bat mitzvah kids, and so on. Many generous tips. At this point of my story, my mother comes to the stage. She took that money and invested it. How did she figure out how to invest, this homemaker from impoverished shtetel family, and a communist? I do not know. But she invested well, especially during the high inflation years of the Carter Administration, and the high-yield bonds during the almost bankruptcy of New York City during the 1970s. Needless to say, my parents had a secure and long retirement years, spent winter in Miami Beach and summers in the Catskills. They travelled abroad. 

My father died in their beloved New York City at age 100 and my mother at 102. Dementia took away from her the final several years, but until then, there was not a day, rain or shine, that my parents did not go either to Central Park, or City Corp, or a performance, always in the company of people with stories no less amazing than their own. One of their friends, who as a child survived the war hidden in a monastery, was working at the World Trade Center  on September 11, 2001. She ran down from the 50th floor and crawled under a parked truck just minutes before the building collapsed. A survivor is always a survivor.  They never stopped walking the city streets (20-30 blocks was a typical “spacer”), they never stopped interacting with the great city. These were survivors. Whenever my spirit drops, I think of my indestructible parents, and I fearlessly face another day. And I also think of how lucky my children and grandchildren are to have multigenerational extended large families, which I have always missed so much.