Paradise Lost? — The iron cage of consumerism

Our systematic failure to address existential anxiety robs society of meaning and blinds us to the suffering of others; to persistent poverty; to the extinction of species; to the health of global ecosystems. With this think piece, Tim Jackson adds to an eclectic set of essays, published in honour of Wolfgang Sachs.


Tim Jackson

ociety is faced with a profound dilemma. To resist economic growth is to court economic and social collapse. To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival. For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in government policy. It is only marginally more visible as a public debate. When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts. And continue to do so while the economy expands exponentially.

The sheer scale of action implied by this strategy is daunting. In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of everydollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it is today. By the end of the century, economic activity will need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere not adding to it.

Simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will solve all the problems of ecological damage and resource scarcity are almost literally bankrupt. We now stand in urgent need of a clearer vision, braver policy-making, something more robust in the way of a strategy with which to confront the dilemma of growth. This is the challenge to which Wolfgang Sachs has dedicated his remarkable energy and much of his life’s work.

My aim in this short article is to address one aspect of this challenge: the role that anxiety – and our responses to it – play in consumer society. To make sense of this mission, I need first to sketch briefly the crucial dynamics of consumerism and to show how anxiety plays a role in it.


For a full read of this brief, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.


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