The Aquisition of Things


Fig 1 Advert for Mark Ellis’ ‘Bazaar of Fancy Goods’ placed in the 1850 visitor’s Directory to Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire: an ‘improved bathing place’  

 Historian Frank Trentmann sees ‘the acquisition of things’ as the very foundation of culture and he argues it’s central to our understanding of the self and society.  Since the late Middle Ages we have built a vision of prosperity which is based on people’s insatiable propensity to acquire things. So far we have not discovered how it might be possible to live better by consuming less.  Learning how to sustain well being with less stuff is essential for our survival on a planet with finite resources.  

Humanity now exists in a world where relationships between culture and ecology dominate present day life and our view of the future. Our relationships and actions primarily operate  through a matrix of consumption. Consumption is a system of meaning. We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase so that identity is now constructed by the clothes we wear, the vehicle we drive, and the music on our smartphone. We are what we consume and consumerism is the driver of economic growth and the goal of world development. 

Against the surge of consumerism there are already those who have resisted the exhortation to ‘go shopping’, preferring instead to devote time to less materialistic pursuits (gardening, walking, enjoying music or reading, for example) or to the care of others. Some people (up to a quarter of the sample in a recent study) have even accepted a lower income so that they could achieve these goals.

A limited form of flourishing through material success has kept our economies growing for half a century or more. But ever-growing consumption it is completely unsustainable in ecological and social terms and is now undermining the conditions for a shared prosperity within and between nations. The materialistic vision of prosperity has to be dismantled. The first step is the obvious need for government to get its message straight. Urging people to Act to reduce CO2 emissions, to insulate their homes, turn down their thermostat, put on a jumper, drive a little less, walk a little more, holiday at home, buy locally produced goods (and so on) will either go unheard or be rejected as top down manipulation for as long as all the messages about the importance of highstreet consumption point in the opposite direction.The idea of an economy whose task is to provide capabilities for flourishing within ecological limits offers the most credible vision to put in its place. But this can only happen through changes that support social behaviours broadly defined as anti-consumerism and reduce the structural incentives to unproductive competition based on status.  Achieving a lasting sense of well being relies on providing capabilities for people to flourish, but within certain limits. Those limits are established not by us, but by the ecology and resources of a planet with limited resources. Unbounded freedom to expand our material appetites just isn’t sustainable. Embracing degrowth and the fair sharing of resources between peoples are essential.  

Looking to the future, most people now accept that it is imperative that we consume less carbon-based energy to combat climate change.  However, few people understand that the developed world is consuming year on year more natural resources than Earth can regenerate. This is overconsumption. Climate change and resource scarcity together are today’s problems. Generally, the discussion of overconsumption parallels that of human overpopulation; that is the more people, the more consumption of raw materials takes place to sustain their lives. But, humanity’s overall impact on the planet is affected by many factors besides the raw number of people. Their lifestyle, including overall affluence and resource utilization and the pollution they generate are equally important. 

Currently, the inhabitants of the developed nations of the world consume resources at a rate almost 32 times greater than those of the developing world who make up the majority of the human population.  An index of the level of resource consumption is the ecological footprint, which measures human demand on nature, i.e. the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through a  year on year ecological accounting system. These accounts contrast the biologically productive area people use for their consumption to the biologically productive area that is actually available within a region or the world.  Biocapacity is the productive area that can regenerate what people demand from nature. In short, reducing humanity’s ecological footprint is as important as reducing our reliance on carbon energy, which in any case is also part of the ecological footprint.  

By taking more than Earth can provide and maintaining unequal ecological footprints between nations the globe is inching towards a disaster. A global ecological disaster can only be averted if the principles of one planet living, together with equality, non-discrimination and the fair distribution of the benefits of development are taken seriously.  These changes have to be implemented and monitored at the national and international levels. When the benefits of development can be shared, allowing effective opportunities and access for the 80 per cent of the world’s population and the 80 per cent of populations within nations that suffer discrimination, we will have begun to pull back from the precipice. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.  Indeed, between the invention of the concept of ecological footprint in the early 1990s, by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of overshooting Earth’s productive capacity has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to equitable sustainability with each passing day.  Further, the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run. For example, it has been calculated that if the world is to meet its 2 degree goal for global warming a global average decarbonisation rate of 6.4 per cent per annum will be needed. This goal was set at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, but in 2018 none of the signatory countries had come anyway near meeting the target. The UK could take a great leap towards the target immediately by banning oil fracking, abandoning plans to build a third runway for Heathrow airport and reinstating the policy on carbon capture and storage, which is an essential technology for least cost decarbonisation of the UK economy.  Instead, the government is dragging its feet, looking over its shoulder to see what other nations are doing.

Origins of consumerism

Medieval serfdom began in Europe with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, ushered in a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe. During this period, powerful warlords who had gained land by conquest encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labour. Without the peace guaranteed by Charlemagne’s unified rule, the serfs needed a lord’s protection. In the absence of a strong centralized government, the threat of violence lurked everywhere: from bandits and the armed bands of warlords. 

Serfdom was an institution that reflected a common practice whereby great landlords ensured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so. Serfdom was a component of feudalism, the dominant social system in medieval Europe.  The nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles.  The peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.  In exchange for tending a lord’s demesne, a serf could expect the lord’s private army to protect them.  The lords needed the serfs, too; labour shortages caused by war and disease limited the available workforce in Western Europe. This is part of why the terms of serfdom constrained a peasant’s rights to resettle—it maintained a servile labour pool for the lordly class. The terms of these agreements could vary widely, as they were derived from a variety of sources, such as”barbarian” codes of the Germanic kingdoms, Church law, and Roman property ordinances, but some labour practices were relatively standard.

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.  In the early Middle Ages the payment was generally “payment in kind” and through “service,” sometimes also called “boon work.” Payment in kind means it was goods—so much milk, eggs, meat, hay, and so on. Book work is labour done for free on the lord’s own land, including plowing and harvesting, fixing fences, collecting wood, repairing buildings, tending animals, and so on.

Medieval serfs (aka villeins) were unfree labourers who worked the land of a landowner (or its tenant) in return for physical and legal protection and the right to work a separate piece of land for their own basic needs. Making up at least 75% of the medieval population, serfs were not slaves as only their labour could be bought, not their person, although they were subject to certain fees and restrictions of movement, which varied according to local custom. The hub of the medieval rural community and reason for a serf’s existence was the manor or castle.  This was the estate owner’s private residence and place of communal gatherings for purposes of administration and legal matters. The relationship of the peasantry to these manors and their lords is known as manorialism. Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.

Even though the word “serf” comes from the Latin “servus” and means “slave,” the situation of medieval serfs was quite different from that of the slave of Classical times. There were two kinds of serf: those who were bound to the soil and those who were bound to the lord. Servants were drawn from the latter class. The serf usually had a separate hut with an attached garden and lived with his family.  The serf had duties assigned to him by the steward of the manor and was responsible for the tilling of demesne land and the provisioning of the manor house. He received, in return, food and clothing for himself and his family. He could produce things which he was allowed to keep for himself or sell.

Serfdom declined by the 14th century CE due to social and economic changes, particularly the wider use of coinage with which serfs could be paid, allowing some the possibility of eventually buying their own freedom.

The unfree farming that elite landlords oversaw, sustained the military units that protected their estates and the people who worked and lived on them. The wealth generated by these feudal estates powered the Crusades, and, following the Black Death and the Peasant Revolt, would begin to concentrate in the peasant class. This would lead to artisan specialization, the growth of cities, and a desire for goods from far-off places. Those factors together would lead to the rise of guild economies, the Renaissance, and the colonial voyages of discovery.  Self sufficiency of serfdom was giving way to consumerism, which developed into materialism driving consumer spending, fed from top to bottom of society by year on year economic growth.   

Then there was the rise of leisure mobility.  There were new opportunities in Britain for buying stuff with the appearance of cheap railway excursions in the 1850’s.  People took day trips and holidays from inland cities to the nearest ‘improved bathing places’, a cherished experience to be remembered by the purchase of souvenirs, also described as fancy goods, to decorate the home (Fig 1).  This general behaviour characterised a developing Western tourist culture that was already destroying the attractive environmental features that spawned it. It was vilified as a disease in 1906 by the American writer John Walker Harrington when he declared his country’s addiction to tacky souvenirs purchased abroad as an “incipient mania for cherishing the useless”  It was reaching fever pitch and was being “propagated with amazing rapidity”.

Cultivating a Culture of Hope

Now, consumer society, deeply embedded in history, seems hell-bent on disaster; but dismantling the social logic of consumerism doesn’t look easy. Overthrowing it completely could drive us even faster along the road to ruin. But incremental changes are unlikely to be enough. Faced with this kind of intractability it’s tempting to retrench. To cling more tightly to existing tenants. Or we could resort to a kind of fatalism, a position where we accept the inevitability of a changing climate, an unequal world, perhaps even the collapse of society and concentrate all our efforts on personal security.

The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. An essential prerequisite for a lasting prosperity is to free people from this damaging dynamic and provide opportunities for sustainable and fulfilling lives. This is the prescription for a ‘green consumer’.

A green consumer wants to buy things produced in a way that protects the planet and is compatible with safeguarding the environment for the present and the next generations.  He/she behaves in an environmentally-friendly way within a culture of hope. As a concept, ‘to be green’ ascribes to consumers the responsibility or co-responsibility for addressing environmental problems through adoption of environmentally friendly domestic behaviors, such as the use of ‘organic products’, renewable energy and goods produced with zero, or reversable environmental impact. 

Hoping for something is to wait expectantly and eagerly; looking forward to the day when your hope will become reality.  A culture of hope utilizes four “Seeds of Hope” which provide the social/emotional learning that grows into ecological prosperity.  These seeds are:


Place & Belonging

Pride & Self-Esteem

Purpose & Passion

Five recommendations of Tim Jackson in ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ focus on the task of producing green consumers and their hopeful behaviour, which is the basis of new definition of non-material prosperity as something to be hoped for. 

1 Working time policy

 Working time policy is important to a sustainable economy for two reasons. Firstly, the number of hours that people work bears an important relation (via labour productivity) to output. Specifically, output is equal to the number of hours worked multiplied by the labour productivity. In an economy in which labour productivity still increases but output is capped (for instance for ecological reasons), the only way to maintain macroeconomic stability and protect people’s livelihoods is by sharing out the available work. This often happens already on a smaller scale during recession. 

Secondly, reduced working hours have been sought for their own sake for various reasons. One of these, ironically, was in the belief that it would increase labour productivity. This was the rationale for example for the French ‘experiment’ with a 35-hour working week. The reasoning behind this is that when people work shorter hours they are more productive during those hours because they are better rested, more alert and fitter. These benefits of course have been called for in their own right by employee organizations and campaigners. Specific policies to reduce working hours and improve the work-life balance could include:

  • greater flexibility for employees on working time; 
  • measures to combat discrimination against part-time work as regards grading, promotion, training, security of employment and rate of pay; 
  • better incentives to employees (and flexibility for employers) for family time, parental leave and sabbatical breaks.

2 Tackling systemic inequality 

Systemic income inequalities increase anxiety, undermine social capital and expose lower income households to higher morbidity and lower life satisfaction. In fact, the evidence of negative health and social effects right across unequal populations is mounting. Systemic inequality also drives positional consumption, contributing to a material ‘ratchet’ that drives resources through the economy. Tackling inequality would reduce social costs, improve quality of life and change the dynamic of status consumption. Yet too little has been done to reverse the long-term trends in income inequality, which are still increasing, particularly in the liberalized market economies, even policies and mechanisms for reducing inequality and redistributing incomes are well-established. These include revised income tax structures, minimum and maximum income levels, improved access to good quality education, anti-discrimination legislation, anti-crime measures and improving the local environment in deprived areas. Systematic attention to these policies is now vital. 

3 Measuring capabilities and flourishing 

The suggestion that prosperity is not adequately captured by conventional measures of economic output or consumption leaves open the need to define an appropriate measurement framework for a lasting prosperity. This must certainly include a systematic assessment of people’s capabilities for flourishing across the nation (and in different population segments) and between nations. Such an assessment would set out specifically to measure flourishing ‘outcome variables’ such as healthy life expectancy, educational participation, trust, community resilience and participation in the life of society. A number of suggestions along these lines have been made already. Perhaps the closest model to what is being suggested here is the Dutch work on developing a ‘capabilities index’. But suggestions to develop national well-being accounts also draw on this logic of ‘measuring what matters’. A further step would be to integrate such accounts systematically into the existing national accounting framework and perhaps even adjust economic accounts for changes in the flourishing accounts. 

4 Strengthening social capital.

Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task. Creating resilient social communities is particularly important in the face of economic shocks. The strength of community can make the difference between disaster and triumph in the face of economic collapse. A whole raft of policies is needed to build social capital and strengthen communities. These include: 

  • creating and protecting shared public spaces; 
  • encouraging community-based sustainability initiatives; 
  • reducing geographical labour mobility by placemaking; 
  • providing training for green jobs; 
  • offering better access to lifelong learning and skills; 
  • putting more responsibility for planning in the hands of local communities, and protecting public service broadcasting, museum funding, public libraries, parks and green spaces. 

There are some signs that the systematic erosion of social capital is being addressed. Third sector initiatives are beginning to focus specifically on building the resilience of communities. Examples of this include the International Resilience project in Canada, the Young Foundation’s Local Well-being Project in the UK and the growing international Transition Town movement.

Some support is beginning to emerge from governments’ own recognition of the importance of social capital. But state initiatives still remain isolated and sporadic. A systematic policy framework is needed to support social cohesion long term and build resilient communities. 

5 Dismantling the culture of consumerism 

Consumerism has developed partly as a means of protecting consumption-driven economic growth. But it promotes unproductive status competition and has damaging psychological and social impacts on people’s lives. The culture of consumerism is conveyed through institutions, the media, social norms and a host of subtle and not so subtle signals encouraging people to express themselves, seek identity and search for meaning through material goods. Dismantling these complex incentive structures requires a systematic attention to the myriad ways in which they are constructed. Most obviously, there is a need for stronger regulation in relation to the commercial media. Particular concerns exist over the role of commercial advertising to children. Several countries (notably Sweden and Norway) have banned TV advertising to children under 12. The creation of commercial-free zones such as the one established by São Paolo’s ‘Clean City Law’ is one way of protecting public space from commercial intrusion. Another is to provide systematic support for public media through state funding. As the Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues, ‘communities should have the right to reserve spaces free of commercialism, where citizens can congregate or exchange ideas on an equal footing’. There is also a role for stronger trading standards to protect citizens both as workers and as consumers. The Fair Trade initiative is a good example of what can be achieved by companies prepared to act on a voluntary basis. But it isn’t yet extensive enough to protect ecological and ethical standards along all supply chains. Or to ensure that these questions register on people’s buying behaviours. 

Trading standards should also systematically address the durability of consumer products. Planned and perceived obsolescence are one of the worst afflictions of the throw-away society and undermine both the rights and the legitimate interests of people as consumers and citizens. 

Unravelling consumer culture and changing the social logic of consumerism to create ever hopeful green consumers will require the kind of sustained and systematic effort it took to put it in place to start with. Crucially though, this effort clearly won’t succeed as a purely punitive endeavour. Offering people viable and prosperous alternatives to the consumer way of life is vital. Progress to reach this new prosperity depends on building up capabilities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways.  Fortunately, a small but growing group of psychologists is beginning to tackle issues such as these in the emerging discipline of conservation psychology. Conservation psychology equips us with better tools for effecting change in human behavior, including the behavior of green consumers. The starting point is that green consumers have, for the most part, used their gut instincts, rather than an empirical understanding of human behavior, to attempt to reshape human culture.

What lessons can embryonic green consumers glean from the findings of conservation psychologists? Among other benefits, studies show that cultivating hope is a critical element for motivating behavioral change in most people. While justifiably acknowledging that psychology cannot offer a one-size-fits-all approach to individuals who inherently vary in motivation and temperament, there is a strong case, theoretically and empirically, for making several generalizations about behavioural change. We know, for example, that when we create confident expectations for future success, effort will increase. By contrast, low expectations (i.e., lack of hope) robustly predict giving up.  If people expect little improvement they will invest little effort into achieving it. Attributing our current environmental predicament to inevitable factors, such as human greed or large, amorphous, multinational companies, is commonplace even among green consumers, but this habit may be counterproductive.

Another emergent behavioural concept is to “own” problems of moving to one planet living.  People must believe they can exercise some control over the situation. In effect, they must believe they are empowered to make a difference. These findings lead to the inevitable conclusion that people need to feel their contributions are desired and valued. This raises the possibility of another powerful yet underused tool that green consumers can employ.  There is no greater way to get people to internalize a biodiversity ethic than to have them participate in ecological stewardship. If geen consumers really want to make a difference, as opposed to just documenting decline, then they must strive to engage the larger public in the process of transition. Having citizens invest in creating a transition economy may have additional but important byproducts: Witnessing hope rekindled in the eyes of their disciples may rejuvenate hope in those who are fighting the loss of biodiversity in the trenches.


The other powerful behaviour to be cultivated by green consumers alongside hope is empathy.  Icons pointing in this direction are John Donne, born in 1572, the founder of the Metaphysical Poets and Adam Smith, born in 1723, a Scottish political economist and philosopher.  Both expressed the view that we all have the innate capacity to empathize with our fellow men and women. Donne famously wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”  A century and a half later in his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith wrote, “How selfish whatsoever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith referred to this as a ‘sympathy’ for others, though in modern parlance we might call it an ’empathy’ with our fellow human beings.

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When you are empathetic, you put yourself in another person’s shoes, make an effort to see the world from their perspective, and feel the emotions that they feel. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.  When we buy into today’s ever-present marketing messages that living “the good life” actually means buying “goods” without end, not only do our levels of happiness and empathy decrease, but we also waste Earth’s natural resources. The cultivation of empathetic behaviours is an antidote to consumerism and coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges ranging from humanitarian emergencies and violent political conflicts to the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity.

 When you can understand where other people are coming from, it is easier to treat then with compassion and kindness. You build stronger and more satisfying relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding. When you focus only on your own emotions and happiness, you are left with little meaning beyond family. But when you work to enhance the experiences of others around you, you experience a more fulfilling flavour of happiness through making a difference to the lives of others.  In this context, prosperity is about things going well for us: in accordance with our hopes and expectations. Everyday exchanges come to convey more than casual greeting. They reveal a mutual fascination for each other’s well-being. Wanting things to go well is a common human concern. Here lies in a vision of prosperity as the ability of all to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Empathy is one of the most effective tools at our disposal for shifting us from consumers within a ‘self-interest frame’ of thinking to a ‘common-interest frame’, where our underlying mode of thought is structured as green consumers by a concern for both ourselves and others.  At present, the self-interest frame is dominant, especially in Western societies that have inherited the hyper-individualism of a free market ideology within the consumer culture that characterized twentieth century capitalism. But if we want people to take practical action on issues such as poverty in developing countries or the related issue of how to manage the equal distribution of Earth’s resources between countries, it is essential to promote empathy.  Hopefully it helps transform people’s worldviews at the deepest level, moving them beyond the boundaries of the ego and the individualist thrust of consumer society. ‘Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought,’ writes George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, who has popularized frame analysis. It is by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others, such as oppressed minorities, future generations or even other species, that we extend our circle of moral concern, developing our sense of justice to make the leap from a self-interest to a common-interest frame of thinking. As he points out: ‘Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice’. 

Empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness, which are necessary components of justice. Moreover, there is convincing evidence that taking a rationalist approach of feeding people a barrage of facts and information about the extent of global inequality or environmental degradation is not enough to motivate action, and may actually exacerbate levels of denial.  So it is vital to work at a more profound level of using empathy to shift our mental frames to become one with the Earth’s ecosystems. An anthropocentric worldview that human beings are at the centre of the universe is no longer valid. Satish Kumar puts it this way as the basis for adopting ‘a declaration of dependence’.

“We are utterly dependent on other species and we have to take care of them. We are members of one Earth community and need a new trinity that is holistic and inclusive, that embraces the entire planet and all species upon it. So I propose a new trinity of soil, soul, society. Soil represents the entire natural world. Without soil there is no food and without food there is no life, trees, forests, animals or people”.

In this context, soul is equated with an individual’s emotional and intellectual energy, especially as revealed in the commitment to care for the environment.  In Kumar’s trinity, society is where caring individuals as green consumers come together in hope for adopting one-planet living and thereby harvesting ecological prosperity as an outcome of communitarianism.   Communitarianism is a social philosophy that, in contrast to theories that emphasize the centrality of the individual, emphasizes the importance of society in articulating the good. Communitarianism is often contrasted with liberalism which promotes individual autonomy holding that each individual should formulate the good on his or her own. Green communitarians examine the ways shared conceptions of the good life are formed, and transmitted, justified, and enforced globally..


We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming evermore resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues and is amplified.  The very foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are being undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is still a response of affluent nations to intermittent crises and not a commitment to the permanent establishment of fair shares of Earth’s resources.  Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit, dribbling only a small percentage of their increasing wealth into ‘overseas development’.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

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