Empire of things

Illustration by Paige Clark

Denunciations of modern consumer culture have become a staple of the modern environmental movement, the product of an insatiable and corrupting need for more that is driving the planet beyond its limits. On the other side lies the neoliberal view that individual choice is an inherent good that’s driving economic growth. It’s a simplistic summary, but a useful one nonetheless.

Into this debate wades historian Frank Trentmann. His latest book, Empire of Things, is an exhaustive attempt to catalogue the global advance of goods over the past six centuries. In following cultures of consumption around the world, he complicates common misconceptions that consumerism is a modern, western export imposed upon the world. He argues that in West African societies, for example, there were distinct and pre-existing consumer cultures. Another underlying narrative consistently emphasizes the importance of broader factors beyond individual choice, such as consumption patterns influenced by company towns and work camps or government action.

Throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that Trentmann is anxious about the environmental impacts of consumption, mindful of planetary restrictions. Yet he also remains skeptical of the moral denunciations permeating the debate about overconsumption.

Corporate Knights recently caught up with him to discuss which factors brought about changes to consumption patterns in the past, similar critiques of materialism through the ages and how these lessons can be applied towards tackling our current ecological quandary.


CK: One important message in your book is that consumption isn’t simply a post-WWII western phenomenon.

Trentmann: I think it’s very interesting, from a psychological point of view, why people have difficulty with this point that things have been steadily increasing. I’m not saying that there wasn’t a boom then, but as a historian, of course we don’t just look at the past from the perspective of someone from a rich American suburb in the 1950s. From that perspective, of course all previous societies didn’t have much stuff. But it’s important to stress that people for the past 2,500 years have often thought they were going through an unprecedented period of hyperconsumption. Hence, every generation has critics saying “oh, we’ve never consumed so much – where will it all go?”

CK: And this criticism often takes on a moral or ethical tone.

Trentmann: All the way going back to Plato, and then the early Christians, who by the standards of the 1950s were not living in a consumer society, but for them it was really dangerous that people wanted new comforts. What’s interesting about the critics, if you take a very long-term view, is that they have said more or less the same things in slightly different accents. It’s been remarkably constant, even though the material history of the world has been transformed. The one thing that has changed is that in addition to the critics, you start to have voices in the mid-17th century begin to defend and support consumption. That’s really what’s new: the voices in favour of consumption that don’t just see it as frivolous or corrupting or enslaving people.

CK: This comes primarily from classical liberalism?

Trentmann: The defence of consumption comes in a number of different forms. One is an Enlightenment, proto-liberal argument, which is that it’s good that people consume because as they do, they create work by creating demand. So new fashions, for example, are good things because they create new opportunities and in so doing they create innovation and enterprise.

But the social and moral case is just as important. One social argument is that consumption is really good for society because it leads people to come to cities. They want to exchange and have access to goods, and cities are ideal for that. Cities, by becoming centres of consumption, also become cultural centres. So they’re much more vibrant, with better ideas and more diversity in all its forms.

Then there’s what I think is the most profound argument, which is one developed by William James. Sir William, a psychologist and philosopher most prominent in the 1880-1890s, completely rearranged the way to think about the relationship between the human self and objects. Since Plato, people had argued that there’s a human soul that’s really spiritual or psychological. And then there’s the material world that lies outside the human, and the danger was that the material world would reach into the soul of the psyche and get hold of it, so people would become slaves to objects. So the material world needed to be kept at bay.

What William James argued, partially through experiments and partially through reasoning, was that this is a fundamentally flawed conception of the human self. People aren’t just ideas and spirits and psyche, but also have what can be called a material self. He meant that people literally felt that their possessions became part of a person’s identity, that they became part of themselves and couldn’t be separated from it. They made the person who the person was. James argued that we knew this because when people lose a valued personal possession, they feel as if they’ve lost a part of themselves. People get attached to things, and they build up a sense of themselves and personal or family memory around that.

And I think that’s a very important point for the debate about sustainable consumption. There are these advocates for simple living contending that the way to battle excessive consumption is by living a simple life, reducing the amount of things as much as possible. Now if people want to do that I won’t stop them, but to effect larger social change that is precisely the wrong strategy. A much better strategy is to take seriously what William James said and realize that people actually care very deeply about things. It just so happens that at the moment many of these things are not very sustainable. So companies and governments need to make sustainable objects and sustainable consumption more desirable, so that people really become attached to them.

CK: Are we too focused on individual consumption?

Trentmann: There are different camps when people talk about sustainable consumption. There’s the extreme point of view, which says that this is a misnomer. All consumption, ultimately, uses up resources, no matter how much you recycle. It’s intrinsically unsustainable. On the other side you have a position which is largely an economic conception. The idea is that we can make people consume more sustainably if we send them the right signals, usually through price.

But in the middle, there’s more of a cultural and social idea that starts from the assumption that price might be useful, but there are lots of things that are unsustainable where people either don’t care or don’t know much about prices. That means a lot of what people do and how they consume really is the function of habit, rather than a conscious choice.

So if you think that habits are not choice, then your points of intervention for making things more sustainable with consumption have to be radically different. You need to target habits instead. Now this is where I think the book is interesting as a contribution, because the past is a kind of laboratory and you have lifestyle changes and changing habits all the time. For example, in Europe up until 20 or 30 years ago, people did not have a daily morning shower. That’s fairly recent. So how do these things happen?

One example I draw on in the book is from Japan, where there was a concerted campaign in the early 20th century to introduce what they called “modern living” that involved the state, a number of social movements including neighbourhood housewife clubs and organizations, as well as social reformers and architects. They were arguing that it’s unhealthy and polluting to cook with charcoal in dirty, closed kitchens where women were always kneeling on the floor.

So how do you persuade people who have always been used to cooking in a certain way? You have education campaigns all the way down to the school level, and you have infrastructure changes in cities. On top of that, you use the power of the war to prioritize new building codes and new interior designs of living areas and kitchens. Now it’s not like this happened overnight – this campaign ran for two generations, and some traditional elements of the Japanese home survived. Nonetheless, if you step into a Japanese home today, it is fairly similar in terms of the kitchen layout and bathrooms to those in the west. So a massive change.

CK: So you’re saying that this was not solely based on, or even largely based on individuals changing their lifestyles themselves?

Trentmann: That’s right, and that’s very important to stress. We’ve reached this peculiar point in modern times where governments are convinced, and perhaps many people in society too, that really people should themselves decide how they want to live and governments shouldn’t interfere too much. From a philosophical point of view this is a perfectly reasonable position to take, but from a social point of view it’s of course hair-raisingly naïve.

We don’t currently live in a world where we, as individuals, decide, every day or every year, if we want roads or power plants. There are infrastructures that are there, both material and social. And we forget that government, in the past and in the present, play a huge role in this. The state is not just a silent, passive actor. The state is very active, and whether we like it or not, one reason the way we live the way we do is because of state investments and decisions that have been taken over generations.