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Criticism of Consumerism and Criticism of Capitalism

by Chris Methmann Friday, Sep. 12, 2008 at 10:55 AM

With the striking climate change, the "western lifestyle" has come into crisis. Our consumption is more environmentally-friendly but we simultaneously consume more and more so the environment is hardly relieved. Necessary social framing conditions are faded out.


By Chris Methmann

[This article published in: arranca, August 14, 2008, “Die Axt am Pfeiler des Kapitalismus” is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Many regard anti-consumerism as an ideology that shifts social problems to individuals. Still criticism of consumerism is urgently necessary and can win many with the right themes.

With the striking climate change, the “western lifestyle” has come into crisis. On average, every person in an industrial country emits 2.7 tons of CO2 every year in commodity consumption, another 1.5 tons for food, and 1.3 tons in car driving. Two tons CO2 per capita a year would be “climate-just.” With all legitimate criticism of politics and the economy, a radical criticism of consumerism is imperative.


Discussing climate change and consumption is not enough. The business-as-usual faction generally rejects anti-consumerism by referring to higher overriding priorities with the slogan “ecological industrial policy, not renunciation” (Sigmar Gabriel). “Expropriate electricity companies” (attac) and “abolish capitalism (radical left) are also heard. On the other side, worried ecologically-minded persons propagate the complete opposite with individual emission accounts or CO2 credit cards: the personal CO2 economy.

LOHAS – practicing the “lifestyle of health and sustainability” – quietly becomes a popular theme. Bionade is promoted as the “official drink for a better world.” Internet portals celebrate the hybrid SUVs from Lexus. The house built partly out of bamboo is regarded as evidence for the green IT-trend.

In 2007 the German consumer research association concluded under the title “Climate Change Revives Domestic Demand”: Germans are shopping sustainably for the first time out of fear of catastrophe. The dominant discourse sells right consumption offensively as the best measure for protecting the atmosphere. An emancipating anti-consumerism falls between these stools and seems almost helpless. The criticism of some models produces useful building blocks for a progressive anti-consumer discourse that can ultimately become an anti-capitalism discourse.


The term LOHAS originally comes from marketing and refers to the educated high-income strata of “young creatives” with a propensity to sustainable and fairly priced products. This is no accident. The idea that protecting the atmosphere essentially involves different consumption makes high demands regarding incomes and creative possibilities. Its generalization to the whole society is impossible under present conditions of social division and precariousness. Environmental consciousness in Germany has been falling since the 1980s – while social inequality and insecurity have rapidly increased. When existential anxiety grows, attention for ecological problems declines. Spending more money for ecologically friendly products only seems acceptable under conditions of relative social equality. Anti-consumerism only succeeds in a climate of social security.

Social structures are left out in the public debate on consumption, as the example of transportation shows. We all should best leave the car idle. The Aachen foundation even urges an annual individual coal budget with a CO2 credit card on which the amount of every tank fill-up is recorded. Individualization of the problem becomes fatal. Social framing conditions for “right” consumption are faded out. However I can only decide “rightly” when I really have an elective possibility. In many cases, this presupposes a strong public sector, for example free public transit or a democratized power supply.


In many areas, consuming differently is simply not enough. The CO2 intensity of consumption has declined in nearly all industrial societies since 1990. The amount of CO2 released in producing a unit of gross domestic product has fallen continuously. The hook is that total emissions either increase or decline less than the CO2 intensity.

Our consumption becomes more environmentally friendly but we simultaneously consume more and more so the environment is hardly relieved. This is especially true for consumption that doesn’t serve direct need satisfaction. In 1997 the average lifespan of a personal computer was seven years; today it is two years. In 2007, 33 million new cell phones were sold in Germany. Only renunciation can help. Whether individual products are produced somewhat more sustainably or less electricity is consumed is secondary.

Air transportation is another concrete example on how far the debate over renunciation must go. An air flight to the Caribbean causes approximately four tons of CO2 per passenger. Whoever only makes this trip every two years doesn’t need to screw on any energy savings bulbs at home any more. Technical alternatives in the long term cannot be expected. Compensation payments don’t bring any social solution although they may be individually important. People simply cannot fly so much.

But who decides who may fly and who may not? Forcing renunciation through expensive prices would be unjust and impracticable. The only way fewer flights can be made acceptable would be a democratic debate about who may fly for what purpose and who may not. The example of meat consumption is not as extreme but is similarly clear. Limitation on meat consumption is urgently necessary but is only possible through a social debate. Criticism of consumerism also means the collective and democratic discussion of a conception of the good life for everyone.


Criticism of consumption must mean less consumption altogether, not only different consumption. This insight puts the axe to the basic pillar of globalized capitalism: the growth of the world economy. In this way, criticism of consumerism becomes criticism of capitalism. The economic debate about whether growth is possible without higher resource consumption or whether capitalism without growth is conceivable is not critical. Long before the question becomes relevant whether less consumption is socially imaginable. In capitalist societies, consumption is no longer a means to needs satisfaction. Consumption is a central medium of socialization itself.

In lifestyle capitalism, the style of a person, his or her identity is directly connected with the things consumed, the journalist Robert Misik writes. We buy meaning, not only things. If this is true, the demand of consumption renunciation leaves an identity void. Therefore criticism of consumerism must be complemented with ideas of social acknowledgment beyond consumo ergo sum (“I consume, therefore I am”). Participation in social life, an unconditional basic income or solidarity economies on a small or large scale could be ways to fill the gap arising through consumption renunciation.

The bad news is: we cannot avoid a radical criticism of consumption that includes a debate on renunciation. The good news is: the attempt is rewarding. A radical anti-consumption discourse goes along with leftist demands: a democratic society, social justice and security, a good public infrastructure and ultimately emancipation from capitalist conditions. These are presuppositions for making an anti-capitalist discourse out of an anti-consumerist discourse.


(The more you buy, the better person you are, we are told.)

(“Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams.” Watch the constable ticketing people for rushing through life!)

(“Century of the Self.” Hear Hitler say: We’re going to destroy democracy, mass unemployment and chaos.)

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