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Here’s a new social innovation: stop mindless consumerism

One the second day of the Masters in Social Innovation program, two questions were asked – how much is enough, and what makes for a ‘good life’?

The questions are analysed in a book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky called How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. The authors ask, within a world of ever diminishing resources, how much ongoing consumption is really necessary to achieve a ‘good life’?

That got us thinking about the Western world we live in, why it operates the way it does, and what we might do about it.

What is the ‘socio-psychological’ paradigm within which most people in the Western world appear to be enmeshed? It is not difficult to identify consumer-driven capitalism, within the framework of individual rights, as the dominant socio-psychological paradigm that Australians – and the Western world in general – adopt either knowingly or unknowingly. This worldview drives the majority of Australians to achieve what they see as the ‘good life’.

So what is a ‘good life’? Suggest to a middle-class suburban male of any age that they really do not need two 48 centimeter widescreen televisions in the one house, and you will be dismissed as a crank. Suggest to the Australian community that to achieve a good life they do not need to keep buying new products, own several of the same products in different colors or models, drive a four wheel drive in the city or have a little less than the neighbors next door, and you will be dismissed once more as a crank (if not several other derogatory adjectives).

In all aspects of our lives, we are told that what we have isn’t enough.

Retail operators will argue that consumer confidence, which is really nothing more than people consuming mostly what they do not need, is central to the entire capitalist system, and will suggest that government intervention (less taxes) or Reserve Bank intervention (lower mortgages) must take place to ensure consumers keep consuming with confidence. That’s the good life.

Now in case you think there is a case of hypocrisy here let’s establish that we love buying beautiful things just as much as the next person (like the new shoes we bought last week – despite our already full suitcases!), but you have to wonder how much we really need. And whether we’re using ‘stuff’ to fill in the empty corners of our lives when we’re not sure what else to put there.

When your starting point is one suitcase and your cultural references are zero, you’re forced to question what type of life you really want, and what you believe is of value, rather than accepting the dominant and familiar culture.

For some, that’s a fabulous freedom. For others, it could be terrifying.

Whether one is in denial or not, there is more than enough data and information to support the fact that our ongoing consumption is a serious challenge for the world’s resources. Despite this information, most Australians keep living within a socio-psychological space that asserts it is their individual right to keep consuming (even their ‘democratic’ right) despite the consequences for them, the future or other people across the world.

How can we encourage people to stop and consider what it is that creates a good life, rather than continuing to remain under the influence of the cultural messages of consumerism? What is required to provide people with the knowledge to act and define a ‘good life’ as something much more than the consumption of goods?

These questions are not new but ongoing. The challenge remains. If you have ideas on how to address this challenge, please share them! In the meantime we are going to re-read Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss‘ book, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough!



The western culture seems to tell us from a very young age to compete – it’s what we do in order to survive in our capitalist society. Critical thinker, Paulo Freire provides a good overview of how our society is linked with ‘competitive individualism’. He argues that we’re forced to compete with each other to gain access to the material ‘necessities’ of life. It happens from a young age and creates class distinctions and cultural barriers..

If we continue to follow the western way, the ‘good life’, is achievable only momentarily because this process focuses on pleasing our desires, our senses. Our sense of the ‘good life’ is represented in everything around us; it’s the external stuff – cars, family, partner, career….shoes ?
When will enough be enough? The day we choose to look within ourselves and truly believe “I am content with life just because I am alive…”
Another interesting reference – Buddhist female monk, Ven. Bodhicitta, provides a really good understanding of how we can move away from following dominate values.


That’s a fabulous question – when will we start to be content with life because we recognise the joy of simply being alive?

Paulo Freire’s argument that education systems keep people from thinking about how they are oppressed and the opportunities available to them to change their circumstances, has peculiar relevance to the majority of non-thinking affluent Western individuals who assume that they are ‘winners’. Their own consumption may lead to the diminishing of life opportunities, perhaps not for themselves, but for the future generations that they produce. An old fashioned term used by Freire called ‘conscientisation’ was really yet another way to try and empower people to think critically – even to think beyond the next 48 centimetre flat screen TV, or the size of their SUV. We all need to keep thinking!


That question mark after ‘shoes’ was meant to be a smiley face!

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