Stop calling me a consumer: it’s time to take back control and live our lives on purpose
Covid-19 has brought the problems of our world into sharp relief. As I think about what needs to change if we are to tackle our planetary crises and deliver social justice, I see language and the stories we tell ourselves and each other as a high priority. Near the top of my list is how we, citizens of the world, are always referred to as ‘consumers’ by politicians, business and the media. I am so much more than a consumer and so are you. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a neighbour, a friend, a colleague. I am a writer, a cook, a gardener. A campaigner, facilitator, coach and mentor. A lifelong learner. A swimmer, a cyclist. A sometimes musician. An aspiring artist. I dream. I care about my place in the world and how my life impacts on other people and nature. I think. I feel. I laugh. I cry. But in public discourse, I am a consumer. A passive person, who expects someone else to meet their needs. Like a baby bird. Beak forever open wanting more, more, more.
This is a problem. If you tell people that they are something often enough, after a while it just becomes part of who they are. Add to that the constant messages that undermine our sense of wellbeing and tell us that shopping will make it all better. Take on debt if we can’t afford it. Max out our income on monthly payments for crap that we don’t need, that clutters up our homes and becomes obsolete before we have finished paying for it. With about two thirds of the UK GDP coming from ‘consumer’ spending and personal debt standing at £60,400 per household, a staggering £1.68tn (including mortgages) between us, it’s clear that keeping people spending every penny is crucial for our current economic model to function. And as we go further into the Covid rabbit hole, it is clear to see that when we don’t spend, the economy begins to unravel. People lose their jobs. Can’t pay their bills. Fall off the edge. The balance is so fine and the tipping point so close all the time. Although we don’t see disaster until it is upon us.
For someone who has been close to a hermit since lockdown began, going into my local bank to pay in a cheque last week was a real eye opener. The precinct was busy. Maybe busier than I have ever seen it before. The cafes were full. There were queues to get into shops and it was bustling. People were definitely browsing and it felt like normal life — apart from the masks. Do other people not feel that we are standing at a precipice? That life is not normal? That we have an imperative to redesign our lives so that they work for people and planet? That Covid is a wake-up call and if we are to succeed in the future we need to learn how to consume less. Enjoy time. Become creative and learn to look after our own wellbeing — as individuals and communities.
As I ponder on this, it strikes me that the most radical act in the modern world is to break out of this cycle. To reject the notion that our most important role in life is to shop. To stop perpetuating the system that is destroying our life support systems, enforcing poverty for the many and normalising obscene wealth for the few.
Demanding that the businesses we buy from are transparent and show how they are enabling those in their supply chains to live well whilst rebuilding the health of nature’s life support systems. Stopping our demands for ever cheaper, even though we know what that does to the people and places involved in creating cheap goods and services. Learning to grow, preserve and cook food. Buying local and seasonal produce. Making and mending so we are better able to meet our own needs with less money. Redefining wealth in terms of health, knowledge, skills, creativity and time. Clean air, fresh water and good food. Flourishing communities where we support each other.
Learning that less, truly can be more. Collaborating with friends, family and neighbours so we can tackle our shared challenges together. Turning our towns and cities into spaces where we can collectively farm, prepare for climate change impacts and eliminate pollution. Sharing the fruits of our labour, so we all have enough. Seeing ourselves as part of a connected whole. Interdependent in the web of life. Appreciating the beauty in ourselves, other people and the diversity of incredible species we share our home planet and local communities with. Learning to value what truly matters — life, love and laughter. Trying, failing and trying again. Becoming our own people who get better at living well in our 21st Century reality each day. At the start of the pandemic it seemed as if the crisis would bring us closer together. But as time has passed the divisions are building again. Manipulated by vested interests who benefit from turning us away from each other. From seeing that we are all in this together on a tiny blue marble in the vastness of space.
When it comes down to it, change starts and ends with each of us. What we do, how we spend our time and money, raise our voices and care for others and our wider world. The time for blaming each other and the system is over. We are the system. And for those of us in a position of privilege we have a responsibility to act. To become the leaders we want to see, by standing up for better. Acknowledging that our privilege is not universal and that we need to challenge the status quo and spread the benefits that modern life brings, rather than protecting us and ours from imagined threats. Only by letting go of our attachments to a feeling of entitlement and learning that the good of the whole provides the best for me too, can we end these feelings of impending doom, truly listen to the needs and desires of others and find ways to co-create the future. If we don’t, then others with their promises of a better life based in division, selfishness and greed will win through. And history has shown where that can lead…
So, my conclusion as always — it’s time to grow up. Behave like the adults we are, rather than the baby bird that expects mum and dad to meet our needs. Claim our rights and responsibilities as citizens so that we leave the next generation a world they can flourish in, rather than a world of pain. Become purposeful in what we want and how we spend our hours and minutes. Make sure that Covid becomes that trigger point where we emerge from the haze and build lives that work for all of us. Time is running out. Let’s make it happen before it’s too late.