Daniel Welch and Ulrike Ehgartner
Imagined futures of consumption have played a central role politically and economically since the end of the Second World War. This took the form of the promises of ‘prosperity for all’ and ever rising living standards, realised through mass consumption in the consumer society. Today, in the wake of the financial crisis, there has been a profound loss of faith in these central promises of consumer society (Ipsos Mori 2017; Pew Research Centre 2013). This crisis of expectation is concomitant with the existential challenge presented by climate change and ecological limits to the horizon of limitless economic growth on which the twentieth-century democratic imaginary was founded (Mitchell 2013).
There is of course a longer genealogy to the loss of faith in what Susan Buck-Morss (2002) has called the post-war “mass utopia”. But nevertheless, the relations between the loss of a hegemonic vision of future consumer society and our contemporary political moment demands consideration. If once shared visions of the future of consumer society no longer hold, how do people imagine the future of the consumption?
Methodologically this question presents a challenge: how to elicit imaginative projections into the future? Essay writing has been used by a number of studies to elicit individuals’—usually young people’s—imaginative engagement with the future, such as Ray Pahl’s (1978) study of the expectations of school-leavers on the Isle of Sheppey. As part of a wider project— Imagined Futures of Consumption—we collaborated with the Mass Observation Project (MOP), at the University of Sussex, on a ‘Directive’ (113: Autumn 2018) to the MOP’s panel of volunteers on ‘The Future of Consumption’.
MOP Directives enable researchers to present the panel of volunteers with a series of prompts and questions to which they provide open written responses. As Vanessa May puts it, Directives offer people “the space and time to think about and develop their thoughts on a topic that is rather abstract and therefore can be difficult to investigate though interviews” (May 2018). The volunteers are keenly aware of producing material for a public historical archive and Directives elicit rich responses about expectations of everyday life, and how people imagine themselves embedded in historical context. We asked the volunteers “to imagine the future of the consumption of goods and services—for yourself, for younger generations and for society as a whole”.
We received 121 responses. The volunteer panel is not demographically representative, with a disproportionate number of women and older respondents. Our sample is further skewed towards older people, with the median age of respondents in their 60s. Speculatively, older respondents may have been prompted to respond by questions posed in the Directive that used comparison to the past to elicit speculation on the future, such as: “Over the last 50 years our expectations of normal consumption have changed considerably – will expectations change as much again?”. Indeed a number of respondents dwelt in detail on the changes in expectations within their own lifetimes.
In analysing the data we sought commonalities amongst, on the one hand, variations in future orientation, and on the other thematic content, to explore whether distinct imaginaries of future consumption could be identified. For the former we drew on the work of the cultural sociologist Anne Mische (2009, 2014), who has delineated distinct “dimensions of projectivity” through which we orient ourselves to the future. We found four of Mische’s dimensions pertinent to our data, and adapted each of their definitions into a scale between ‘high’ and ‘low’. “Expandability” marked the degree to which we imagine future possibilities opening up or contracting. “Volition”, the sense of whether the future is moving towards us, beyond our control (low), or whether we make the future ourselves (high). “Connectivity” describes the degree to which an imagined logic of connection between present and future events is realised. Lastly, “sociality” marks the extent to which consideration of future actors, social relations and interactions is articulated, or the “principles of linkage…between actions and events”, as Mische (2009) puts it.
Three distinct imaginaries were identified. The two dominant imaginaries were both framed by issues of climate change, resource scarcity and environmental crisis. They shared the strong expectation that the future of consumption would look very different from today’s resource-hungry consumerism. The prompts and questions of the Directive took pains to avoid any mention of climate change, the environment or sustainability. Notably, then, if the Directive cued these responses it was only so in the sense that the notion of ‘consumption’ conjoined with that of ‘future’ did so.
Inevitably, the current concerns of the public sphere will inform and frame people’s understandings. At the time the volunteers were writing—between December 2018 and February 2019—David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ series had shocked British audiences with the scale of plastic pollution in the ocean and urban air pollution had become a hot topic. But our volunteers were writing before Extinction Rebellion, Attenborough’s “Climate change: The facts”, and Greta Thunberg and the school strike movement rose to public consciousness.
We identify two distinct imagined futures of consumption that we call “Positive Constrained Consumption”, expressing sentiments on a spectrum from guarded optimism to the utopian, and “Negative Constrained Consumption”, spanning the dystopian to the apocalyptic. In the positive imaginary, climate change and ecological crisis could militate towards a better world of more frugal lifestyles based on values of care and simplicity. The overconsumption of current consumer society will simply not be possible, ameliorating the negative effects of consumerism. For most, this meant a return to more local and seasonal produce, reduced travel and a less throw-away society—a slower, calmer world of far more modest appetites and expectations of everyday consumption, which for our older respondents resembled that of their earlier years.
For our less optimistic respondents, planetary, demographic and economic pressures will lead to a future in which the comforts and conveniences of current consumer society are no longer possible. The imaginary of “Negative Constrained Consumption” envisages futures of limited access to resources and consumer goods, ranging from visions of material discomfort and economic inequality, to those of apocalyptic social and ecological collapse. This is a future world in which an ecologically imposed end to economic growth leads to a zero-sum game of survival, in which “billionaire elites will be trying to buy bread and air”.
Beyond thematic differences, the two “constrained consumption” imaginaries were distinct at the level of dimensions of projectivity. The positive imaginary was distinguished by high expandability and high volition. This imagined future was one of expanding possibilities—living the good life within ecological limits was considered a possibility; but those same limits offered the possibility of negative social outcomes too. A positive future could be made, realised by the volition of ideological or value-driven transformation. By contrast, the vision of “Negative Constrained Consumption” was one of constrained possibilities only. Here, overpowering forces over which we have no control make the future: rising sea levels, resource scarcity, mass migration, and natural disasters.
The third imaginary was a more familiar vision of technological progress. In this imagined future, automation, digitisation and other technological trends will lead to the reorganisation of work, leisure, infrastructures and society over all. For some this is a future of alienation and hyper-individualism. For others, a world of new forms of community and leisure. But unlike the imaginaries of constrained consumption these positive and negative appraisals were not aligned with distinctions in their dimensions of projectivity. They shared a low sense of volition. The future is understood here as coming towards us—a set of fairly immutable trends made by impersonal actors and powerful institutions.
The imagined future of technological progress also exhibited a high degree of sociality—through the sense in which these trends would radically re-organise everyday life. Perhaps surprisingly, this contrasted with both the positive and negative futures of “constrained consumption”. Both of the latter lacked a contextualisation of everyday social life in the future. For the positive vision of constrained consumption, there was overwhelmingly a sense of the future as a return to a past before the overconsumption of contemporary consumerism. While the positive vision evinced critical stances towards ‘consumerism’ and ‘the throw-away culture’, the dimension of sociality was generally limited to the collective outcomes of individual acquisition and utilisation of goods. The negative vision, ironically, had an additional focus on social inequality—as a trend towards a world divided between the billionaire elite and the immiserated rest—but there was little sense of dynamic social relations between these classes.
Both visions of constrained consumption were notable in having very limited articulation with ideas about technology, except negative appraisals of its consequences, such as plastic pollution. This is quite at odds with mainstream sustainable consumption or sustainable development discourse, in which technological solutions to environmental impacts are foregrounded. This perhaps underscores the extent to which sustainability discourse is generally an elite or professional discourse.
If nothing else, these lay imaginaries illustrate the degree to which ecological concerns have permeated popular understandings of the future. The nature of the volunteer panel cautions about over generalising. However, these popular imaginaries suggest ecological issues have far greater salience for political mobilisation than much mainstream politics acknowledges—and amongst not merely the school strikers but their grandparents too. But while we found a significant positive appraisal of a more frugal way of life, the negative vision of constrained consumption suggests how ecological constraints may play into a darker, zero-sum politics.
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Daniel Welch is a Lecturer in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. He has recently published in The Journal of Consumer Culture, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Environment and Planning A and Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy. Imagined Futures of Consumption is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/R007942/1). Ulrike Ehgartner is a Research Associate in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. She has recently published in Sustainable Consumption & Production and in Global Discourse.
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