Dying to Consume – sustainability and dilemmas of imagined futures
Room: ABF016 (15) – Arts building first floor, room 016.
Date: Wednesday, 02 December 2015
University of Southern Denmark
Contemporary consumer societies are predicated on unsustainable lifestyles. (Reich 2001: 374). However, rather than being a problem of the present, sustainability is set up as an exchange with an imagined future. The Brundtland Report for instance defines sustainable development as development that is able: “…to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…” (Brundtland et al. 1987: chapter 3 section 27, emphasis by the authors). Sustainability therefore requires conceptual clarity about the future. However, Connolly & Prothero note that sustainability is related to ‘how long’ consumption levels can be upheld; ‘sustainable consumption’ is therefore inherently a ‘fuzzy concept’, because “scale, scope, point of reference and the time horizon remain unclear” (2003: 276). This conceptualization opens up the need for a more rigorous theorisation of ‘time horizons’.
We suggest taking anticipated death into account as an important ‘time horizon’ and ‘point of reference’ in sustainability. Drawing on Heidegger (2010) we propose that cultural orientations toward mortality inform fundamental structures and dilemmas involved in consumer imaginations of the future. Sustainability therefore forces us to consider inherent differences vis-à-vis individual’s relationships to society in pre and post dying futures.
We show that these dilemmas of death appear as a number of culturally informed wicked problems in ‘future oriented consumption’ (Robinson 2015). The “wicked problems” are a series of dyadic alternatives, or marketing conundrums, such as those between: “consumer goods and hope” (Conolly & Prothero 2003: 286); ‘psychology’ and ‘materiality’ (ibid. 288), ‘hedonistic consumer’ vs ‘responsible consumer’ (D’Antone & Spencer 2015: 57); ‘structural conditions’ vs ‘agency’ (ibid); ‘materialism’ vs ‘spirituality ’ (Stern 1997: 16); and ‘personal well-being’ vs ‘welfare of the community’ (Seth et al. 2011: 24). More specifically we claim that Capitalism affects these dilemmas by intervening in the intersection of sustainability and anticipated future mortality, such that it serves the hegemonic interests of big business (Kilbourne & McDonagh 1997).
With a theory of the imagined future that centres on constructions of anticipated mortality, it becomes possible to mobilize insights from the anthropology of death (Green 2008; Palgie & Abramovitsch 1984) to critique the capitalist appropriation of sustainability and the problems this gives rise to when pursuing ‘sustainable consumption’ (Dolan 2001). Based on ethnographic research in the United States, Green (2008) finds that American cultural scripts emphasize heroic struggle and individual control over the timing and manner of our deaths, informed by a salvationist ethos (Sahlins 1996) that emphasizes self-enlightenment and freedom to choose over communal engagement and ethical commitment. We therefore hypothesize that in America and in Britain especially, increasingly individualized notions of “good deaths” is implicated in society-wide reluctance to seriously address issues of sustainability. This perspective suggests a need to change our ways of thinking about sustainability, and shift our focus from imagined futures to the present.