Life-long environmental justice activist, occasional writer and lecturer at the School of Law at Queens University Belfast. Originally from Donegal, raised in Derry. Recently penned A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge 2017)

Conclusion: Living in Challenging Times

The Buddha’s narrative and teaching have been transmitted across many cultures over the centuries and are always – in effect – in translation. The generic idea of the ‘buddha’ incorporates awakening and teaching for a given time or era. In our own times, our conditions of life are giving rise to a sense of exhaustion that is both external (in terms of ecological stress, pollution, and our alienation from nature) and internal (in terms of the ‘social recession’ or pathologies associated with inequality and the colonization of the life world by commercial and neoliberal logic). Out of this exhaustion – compounded by the onslaught of corporate-sponsored demands on our attention, there is a palpable demand for new forms of intimacy: The Sanskrit word for yoga is ‘intimacy’. Yoga and mindfulness can be described as practices of intimacy, practices of becoming more intimately connected with our moment to moment physical experience, a radical act of paying attention.

For the Buddhist, living simply is simply living out a radical form of non-violence, a radical act of taking responsibility, for the moment-to-moment arising of all conditions, or worlding. Caring for the self and caring for the world go hand in hand because, for the Buddhist practitioner, the quality and compassionate content of relationships (including our relations with the ‘self’, ‘others’, and the ‘world’) are always prior to the conditions and ‘things’ to which they give rise. Simple living can be an act of radical responsibility.

The Buddha referred to an unsettling characteristic of life as ‘dukkha’, which is the Sanskrit term that refers to a ‘wheel with an off-centre axle hole’. In stating that all things are marked by dukkha, the Buddha was simply observing that life can often be experienced as something that is out of kilter, always jolting or troubling us, always insisting on our attention. It is in this sense that Buddha framed his core teaching around acknowledgement and acceptance of suffering as the initial path to its cessation and the cultivation of wellbeing, in his Four Noble Truths.

To summarise the teachings of the awakened Buddha I will draw on the work of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has done so much through his scholarship, poetry, teaching and work for non-violence since the Vietnam War, to translate the insights of the Buddha into a Western idiom. Today, his non-violent orientation to the world extends to a deep engagement with the underlying conditions of ecological collapse, and a translation of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist insights into a call for mindful care of the self as a foundational practice for ecological sustainability and a global ethic.

Nhat Hanh tells a story that is popular in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing on the roadside, shouts, ‘Where are you going?’ and the first replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse.’ The story is about the human condition: the horse is habit energy pulling us along, and the rider is ‘us’….restless, always in a hurry, not quite sure where we are going, often at war with ourselves, and all too prone to falling into conflict with others.

This is why Buddhist meditation has two key aspects: shamatha (‘stopping’) and vipashyana (‘looking deeply’). Meditation begins with the art of stopping – interrupting our thinking, habit energies, forgetfulness, and strong emotions that rush through us like a constant storm. The energy of mindfulness is cultivated to enable the meditator to recognize, be present to and transform these energies. The second function of shamatha is to calm the emotions by following the breath, and the third is resting.

As we have noted, the Buddha’s teaching confronts our human condition. Part art, part science, the Buddha’s approach is full of paradox: the first of his Four Noble Truths is ‘dukkha’, often translated as ‘suffering’ but literally referring to that dimension of human experience that is ‘hard to face’. The word ‘dukkha’ is a compound of ‘duh’ which means ‘difficulty’, and ‘kha’ which can refer to the hole at the centre of a wheel into which an axle fits. So the word dukkha can mean a poorly fitting axle, something out of place, awry, or at odds with itself.

Mark Epstein (2013, 28) compares the observational posture of Buddhist meditation or ‘bare attention’ without reactivity (not clinging to what is pleasant and not rejecting what is unpleasant) to the quality of presence that a mother brings to a child:

One of the central paradoxes of Buddhism is that the bare attention of the meditative mind changes the psyche by not trying to change anything at all. The steady application of the meditative posture, like the steadiness of an attuned parent, allows something inherent in the mind’s potential to emerge, and it emerges naturally if left alone properly in a good enough way.

In his Fire Sermon the Buddha used the metaphorical image of fire to describe the ubiquity of trauma in our lives: everyday life is on fire not only because of its fleeting nature but also because of how ardently people cling to greed, anger and egocentric preoccupations. He counselled that we are all feeding the flames of these metaphorical fires (also known as greed, hatred and delusion) motivated by our insecure place in the world, by the deep and felt experience of dukkha, of not fitting in. For the Buddha the fires are defences against acknowledging things as they are, instinctive attempts at protecting ourselves from what feels like an impossible situation. It is from this imagery that we get the word Nirvᾶna, from the Sanskrit ‘cease to burn’ or ‘blow out’.

The Practice of Wellbeing

In Buddhist terms envisioning a model of ‘simple living’ is inseparable from the invitation to cultivate a deep transformation in our individual and collective orientation to the ‘self’ and to ‘the world’, and the embrace of a new or deeper materialism that implies a new intimacy, care and compassion. Buddha’ core teachings point to practices that give us access to a mode of simple living that gives expression to an experience of liberation: a release from suffering, a discovery of wellbeing, and a restored intimacy with all things. Let us return now briefly to the Buddha’s systematic teaching on liberation from suffering: The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering
  2. Arising of Suffering

iii.            Cessation of Suffering (wellbeing)

  1. How wellbeing arises

The passage from the naming and recognition of suffering through to a realisation of wellbeing is signposted by a series of teachings called the Twelve Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma (teaching on what is). For each of the Four Noble Truths there are three stages: Recognition, Encouragement and Realisation.

This passage or pedagogical journey commences with the first Noble Truth: suffering. The first turning, called ‘Recognition’ refers to a universal recognition that suffering – whether it is physical, physiological or psychological – is a companion of our life. The second turning is ‘Encouragement’ derived from recognition and looking deeply – with compassion, non-judgement and kindness – in order to understand the causes and conditions of suffering. The third turning is ‘Realization’, marking the point of understanding.

The Second Noble Truth of ‘Arising Suffering’ commences with ‘Recognition’ of our tendency to increase our suffering through our initial reactive responses, whether these are words, thoughts or deeds. At this point in the process, attention is given to those elements or ‘nutriments’ that have helped feed our suffering. The Buddha identified four kinds of nutriments that can lead to our happiness or our suffering:

–              Edible food

–              Sense impressions

–              Intentions

–              Consciousness

The first one, ‘Edible food’ is familiar. The Buddhist teaching is that we must learn to distinguish between what is healthful and what is harmful, and practice Right View when we shop, cook and eat so that we preserve the wellbeing of our body, mind and planet. This entails looking deeply to see how our food is grown and processed, so that we eat in ways that preserve our collective wellbeing, minimize our own suffering and that of other species, and allow the earth to replenish itself. The second nutriment that demands our attention is ‘Sense impressions’. In Buddhism the mind is regarded as one of the senses so we have to consider six realms of contact with sense objects, including media, advertising, movies, TV, social media and video games. Mindful approaches to these stimuli can protect aspects of our consciousness from unwholesome sense objects with the potential to feed our cravings, violence, fear and despair.

The third nutriment is ‘Intention’ or volition also described as the will. In Buddhism, volition is considered the ground of all our actions. It is in this arena where mindfulness and bare attention can interrupt the energy driving us towards certain apparent satisfiers or promises of fulfilment in accumulation, status, revenge, possessions. Thich Nhat Hanh (1998, 35) writes: ‘We need to cultivate the wish to be free of these things so we can enjoy the wonders of life that are always available – the blue sky, the trees, our beautiful children. After three months or six months of mindful sitting, mindful walking, and mindful looking, a deep vision of reality arises in us, and the capacity of being there, enjoying life in the present moment, liberates us from all impulses and brings us real happiness.’

The fourth nutriment is ‘Consciousness’. In Buddhism this is sometimes described as the ‘seeds’ sown by our past actions and the past actions of our family and society. These seeds can take the form of thoughts, words and actions that flow into the sea of our consciousness and create our body, mind and ultimately our world. There’s an old saying, ‘You are what you eat’. In Buddhism this applies equally, if not more so, to everything – every seed – that we allow to feed our consciousness. In a world where we are invited to export our attention – around the clock – to social media, 24-hour news cycles, advertising, and TV – the invitation to cultivate bare attention has never been more challenging and timely.

The Third Noble Truth encompasses a very popular concept in contemporary policy and news circles: wellbeing. The movement from realizing the possibility of wellbeing to its actual realization is a movement from transforming (not running away from) suffering, acknowledging its impermanence, and reaching out to touch those things that bring peace and joy: discovering that the true miracle is to walk on the earth! This is a stage that, above all, demands an alignment of mindfulness and practice or embodied realisation.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path out of suffering towards wellbeing. It commences with a recognition of the Eightfold Path or practice manual which sets out those elements of learning, reflection and practice. The elements of the Eightfold Path are more than guidelines or ethical imperatives but describe the aspects of embodied practice (centred on the individual practitioner’s own life experience) and behaviours sustained by a regular mindfulness practice:

–              Right View: The capacity for deep understanding and ‘waking up’ especially to the errors that accompany our experience of subjectivity and perception;

–              Right Thinking: Entails an alignment of mind and body, using the breath; interrupting fear-based thinking that leads to further suffering;

–              Right Speech: Closely related to Deep Listening with compassion and silence, Right Speech is truthful and aligned with the ends of social justice and non-exploitation;

–              Right Action: The basis of Right Action is mindfulness and the practice of non-violence towards self and others;

–              Right Livelihood: To practice Right Livelihood is to earn a living without transgressing the Buddhist ideals of love, compassion and non-violence;

–              Right Diligence: Nourished by joy and interest, Right Diligence lies in the ‘Middle Way’ – it is neither to be found in the extremes of austerity nor in sensual indulgence; it is associated with joy, ease and even humour;

–              Right Mindfulness: The Chinese character for mindfulness or ‘remembering’ is made up of two parts: ‘now’ and ‘mind/heart’. Mindfulness is to be fully present and able to touch deeply what lies before us, with a ‘beginner’s mind’ on the first morning of creation;

–              Right Concentration: Living each moment deeply sustains concentration, and this gives rise to insight.


The Historical Buddha: A Living Parable for the Age of the Anthropocene

The historical figure, Siddhatta Gotama, probably lived and taught between the years 563 and 483 BCE in the foothills of the Himalayas. The iconic story of his birth into an economically and politically influential family in the village of Kapilavatthu and, at the age of 29, the tale of his subsequent renunciation of this relatively comfortable material existence in favour of the holy life of the wandering ascetic living on alms (bhikkus) has echoed down the centuries. The story has a special resonance in our own age because Siddhatta’s quest – in common with other prophetic figures that would emerge across the world during the pivotal or Axial Age (800–200 B.C.E) (Armstrong 2001) – was sparked by a restlessness and disillusion with received convention and tradition. Change was in the air.

Siddhatta’s response to his time and place – marked by considerable social disruption – was characterized by a courageous and strikingly modern response to the stark realities and fleeting nature of our lives on earth. In a discourse to the people of Kalama who had become confused by conflicting doctrines and teachings, Siddhatta advised that it is proper to doubt, to be uncertain and to refuse to act on that which has merely been repeated or presented as tradition, even if it is offered as a sacred teaching. (Batchelor 2010, 98-99)

In the course of several centuries the Axial period marked a decisive shift in collective human consciousness (of itself and of the world), with figures such as Confucius and Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Socrates and Plato, emerging within their own distinct worldviews to launch transformations in thought and understanding. The great thinkers of the Axial period shared a sense of a world gone awry and set about interrogating inherited truths, often turning inwards to uncover beauty, order and a new horizon of meaning.

It is useful to recall that recorded history only begins around 3000 BCE. Siddhatta and the other great thinkers of the Axial period represent an important moment in the register of human consciousness itself – a formative moment when humankind began to articulate in a new way what had, up to then, been a dim memory of our long passage out of the Paleolithic era. In crossing this threshold of self-consciousness our species encountered finitude – most fundamentally, the reality of death and the passage of time. It has been suggested that it is precisely from this emergence into self-conscious knowledge and an awareness of time – both associated with our unique human predicament and a deep restlessness rooted in chronic insecurity – that we derive our myths of ‘the Fall’. Loren Eiseley puts it rather beautifully: ‘The story of Eden is a greater allegory than man has ever guessed.’ For what was lost was the blissful ignorance of the natural animal that walks ‘memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.’ (Eiseley, cited in Oelschlaeger 1991, 333)

Siddhatta formed a desire to liberate himself from the transient life of the passions, attachments and delusions. He became convinced that it was possible in the midst of this predicament we call life to experience a cessation of the sources of delusion and unhappiness, and pursue that which is free from ageing, death, sorrow, corruption and conditioning. And part of his solution was to retrace our steps to the still point of the ‘beginner’s mind’ (Suzuki, 2001) that, in some respects, draws on the pre-conceptual experience (the ‘first mind’) of immediacy with wilderness (before ‘the Fall’ into consciousness of time).

We have entered the axial age of the Anthropocene – a new turning point in the history of humanity, in the ongoing story of creation and, in all probability, a turning point in human consciousness. Today we are confronted by the unprecedented extent to which our human technologies, institutions and collective imaginaries have emerged during the course of the past 500 years as the most decisive influences on the fate of our planetary home and the atmosphere. Our ecological crisis is above all a provocation to return to our own fractured narrative of human-nature.

Siddhatta’s story is received today as a universal parable of a young man driven by a deep insight into the transient nature of life and its comforts, and a determination to embody a liberating path beyond the suffering associated with our human predicaments. It is an ancient story that pre-figures an emerging collective narrative or imaginary around wellbeing and social change in our own time – one that points to a contemporary sense of our psychic exhaustion and disillusion with the surface features of modern lifestyles and institutions that are increasingly mediated by a political economy of hubris, celebrity, and habit formation – an economy of spectacle that underpins today’s global circuits of production and consumption.

Little is known about the precise circumstances of Siddhatta’s decision to abandon his home life and his family. What we can surmise is that at the point of his departure his existential dilemma – his conviction that an attachment to things and people bound him to an existence that seemed mired in pain and sorrow – was not dissimilar to the experience of many of his contemporaries who opted for the life of a forest monk. What is distinctive and resonant in the Buddha’s life is his eventual response to the questions posed by the transience of life and its passing comforts: an ultimate rejection of the extremes of asceticism in favour of a ‘Middle Way’ dedicated to finally making peace – even falling into joy – with this fragile, all too brief sojourn on earth.


We have known for some time that modernity and its exemplary mode of material transmission in the form of capitalism has only progressed by imposing collateral damage on society and nature. Indeed, for Carlisle, Henderson and Hanlon,[i] well-being is the collateral damage. They agree that the science of well-being and its critique are, despite their diversity, re-connected by, and subsumed within, the emerging environmental critique of modern consumer society.

Eckersley has linked static or declining levels of well-being in ‘modern’ societies because they focus primarily on economic and materialist concerns, to the exclusion of other values, and are characterized by rampant individualism and consumerism.[ii] The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has documented the history of Western modernity as a continuous obsessive and compulsive modernisation in every sphere of life, with profound consequences for how we live, act and think.[iii] His description of mobile and de-territorialized capital under the sign of ‘liquid modernity’ captures many of the dynamics that bring uncertainty and transcience into modern life. One of the vehicles is consumerism and its culture of disposability, wherein consumers are guided by aesthetic interests, not ethical norms. In the absence of ideals or recipes for a ‘good life’, the result for more and more individuals has been an experience of mental depression and feelings of impotence and inadequacy.[iv] For Apffel-Marglin and Bush,[v] and Hathaway and Boff,[vi] the provocations forced by the global environmental crises – and their implication in a series of social pathologies – invite an investigation that must revisit the origins of a paradigm of knowledge and power codified in the 17th century, and which quickly established a homology with the expansion of the market economy and the rise of the modern State. The historical resolutions – arising from the need to restore a sense of certainty in the wake of the spiritual-cum-epistemological movements in the Renaissance, and provoked by the Reformation – left deep traces in the paradigm of modernity that was to emerge.

As Jackson and Victor (2011)[vii] have noted, capitalism – due to the ‘productivity trap’ (growth=jobs=social stability) – has no easy route to a steady state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse. Jackson[viii] believes that any new economy will have to take three steps: i. establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity; ii. develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability; and iii. Redress the damaging and unsustainable social logic of consumerism. On the latter, Jackson has noted that the profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services (‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1934)[ix] and the way in which the continual production of novelty is intimately linked to the symbolic or communicative role that material goods play in our lives. Noting that the social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, Jackson adds that it is also detrimental ecologically and psychologically, contributing to a ‘social recession’. He advocates structural change designed to address the social logic of consumerism, consisting of: i. dismantling the perverse incentives for unproductive status competition; and ll. New structures that provide capabilities for people to flourish – and particularly to participate meaningfully in the life of society – in less materialistic ways (Jackson 2011:163). One avenue will be the development of non-consumerist ways of understanding and being in the world. It is envisaged that a less materialistic society will increase life satisfaction; and a more equal society will lower the importance of status or positional goods.

The ‘social recession’ manifests in a number of symptoms that flow from a disintegration of social ties or what Zygmunt Bauman[x] has described as social liquidity, including “consumer society” wherein all things, goods, and people are treated as consumer objects. Liquid society is the result of a process that has accelerated from the early 1980s along with neoliberalism and globalisation; it is a mobile, transient, precarious society in which the disintegration of social ties reaches levels that have been hitherto unknown. Bonaiuti[xi] (2012:41) has linked this disintegration to: i. the spread of individualistic behaviours and to positional competition; ii. a contribution to the loss of well-being in contemporary societies; lll. A loss of resilience of social organisation when faced with external stress (economic or ecological); and iv. to a clue to comprehending why contemporary societies seem to show little reaction when confronted with the multidimensional crisis we are facing.

Many of us are now familiar with the argument that advanced capitalism is hitting up against both planetary boundaries (Rockstrom et. al. 2009)[xii] and ‘social limits’[xiii] associated with myopic behaviour and hyper-individualism. But what if the ‘social recession’ is not only undermining our psychological wellbeing but also undermining our ability to respond to the ecological crisis?  As Bauman[xiv] (2005:117) suggests, ‘Imagining the possibility of another way of living together is not a strong point of our world of privatised utopias’. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the way we experience the deep socio-cultural patterning of advanced capitalism. Perhaps caring for the self is a necessary pre-requisite for and accompaniment to our collective response to the larger systemic crises.

Tracing the rise of the post-Fordist brand of newly invigorated capitalism in 1980s Britain, Rutherford[xv] (2008) describes how the new capitalism extends commodification into the realms of subjective life and invades the space of creative living (Winnicott)…’Just as early industrial capitalism enclosed the commons of land and labour, so today’s post-industrial capitalism is enclosing the cultural and intellectual commons (both real and virtual), the commons of the human mind and body, and the commons of biological life.’  Paul Virno[xvi] has argued that the productive force of post-Fordist economic activity is ‘the life of the mind’. Not just cognition but also intuition and the symbolic world of the unconscious, where communication is non-verbal. Rutherford detects a tragic  dimension in the culture of capitalism that has depoliticized class while heightening the inequalities and social gulf between classes. Consumption may offer the pleasurable pursuit of desire but it is also a mass symbolic struggle for individual social recognition, which distributes shame and humiliation to those lower down the hierarchy: ‘The pain of failure, of being a loser, of being invisible to those above, cuts a deep wound in the psyche’(Rutherford 2008, p.14). In turn, this kind of stress dramatically increases our vulnerability to disease and premature death.

In a report on Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (2009)[xvii], the World Health Organisation described mental health as a fundamental of the resilience, health assets, capabilities and positive adaptation that enable people to cope, to flourish and to experience good health and social outcomes. It is also a key pathway through which inequality impacts on health. There is overwhelming evidence that inequality is a key cause of stress in itself and also exacerbates the stress of coping with material deprivation. It is noted that communities across Europe place a high value on well-being just as the limitations of consumerism are being more widely reflected on in relation to children, family life and the basis of civil society.

Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere where we must, finally, negotiate and engage with the crises of ecology, Hershock describes the market valorization of convenience and choice as signalling both a general narrowing of our horizons of personal responsibility and, over time, a severe compromise of relational capability and attunement. Each act of commodity consumption marks a smooth and efficient paving over of opportunities for developing the complex attentive and relational skills associated with contributory virtuosity. And, in the process of handing ourselves over to the purveyors of expertly designed and manufactured goods, services, knowledge products, and meaning, we render ourselves increasingly in need of expert, globally mediated, care. Degraded environments, then, are inseparable from degraded consciousness, in a dual pattern of degradation that at once devalues what is experienced and lowers experiential quality.

Hershock goes further, suggesting that the colonization of consciousness is in many ways a more critical threat to our possibilities for realizing truly liberating environments than is the depletion of soil, the fouling of our rivers, lakes, seas, and skies. The mass media have become the primary system through which the attention economy manages to be a net producer of dramatic entropy or situations in which no matter what choices we make, they will not ultimately make much of a difference.

At least two primary sets of responses to such investigations are emerging. Both elements will have to form part of what I am calling a political economy of attention for the age of the anthropocene. At the macro-level of the economy and society, the totalizing drive of the neoliberal phase of capitalism – whose rise accompanied the decades that preceded and followed on the heels of the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio in 1992 – has reached a point of exhaustion both in terms of the need to revisit the capitalist ideology of ‘growth’ (and its role in concealing the institutionalization of inequality across countries and within countries) and to confront the challenge of redesigning an economic system in the service of people and respectful of the planet’s ecological and atmospheric boundaries. As Jackson has outlined,[xviii]meaningful steps to a transition to a sustainable economy must establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity, develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability, and redress the damaging and unsustainable logic of consumerism.

Integral to the macro-response is an emerging recognition that a parallel and urgent challenge for Western citizen-consumers is the need to recast the notion of prosperity in a new language of flourishing and well-being rooted, in part, in a reclamation of ‘attention’ and ‘somaesthetics’ from the complex of capitalisation. Institutional support, consistent with a new social logic, will also be required to support a new and holistic appreciation of the human being as opposed to the self-interested ‘radical subjectivism’[xix] cultivated by and in the service of the market. As Sachs observes in his chapter on ‘The Mindful Society’, an integral part of restoring balance to our engagement with society, health and the economy, will be a restored quality of mindfulness as a key element in silencing the ‘relentless drumbeat of consumerism’.[xx] Mindfulness and contemplative practices (yoga, tai chi, meditation) are already embedded in American classrooms from Princeton to Westpoint, where students begin their classes in silence. For Apffel-Marglin and Bush, the emergence of contemplative practices in our universities is an entirely appropriate response to the 21st century ‘onto-epistemological situation we find ourselves in’, one that requires new tools for empathy and inquiry, tools that allow us to inquire into a world with which we share our ‘interbeing’ and support a recovery of ethics.[xxi] Hershock describes mindfulness practices as an alternative technology – an alternative to our technological bias toward control and wanting. For control has silenced the things and people sharing our world, making it impossible for them to spontaneously and dramatically contribute to our narration.[xxii] Unfortunately, a strategic silencing of alternative ways of seeing the world and the human being has been one of the major achievements of unfettered capitalism, a strategic silencing that effectively patrols what can and cannot be contemplated in the course of current global environmental diplomacy.

Twenty years after the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED), much of the optimism generated by the political and media spectacle of high-level earth politics has dissipated. The proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and summits that followed 1992 points to an unprecedented achievement in international diplomacy but also to the gap that continues to exist between the aspirations of the ‘children of Rio’ and a world haunted by an all pervasive fear that much needed change – notably at the level of society, communities and individual lifestyles in the developed world – has been too little, too late. An acceleration of global environmental diplomacy has taken place alongside, and apparently with little impact on, an unprecedented era of globalized trade, investment and the ascendancy of financialized capitalism that has left few parts of the world untouched. In twenty years of credit-fuelled spending and consumer confidence, more people, perhaps in all of human history, got to witness the sublime beauty and complexity of this lonely planet on television screens, video players, and Hollywood movies. The same media complex today bears tidings of a global recession, the spectacle of stalled climate negotiations, rumours of an impending energy crisis, and a widespread collapse in confidence in the political class. We are at once captivated by our dilemmas and yet condemned to an intimate distancing from our bodies, minds and the earth under the spell of capitalist realism.

[i] S. Carlisle, G. Henderson and P.W. Hanlon, ‘”Wellbeing”: A Collateral Casualty of Modernity?’, 69:10 Social Science and Medicine (2009), 1556.

[ii] R. Eckersley, ‘Dialogue on Despair: Assessing the West’s Cultural Crisis’, 28:2 The Futurist (1994), 16.

[iii] Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Polity Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Open University Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000); and Z. Bauman, The Individualized Society (Polity Press, 2001).

[iv] S. Carlisle, ‘Modernity and its Consequences for Wellbeing’, Cultural Influences on Health and Wellbeing in Scotland, Discussion Paper 6 (January 2008), available at <;.

[v] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above.

[vi] M. Hathaway and L. Boff, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009).

[vii] T. Jackson and P. Victor, ‘Productivity and work in the new economy: some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (2011), 1(1): 101-108.

[viii] T .Jackson, ‘Societal transformations for a sustainable economy’, National Resources Forum (2011), 35:155-164.

[ix] J. Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development. (Transaction Publishers, 1934 London)

[x] Z. Bauman, Society Under Siege. (Polity, 2002, London)

[xi] M. Bonaiuti, M. ‘Degrowth: Tools for a Complex Analysis of the Multidimensional Crisis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism(2012), 23:1, March, pp.30-50.

[xii] Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society (2009), 14(2): 32. [online] URL:

[xiii] K. Raworth, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, Oxfam Discussion Paper, February 2012.

[xiv] Z.Bauman, Liquid Life. (Wiley, Oxford 2005).

[xv] J.Rutherford, ‘The culture of capitalism’, Soundings: journal of culture and politics (2008), 38: 8-18.

[xvi] P.Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an analysis of contemporary forms of life. (Semiotext Foreign Agent Series, 2004).

[xvii] World Health Organisation/L.Friedli, Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (WHO Europe Office,2009)

[xviii] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 163.

[xix] See Marglin, n. 22 above, 64.

[xx] J. Sachs, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Random House, 2011), at 161-183.

[xxi] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above, at 21-22.

[xxii] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above , at 280.



In the Western experience, it seems the Kantian-inspired bar on consideration of the sensuous affect as integral to the agency side of pure morality has , it seems, contributed to a disembodied moral life that contributes to an ethos of pleasure and comfort-seeking as a poor substitute for ‘the good life’. The ‘goods life’ has trumped the good life. Another Buddhist commentator, David Loy, describes ‘attention’ as the basic commodity – the fundamental target of capitalisation as the production complex seeks to convince us that the solution to our dukka[i]or nagging sense of lack is the next purchase.

Commodity culture has turned the relation between morality and the sensuous on its head. This is most visible in the impoverished value systems of narcissism in celebrity culture and the accompanying forms of violence inflicted on the body. In an essay on Michael Jackson – ‘so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask’ –  Chris Hedges observes that the fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain.[ii] It is designed, rather, to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back. Rowe coined the term ‘attention economy’, explaining that the basic resource of the new economy is not something provided to the consumer but something provided by the consumer to the capitalist complex, namely ‘mindshare’.[iii] ‘But what if there’s only so much mind to share?’ he asks.[iv] Might the social depression and stress that accompanies the culture of consumerism be traced to the commodification of cognitive space – a new frontier in the long history of enclosure…an enclosure of the cognitive commons, the ambient mental atmosphere of daily life.

If Nitzan and Bichler offer a compelling account of the totalizing drive of dominant ‘capital as power’,[v] then Fisher’s Capitalist Realism serves as the user handbook for the consumer immersed in the universe of unfreedom posing as unlimited choice. Capitalism, writes Fisher, in a nod to Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto[vi]  –  is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics. This vision of control and communication no longer relies on subordination but extends an open invitation for all to interact and participate.

Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism encompasses much more than the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is what he describes as a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action. Here we recognise the penetrative power of capitalisation – reaching across institutions where forms of social control can deliver ‘attention’ and recruit it in the race to ‘beat the average’ return.[vii]

In the process capitalism engages in an ‘amoral affective engineering’, preferring to articulate injunctions in terms of ‘health’ rather than ethics. Fisher writes: ‘Morality has been replaced by feeling. In the ‘empire of the self’ everyone ‘feels the same’ without every escaping a condition of solipsism’.[viii] Noting the prevalence of widespread mental health problems – including those among students in UK universities – Fisher calls for a conversion of these problems into effective antagonisms, describing affective disorders as ‘captured discontent’ caused by Capital. He concludes:

Furthermore, the proliferation of certain kinds of mental illness in late capitalism makes the case for a new austerity, a case that is also made by the increasing urgency of dealing with environmental disaster. Nothing contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth more than the concept of rationing goods and resources. Yet it is becoming uncomfortably clear that consumer-self regulation and the market will not by themselves avert environmental catastrophe. There is a libidinal as well as a practical case, to be made for this new ascesis. If … unlimited license leads to misery and disaffection, then limitations placed on desire are likely to quicken rather than deaden, it.[ix]

In his discussion on the ‘social logic of consumerism’ and delinking the prevailing understanding of prosperity as the accumulation of material wealth, Tim Jackson notes a consensus in the academic literature on the existence of a ‘social recession’ in modern western society.[x] The consensus holds that there are rising rates of anxiety and clinical depression, increased alcoholism and binge drinking, and a decline in morale at work. Berardi[xi]notes that the technical definition of depression is the deactivation of desire after a panicked acceleration and calls on us to see depression not as a mere pathology, but also as a form of knowledge. Citing James Hillman, Berardi recalls that depression is a condition in which the mind faces the knowledge of impermanence and death. Suffering, imperfection, senility, decomposition: this is the truth that can be viewed from a depressive point of view. Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Berardi asserts that when dealing with a depression the challenge is not to bring the depressed person back to normality, to reintegrate behaviour in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal, rather, is to change the focus of the sufferer’s depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the expressive flow. The goal is to offer the possibility of seeing new landscapes, to overcome the obsessive and repetitive refrain. At the level of society, he anticipates a reconsideration of the notion of wealth and its association with purchasing power, so that a new emphasis might be placed on enjoyment. For it is in the disciplinary culture of modernity that has equated pleasure and possessing that many of our problems have their origin. And economic thinking created scarcity and privatized social need in order to make possible the process of capitalist accumulation. In the days to come, Berardi anticipates that politics and therapy will be one and the same.

[i] A Buddhist term associated with suffering arising from ignorance, craving and insatiability.

[ii] Chris Hedges, The World As It is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (Nation Books, 2001), at 40.

[iii] J. Rowe, ‘Carpe Callosum’, 9:6 Adbusters (2001).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above.

[vi] In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels had already described how capitalism had drowned the most heavily ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm in the icy water of egotistical calculation. See K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Merlin Press, 1998).

[vii] See M. Fisher, n. 4 above.

[viii] Ibid., at 74.

[ix] Ibid., at 80.

[x] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 86.

[xi] F.B. Berardi, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 214-215.

Foucault encountered Zen both in his reading and during a brief stay in a Zen monastery practicing the life of a Zen monk. In the spring of 1978 (Davisson 2002), Foucault travelled to Japan to visit a number of Zen centres and was invited by Zen master Omori Sogen, head of the Seionji temple in Uenohara, to spend several days living as a monastic and practicing Zazen. In discussion with his teacher at the temple, Foucault expresses his interest in Zen, its practices, its exercises, and rules…observing:

For I believe that a totally different mentality to our own is formed through the practice and exercises of a Zen temple.(Foucault, 1999:110)

When Foucault took up that invitation to sample the life of Zen monks in the Spring of 1978 he would have been struck by the physicality of Zen practice and the emphasis on the material or practical aspects of the life. In the Soto Zen tradition, in particular, students are constantly called back to the basics of posture, the body, and “just sitting” (shikantaza). One experienced practitioner, recalling his early impressions of Zen practice, suggests that the instruction can be so physical, so concrete and specific that the student might well wonder when the “Zen” part begins. In fact, the Zen practice is just that: to pay attention intensely to the body in all its details, to be present with the body in its physical immediacy (Fischer 2005:216). The practice extends to daily immersion in the chores of the temple, notably ‘kitchen practice’. Fischer (2005) notes that far from offering a path to transcend the material world, the process of Zen practice deepens and opens the material world, revealing its inner richness. This is accomplished not by making the physical world symbolic of filling it up with explanations or complications but simply by entering the physical world wholeheartedly, on its own terms:

When you do that, you see that the material world is not just the material world, something flat and dumb, as we might have thought…As the Zen masters show us, the material world is not superficial or mundane. What is superficial and mundane is our habitual view of the material world, which we have so long insisted on reducing to a single dimension.(Fischer 2005:218)

Zen training is the effort to learn to enter the material world at such a depth and to appreciate it. From the Zen perspective the underlying challenge is not that we are ‘too materialistic’ but that we ‘are not materialistic enough’ (Haller 2009). Too many people fail to treasure the simple things that are available, and do not have an appreciation for their utility. There is a widespread (perhaps institutionalised) forgetfulness or failure to realise that the kitchen knife can last a lifetime, that we can not only own and wear those clothes but mend them too for reuse. Haller, the Co-Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest Zen institutions in the West, recalls that there is another way of relating to material objects that we already possess and this alternative must be part of our redefinition of prosperity. Haller notes:

It is about connectedness and the way in which we are involved with our material world and with our environment. As the intimacy of involvement grows, the satisfaction grows. I think that is a shift that all of us are invited to make. That is part of the wonderful thing about awareness….mindfulness…it initiates that kind of intimacy…it initiates an appreciation for what is happening. And as we do that [practice of mindfulness], quite naturally for us there is a shift in how we define prosperity for ourselves. And as that happens for us, the compelling urge to consume more will start to dissipate. (Haller 2009)



Up to a point, Zen shares an understanding of the human condition with traditions of Western psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy. The Buddhist teaching on ‘not-self’ (anatta), for example, implies that the sense of “I” is a social construction. From this standpoint, an important question turns on how we explain the origins of the self as construct. Here the view is taken that the ungrounded or impermanent nature of the ‘self’ is repressed and gives rise to some of our existential longings for security and identity. Matthews and Hattam (2004) believe that our need to objectify the world to protect ourselves from the unbearable thought of death leads to a projection of that apparent objectivity. We live as though the world is independent from us. The apparently objective world is unconsciously structured by the ways we seek to secure ourselves within it (Loy 1996:66). Fantasies, as automatisations, are not just mental but become embodied. Projections are actually embodied in the world in the form of our own individual structuring which connects to ‘a collective dream’ (Loy 1996:67), maintained by each of us striving to secure or realize ourselves within that dream. As Miller and Rose (2008:120) describe, the consumer has emerged as a highly problematic entity, by no means a passive tool for manipulation by advertisers, but someone to be known in detail, whose passions and desires were to be charted, for whom consumption was to become an activity bound into a whole form of life that must be anatomized and acted upon. The extent to which ethnographic research methods have been deployed by manufacturers is extraordinary, as the relentless production of novelty demands ever more detail about the life world and day-to-day practices of consumers and their children.

At the root of the sense-of-lack that accompanies the Cartestian error is the struggle by conditioned consciousness to become unconditioned, autonomous or real. Anxiety ‘is generated by this fictional self-reflection for the simple reason that I do not know and cannot know what this thing I supposedly am is.’ (Loy 1996:21) The ego-self is the effort or the struggle of awareness to objectify itself in order to then grasp itself and flee from contingency and groundlessness. For the Zen practitioner, the solution to the problem of death-in-life is not a struggle against the terror of death but rather the practice of terror endured. The Zen path recommends abiding (‘sitting’) in the anguish with simple awareness. This is askēsis as embodied deconstruction, a practice dedicated to the realisation that there is no lack because there has never been any inherently existing and autonomous self that stands separate from reality, an assault on the contradictory dualistic subject-object structure of the ego in ego-consciousness. Magid (2005) describes how an experience of emptiness is simply a non-resistance to the flow and transience of our lives. In mindfulness practice, the subject watches where she resists, letting things come and go. These nodes of resistance are forms of attachment. Non-attachment is an acceptance of impermanence and non-avoidance. Magid (2005:61-62) identifies this practice with the essentials of Zen meditation:

The analysis of our resistance to change, of our unwillingness to face, accept, or mourn the impermanence or limitations of our bodies, relationships, or understanding, becomes part and parcel of what we literally sit with in the zendo[ii].

For Magid (2005a:82-83), Zen practice challenges the dualistic pictures of self and other, self and world, body and mind, inner and outer that have subtly permeated Western philosophy, including psychoanalytic therapy and theory. Zen directly confronts and destabilizes Cartesian presuppositions of the essential interiority of the self – as well as any belief in a ‘true,’ ‘inner,’ or ‘essential,’ self or nature. The true self is non self: simply the immediate, non-self centred response to life as it is.

Contemporary expressions of Buddhism, including Zen communities of practice, have carried on a sensibility for the natural world first established by Shakymuna Buddha (the historical Buddha), who began his teaching ministry by leaving home and choosing to live with his followers in the forests of Northern India. For example, Haller (2009) reported that the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest and most influential practice sites in the West, had ties with influential figures in the ecological movement from the outset, including Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, and Paul Hawken, who has jointly developed the influential concept of natural capital in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999) co-authored with Amory Lovins. The San Francisco Zen Centre and two associated centres, Green Gulch and Tassahara, were established in quick succession during the 1970s. Green Gulch was converted to organic production with the explicit objective of learning to live off the land, living ‘less is more’, and challenging the prevailing culture of consumerism in the US. In doing so, the Zen students, priests and monks were integrating the first wave of Western Zen practice with countercultural themes of their times, which have now become highly influential questions for the dominant economic model in advanced industrialised societies. The early practitioners had set out to use Zen to (re)discover a way of valuing the materials available to them, and appreciating that ‘each tool was worthy of mindfulness, worthy of careful attention, acknowledging that this object could be a tool for a lifetime’ (Haller 2009). Haller adds:

We were aware that the very nature of mindful engagement in what we were doing would produce an economy of use…in contrast with consumerism, which gives us this false notion that we don’t have to be careful, that there is this endless abundance…that we can just simply consume, discard and start over.(Haller 2009)

For Haller (2009) the invitation to our times is to look deeply and insightfully and investigate, with a radical honesty, which elements of the status quo continue to serve our interests. He continues: ‘What is asked of us now is to touch deeply what is important…so deeply that we’ll be willing to bring forth the effort that is required to shift.’ The primary function of Zen is not to pose an enormous philosophical question that has to be absorbed and understood. First and foremost, the simple teaching of the Zen tradition is ‘come into the moment’:

The process and practice of Zen, of how to discover the capacity to be in the moment; how to translate the intention into the lived activity – that is the process of Zen. This is why we consider it a daily practice, on an ongoing basis. (Haller 2009)

The writer Philip Pullman (2008) has observed that environmentalists, essentially, tell a story about us and themselves and our place in the universe. In this sense, environmentalism has something in common with the function of religion. Questions are posed: Why are we here? What is here, and what does it consist of? Above all, perhaps, we are confronted by the question ‘What does it mean to us to be conscious of what we are doing to the world?’

The questions posed by ecological crises are, above all, a series of provocations. That’s why writers have detected that the scale and nature of the ecological crises invite us to revisit our most basic assumptions. Žižek (1995:34) caught the mood with his suggestion that the radical character of the ecological crisis is due not only to the effective danger. What is at stake is our most unquestionable presuppositions:

…the very horizon of our meaning, our everyday understanding of “nature” as a regular, rhythmic process…( Žižek 1995:34).

Echoing Wittgenstein, Žižek concludes that the ecological crisis bites into ‘objective certainty’, into the domain of self-evident certitudes about which, within our established ‘form of life’, it is simply meaningless to have doubts. It is impossible, nevertheless, to seriously maintain today that in some very important way we do not ‘know about’ these problems, according to John Maguire (1996). Were we to decide seriously to understand and tackle them, however, we would require ‘increased amounts of (differently framed) knowledge. Maguire (1996:171) believes that what prevents us from pursuing such action and such knowledge is not plausibly a lack of data:

It is much more centrally a failure to integrate those data, a failure to make them real to ourselves, to give them the proper frame.

How we frame knowledge and, subsequently, our responses to crises can be enclosed by the very problems and problematizing frames we are seeking to address. One example has been identified by Szasz (2007), who has described a ‘consumeristic response’ in the form of an ‘inverted quarantine’[iii]. This is a hyper-individualised response to risk, which, in contrast with the response of a social movement or collective protest, retreats to an attempt to isolate or contain the individual from a ‘toxic, illness-inducing’ environment, often through acts of consumption.  What is proposed here is a very different response. With Hattam (2004) and Bachelor (1997) I want to suggest the need for tools and techniques that counter the social conditions that can undermine individuals’ attempts to integrate knowledge and make it real, through the pursuit of ethical practices. Hattan (2004) suggests that Zen meditation (with which Erich Fromm conducted an extended dialogue (Suzuki, Fromm and de Martino 1960)), for example, should be regarded as a ‘technology of self’ (Foucault 1988) and a basis for an ethico-political life consistent with a culture of opposition to the logic of consumerism. Citing Foucault’s interest in askēsis (Foucault 1985), Hattan (2004:112) continues:

These knowledges are yet to be commodified, or tamed by the human sciences, and have as their modus operandi a form of consciousness that is the antithesis of the logic of capitalism (Hattan 2004:112)

Heidegger used the word Gestell (Gelvin 1989) to conjure up the image of the technological disclosure of all things under the sway of ‘instrumental rationality’. Informed by being as technology, people force nature to conform to their subjective needs and expectations. Affluent consumers are supported by an infrastructure of well armed imagineers. Whenever nature proves unsatisfactory for human purposes, people reframe it as they see fit and are seduced by a misplaced technological optimism (‘technology will save us’) associated today with an over investment in the rhetoric of ‘decoupling’ economic activity and environmental impacts. Heidegger saw that this drive towards a technological ‘reframing’ inevitably compels entities to be revealed in inappropriate ways. These transgressions have begun to rebound in a multitude of environmental crises as the limits of natural systems are overwhelmed by a rising tide of technological hubris concealed by an ego-centric forgetfulness that the world it [the ego] encounters is but one possible forced disclosure among many possibilities. The applied psy sciences have co-emerged and subsequently conspired to accelerate a concealment of the modern subject’s forgetfulness as a state of being; undermining the potential embrace of a life lived in the immediate, non-self-centred response to life as it is. This is not a path to a denial of materialism, but a path to a new intimacy with the material world, supported by a meditative knowledge of beholding, gratitude and easy relations with the contingency and impermanence of life. It is one of the paradoxes of the ecological crisis that our future might be secured (for now) by an act of letting go of foundational assumptions designed to distance us from the underlying contingency of life. Contemporary practices of askēsis, notably Zen practice, are invitations to embody a radical honesty that can hold the practitioner in this surrender while, paradoxically, supporting a mindful intimacy with the world and others.

[i] Uta Liebman Schaub (1990) has argued that there is an ‘Orientalist sub-text’ to be found in Foucault’s earliest writings, and that a particular influence can be traced to the Mahajana Buddhist tradition associated with Nāgārjuna. In 1982 he seemed to recall his visit to Japan, in comments that paid tribute to ‘cultures of silence’ (Foucault 1988).

[ii] Zendo is the traditional Japanese term referring to the meditation room.

[iii] Szasz (2007) uses the term ‘inverted quarantine’ to contrast the consumerist response with the traditional notion of quarantine, wherein individuals are isolated in order to prevent the spread of a disease or illness and maintain healthy overall conditions. Today, that logic is inverted insofar as individuals pursue individual protection within a system that is, itself, a source of environmental and health risks.

The individual is a relation of opposition

Foucault recognized that the convergence of power-knowledge-subjectivity suggested an alternative model of political ethics, ‘or an ethics of resistance to the proliferation of power’ (McGushin 2007:14), a resistance to political power established in the relation of the self to itself[i]. For if it is true that modern disciplinary power, normalizataion, and biopower function by producing individualities, then the practices of the self must represent an experience of ethical life that potentially resists those forces. Foucault determined if we are to take governmentality to mean a field of strategic relations of power, in the sense of relations that are mobile, transformable, reversible, then reflection on this operation of power cannot avoid operating, theoretically and practically, with the notion of a subject who would be defined by the rapport of the self to the self. While the theory of political power as institution ordinarily refers to a juridical conception of the subject of rights, it seemed to Foucault that any analysis of governmentality must refer to an ethic of the subject defined by the rapport of the self to itself. He saw relations of power, governmentality of self and others, and rapport of self to self, in a chain of relations to be articulated in the question of politics and the question of ethics (CdF82:241-242). The individual is a relation of opposition.

For Foucault, ‘Care of the self’ (epimēleia heautou) is an attitude of mind that combines one’s comportment within the world, with others and with the self. Most importantly in this context is the dimension of epimēleia, which refers to activities, practices and techniques. Care in the ancient context does not simply refer to a state of being. It is an activity: watching over, cultivating, protecting, improving. Foucault catalogued a number of these practices:

  • Techniques for concentrating the soul; and
  • The retreat or withdrawal, which entails both physical and mental withdrawal.

The relationship between the subject and truth in ‘care of the self’ is not dealt with as a question of how the subject is able to know the truth, including the truth about itself. Foucault, rather, sought to show that the relationship takes place within an experience he described as a form of ‘spirituality’ or ‘a transformation necessary in order to have access to the truth’ (CdF82: 16-17). Spirituality refers here to a particular form of care of the self which transforms one in the necessary way to gain access to the truth. The truth is available to the subject at a price that puts into play the very being of the subject itself. Other dimensions of spirituality are the resulting self-modification of the subject; and an uncovering of truth as a fulfilment or saving experience (McGushin 2007:39). Looking back from the time of modernity, Foucault acknowledged that it is difficult now for us to appreciate the experience of truth as a spiritual practice. McGushin (2007:41) notes:

For “modernity” – and this is what is most definitive of modernity according to Foucault – knowledge is understood as “access to a domain of objects”. Knowledge is objectivity. In order to acquire knowledge, even knowledge of oneself, one must apply the proper methods of thought, logic, analysis, and so on. The experience of knowledge as spiritual work, as the struggle to win access to truth which requires not simply method but self-transformation, and the experience of truth as fulfilment of the subject illuminated by it, no longer have any meaning.

The scapegoat for this modern shortcoming – if that is how we view it – is Descartes or what Foucault himself described as the Cartesian moment.

The Cartesian Moment

Descartes’ work marks a fundamental break between the ancient philosophy practised as a mode of spiritual inquiry and ‘knowledge’, and the detachment of the subject from spiritual practice as the ground of its access to truth. As a result of this event (McGushin 2007:192), access to the truth no longer requires ascetic self-transformation; rather it requires employing the proper method of reasoning. According to this new way of thinking, this new mode of perceiving oneself as a thinking being and of perceiving the world as something to be known, self-transformation no longer appears to be necessary in order for one to have access to the truth. McGushin summarises the nature of this vital break with the tradition of askēsis:

 The cogito is a mode of subjectivity that does not appear to be linked to any particular way of living. Truth for the cogito is grounded in “evidence”, not in an ēthos produced through askēsis; one arrives at knowledge by following the proper method of thought, not by living the proper kind of life. Finally, the truth that the cogito discovers does not take the form of salvation, of fulfilment. Instead of truth, what one acquires is knowledge, an accumulation of true statements about reality. Knowing does not lead to the saving experience of truth/being; rather, it is the infinite accumulation of knowledge about things/beings. (McGushin 2007:193)

At the same moment, political power took on a new function: its new operation is no longer to impose the law on abstract juridical subjects. Rather, it will invest individual bodies, controlling them by nurturing them, taking care of them, making them healthy and ‘happy’. McGushin (2007:238) explains:

In other words, politics itself, once it comes to be defined as biopolitics, is pastoral in nature. Biopower takes over the activity of care of the self.

The modern subject of care perceives itself through the biopolitical grid. The main function of biopolitics is to institute this mode of care of the self: it is through this definition of care of the self that individuals are able to be produced and controlled. Power functions by investing, defining, and caring for the body understood as a bio-economic entity. Freedom is defined in biological and economic terms.

We have now turned full circle and crashed through to another age of limits. In fifth century Athens, self-neglect lay at the foundation of political domination, spurring Plato and Socrates to initiate a resistance in the form of a philosophical art of the self. Thinking and living have become two distinct domains. The proper conduct of the mind has been reduced to a methodological problem. The question we now face is this: Is this a sufficient basis for the challenge of rethinking (reworking) our subjective (mind/body) responses to our biopolitical enclosure in the culture and politics of consumerism?


The work of Richard Shusterman suggests that Foucault’s insights on the importance of the subject (work on the self) as a departure point for our understanding of the formative role of power (and resistance) continues to speak to our political condition. He has set himself the heroic task of setting out a new disciplinary path that reopens the door of reason and restores the body and the ‘art of living’ to a central position in philosophical consideration. His ‘somaesthetics’ is premised on the observation that since we live, think, and act through our bodies – their study, care, and improvement should be at the core of philosophy, ‘especially when philosophy is conceived (as it used to be) as a distinctive way of life, a critical, disciplined care of the self that involves a self-knowledge and cultivation’ (Shusterman 2008:15). He provisionally defined his Somaesthetics as the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It would, therefore, also entail the pursuit of knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or improve it, thus correcting the functional performance of our senses by an improved direction of the body and senses. Shusterman (1999) also appeals to a continuity in the ancient philosophical tradition, citing Socrates’ (who engaged in regular dance training and simple living, and linked clear thinking to physical fitness), Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic School (who insisted that bodily training contributes to the acquisition of virtue), and Zeno, founder of Stoicism (who claimed that proper care of health and one’s organs of sense were unconditional duties). He also recognises the role of somatic training in contemporary practices associated with the pursuit of philosophical enlightenment, including Hatha Yoga, Zen meditation, and T’ai chi ch’uan, and cites the Japanese philosopher, Yuasa Yusuo, who insisted that the concept of ‘personal cultivation’ or shugyo is presupposed in Eastern thought as ‘the philosophical foundation’ (Shusterman 1999:3). In these traditions shugyo training is regarded as an essential bodily component on the path to ‘true knowledge’, which cannot be obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking. More recent Western body disciplines such as the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method also seek to improve the acuity, health, and control of our senses by cultivating heightened attention to and mastery of the somatic functioning, while also freeing practitioners from bodily habits and defects that impair sensory performance.

Shusterman (2008:37) wants to call our attention to everyday somatic pleasures such as breathing, stretching, and walking, and the possibility that these can be developed to produce experiences of great power and exaltation, as seen in the familiar yoga methods of pranayama and asana or in Buddhist disciplines of meditative sitting, walking, and dancing. He reminds us that the psychology of sensory perception means that the intensification of pleasure cannot simply be achieved by intensity of sensation. Sensory appreciation is typically dulled when blasted with extreme sensations:

Pleasure has a complicated logic; ascetics know how to get it by rejecting it. Yogis find its highest intensities not from the sensory explosions of narrow orgasms but rather from an emptiness that reveals its own empowering intensity and fullness.(Shusterman 2008:37)

He poses the question: In proposing an ‘ethics of pleasure’ doesn’t Foucault need a more careful ‘logic’ and ‘logistic’ of its central concept, a more refined and delicate appreciation of the diversities and subtleties of pleasure, including its more tender, gentle, and mild varieties? The question, of course, can also apply to the model of hedonism that lies at the heart of our consumer culture, fuelled by a media and advertising complex that can undermine our appreciation (attention to, appreciation of) ordinary pleasures and spur a demand for more intense stimulation, thus raising the threshold of what can be felt as satisfying, thus condemning too much of everyday life to joyless tedium. Citing the Weber-Fechner law[ii], Shusterman laments Western culture’s lust for ever greater intensities of somatic stimulation in the quest for happiness noting that it is a recipe for increasing dissatisfaction and difficulty in achieving pleasure, while our submission to such intensities dulls our somatic perception and consciousness. He believes that the culture’s sensationalist extremism both reflects and reinforces a deep somatic discontent that relentlessly drives us, yet is felt only vaguely, by our underdeveloped, insufficiently sensitive, and thus unsatisfied body consciousness. (Shusterman 2008:38-39) Perhaps with some irony, Shusterman concludes that while some regard Foucault’s bodily pursuits as dreadfully deviant, his ahedonia and extremism clearly express a common trend in late-capitalist Western culture… ‘whose unquestioned economic imperative of ever-increasing of ever-increasing growth also promotes an unquestioned demand for constantly greater stimulation, ever more speed and information, ever stronger sensations and louder music’ (Shusterman 2008:39). The result is:

…a pathological yet all too common need for hyperstimulation in order to feel that one is really alive, a problem that is expressed not only in substance addiction but also in a host of other increasingly psychosomatic ills that range from the violence of self-mortification (such as cutting) to the passive nightly torture of insomnia. (Shusterman 2008:39-40)

Western modernity has essentially confined the philosophical project to the analysis and critique of sensory propositional judgements that defines traditional epistemology. The complementary route offered by somaesthetics is to correct the actual performance of our senses by an improved direction of one’s body, since the senses belong to and are conditioned by the soma. If the body is our primordial instrument in grasping the world, then we can learn more of the world by improving the conditions and use of this instrument. Shusterman agrees that Foucault’s seminal vision of the body as a malleable site for inscribing social power reveals the crucial role the soma can play in political philosophy and the question of justice. It offers a way of understanding how complex hierarchies of power can be widely exercised and reproduced without any need to make them explicit in laws or to enforce them officially; they are implicitly observed and enforced simply through our bodily habits of feeling that have bodily roots. Entire ideologies of domination can thus be covertly materialized and preserved by enclosing them in somatic social norms that, as bodily habits, are typically taken for granted and so escape critical consciousness. (Raúl Quiñone Rosado’s 2007)

[i] CDF82, p.241.

[ii] The Weber-Fechner law of psychophysics holds that a smaller stimulus can be noticed more clearly and easily if the already pre-existing stimulation experienced by the stimulated organ is small. Conversely, the threshold for noticing a sensation will be so much the larger, the greater the pre-existing stimulation is.

Fortunately, contemporary regimes of subjectification are not all consuming. Foucault held open a conception of the subject that maintains the possibility of resisting or exercising choices that might be partially severed from a dominant ethic or the neoliberal enterprise culture (Shankar et. al. 2006:1019). Shankar (2006:1019) adds:

If this is the case, technologies of the self may also transform individuals and partially liberate them from previous cultural circuits. With this notion, Foucault observes the possibility to create new privileged spaces, and indeed, he infers that the result of such practice may endow the individual with happiness, purity, wisdom, and perfection.

Just as the contradictions of ecological constraints have begun to make themselves felt in debates on macroeconomic concepts of ‘growth’ and the meaning of ‘prosperity’, so we can expect reflective individuals and communities to increasingly transform their experience of ‘freedom’ – reduced to calculable market choice – into a more far-reaching set of choices and refusals in response to a proliferation of forms of discontent with the by-products of affluence and a growing awareness that the realisation of important intrinsic values are not in the gift of the market. In response to more and more choice, a growing number of people are choosing to simplify, consume less and differently, and to bring their expenditure and their experience of self under control, recognising that while choice is beneficial up to a point,  limitations, restrictions and boundaries can also have a strangely liberating effect (Sigman 2004).[i]

From a Foucauldian technology of self perspective, I want to extend the notion of empowerment to the possibility of a more radical shift than the one envisaged by Shankar (2006), to one that includes a withdrawal or distancing from the governmentalized practices of consumption. This refusal and resistance would amount to an expression of life and being ‘at the frontier’ as Foucault (1984:46) described it. The challenge of climate change forces States and their citizens to a new frontier of critical reflection on the viability of our current socio-economic structures and leading concepts such as ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity’. The experience of individuals and communities engaged in contemporary practices of askēsis suggests that such a step can be supported by certain forms of knowledge pursued alongside mental and physical disciplines. Foucault’s (1988) interest in the work we do on ourselves – effecting operations on our bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being, so as to transform ourselves – in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality, has a particular resonance in the context of debates on sustainable consumption. Just as we spontaneously attend the gym to maintain our health and well being in the face of societal lifestyle trends that carry risk, so attendance to our subjective responses is also possible, including the adoption of mental and physical techniques designed to enhance both our physical, mental, even spiritual resilience[ii].

The work

Sustainable consumption occupies the frontiers of the sustainable development agenda, posing some of the most profound questions for contemporary citizens in their relation to both the State and the capitalist complex, as climate change confronts both with an – as yet – unanswerable demand: is the social logic that binds the advanced industrialised state, capitalism and dominant modes of consumption/prosperity capable of adaptation to a sustainable path? Part of the test lies in the gap between what we know and what we are willing to do to translate our knowledge and volition into action. Few reports on public attitudes to the adoption of sustainable or ethical forms of consumption and investment fail to note the fact-value gap, wherein individuals consistently declare aspirations that are not followed up in practice[iii].

Sustainable consumption as biopolitics invites a reconsideration of the role of ‘training’ or ‘practice’ in preparation for the exercise of a richer notion of freedom and ‘self care’ and self knowledge that is compatible with a vision of human flourishing, within ecological limits. Kissack (2004) recalls how  Foucault’s focus on the exercise of power through the constraints of language led him to consider the meaning of contemporary freedom. Foucault was prompted to examine the work of Greek and Roman philosophers on how the subject, inevitably immersed within a nexus of linguistic and cultural influences, reflected upon and modified their heritage, refashioning themselves according to the conclusions of their philosophical deliberations. In one of his last interviews, Foucault referred to this deliberative and transformative activity as ‘techniques of the self’. In Foucault’s work on ‘techniques of the self’ or askésis, we may also find cues for strategies consistent with the contemporary demand for sustainable consumption and resistance to unchecked consumerism, which has as its animating ethos a ‘joyless compulsiveness’ (Christopher Lash 1979). Within Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics – and the deployment of disciplinary, normalizing institutions in pursuit of a secure, healthy and productive population – techniques for the mass production of individuality do not simply free us and allow us to realize our truth. They free us to be true only by fabricating a certain truth and arranging the spatial-temporal world to direct individuals toward truth. Moreover, with advances in neuroscience and neurology, we are coming to appreciate the formative impacts of mental operations on the structures of the brain, with lasting consequences for the individual. Just as individuals can undertake mental and physical activity with a view to altering their mind-body state, so the influences of the vast media complex that acts as an extension of the circuits of production and consumption, also leave a lasting impression. McGushin adds:

A completely biopolitical interpretation of life is a political project. In this way, discipline, biopolitics, and normalization paradoxically institute a powerful self-neglect, a pervasive thoughtlessness about the fundamental political and ethical question – How will I live? – precisely by saturating space and time, our bodies and desires, with techniques, discourses, and relationships which have the goal of taking care of us and making us happy. (McGushin 2008:xx)

Foucault links the rise of biopolitics – power over life – to the decline of the age of Empire, when a new problematic took hold: that of organising and securing states from within in an emerging era of competition between states. Biopower, specifically, seeks to bring life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations (Foucault 1988:143). This is a process of objectifying the forces of life, quantifying them, measuring them, and on the basis of this knowledge, setting them into productive coordination. From the end of the 17th century onwards, there was an explosion of productive technologies of power, focused on the ‘the body as object and target of power’ (Foucault 1977: 136). This was a political anatomy that was also to become a mechanics of power. These developments would, ultimately, call forth the role of the psy-sciences in helping to construct experiences of interiority (of the subject) conditioned by, and conditioning, the imperatives of the new objects of ‘economy’ and ‘state’.

[i] A. Sigman, The Explosion of Choice: Tyranny or Freedom? (2004) cited in the report I will if you will: Towards sustainable consumption (Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council, London, 2006). <> (accessed 6 October 2008)

[ii] Larry Glover, on his wild resilence blog, writes: ‘Wild Resiliency will not be understood or confined certainly by any models that do not also take into account the human spirit in the wholeness of who we are, which also includes our propensity to accommodate ourselves to our shadowed resilience, our affinity for comfort and denial, our domesticity. Our wild resilience can in truth no more be contained or modeled than can words describe the Tao; we can only point at it with such tools, which accounts for the human incorporation of poetry, mythology and the arts to help us more fully appreciate and experience the entangled complexity and mystery of who we are.’ <; (Accessed 26 November 2009).

[iii] A McKinsey survey of consumers in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, UK and the US found that 53% were concerned about environmental and social issues, but not willing to take action at the shops; a further 13% were willing to pay more, but currently did not do so. Cited in Sustainable Consumption Facts and Trends – From a Business Perspective, 2008, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The case for a predominantly materialist approach to addressing the welfare needs of citizens has come under scrutiny in recent psychological and neurological research, demonstrating the central role of subjective accounts that help to delimit the capacity of the market to deliver the good life. Kasser (SDC 2009) has found that the intrinsic aims for self-acceptance, affiliation and community feeling are also the values and goals that promote personal happiness, positive social involvement, and ecologically sustainable behavior. The pursuit of these intrinsic goals has also been associated with the humane treatment of others, (Sheldon and Kasser 1995), and with caring more about ecological sustainability and being less greedy with limited resources (Brown and Kasser 2005; Sheldon and McGregor 2000). Researchers have begun to provide empirical evidence to support the view that it is not only possible for people to live happier lives while exercising higher levels of environmental responsibility, but that people have already embarked on such life paths. Some, including members of the US-based Voluntary Simplicity movement, constitute a kind of embryonic community of counter-practices, responding to a pervasive culture of consumerism. As Luke (1999) observed in his Capitalism, Democracy, and Ecology, the consumerist social model calls for a ‘political economy of social ecology and voluntary simplicity’ (1999:198). Citing the work of E.F Schumacher, Hazel Henderson, Ivan Illich and Duane Elgin, Luke describes voluntary simplicity as an essential part of a practice as on oppositional form of struggle against the regimes tied to transnational corporate capital, and designed to undercut the extravagant consumption, social passivity and personal impotence engendered in the everyday life of the consumer. For his part, Elgin, also underlines the overlapping concerns of ecology, resistance and mindfulness as a technique for the ‘care of the self’ in the emphasis he places on intentionality and purposefulness for those who wish to pursue a simplified lifestyle, with due regard for both the outer world and the inner world:

To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life, then our capacity for voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful action is commensurately diminished.(Elgin 2002: 245)

Identifying the general pattern of behaviours and attitudes associated with Voluntary Simplicity as a lifestyle, Elgin notes the importance of working on the full spectrum of human potentials, including the physical, the emotional, the ‘mental’, and spiritual or ‘learning to move through life with a quiet mind and compassionate heart’. In this latter interest, Elgin closely mirrors a core concern for those engaged in mindfulness and Zen training. Brown and Kasser (2005) have also lent support to the view that a mindful disposition – associated with well being – also supports positive and ecologically sound decision-making. They examined subjective well being (SWB) in groups of adults and young people, and found that individuals reporting higher levels of SWB reported enhanced ecologically responsible behaviour (ERB). Moreover, the research further established that an intrinsic value orientation[i] and a mindful disposition contributed to SWB and ERB. The research points to a mutually beneficial relation between personal and planetary well being, especially given that supportive factors such as mindfulness and intrinsic values can be cultivated.  Jackson[ii] (2009) finds these findings are extraordinary because they would seem to indicate that there is a double or triple dividend to be had from the promotion of less materialistic lifestyles: people will be both happier and live more sustainably when they favour intrinsic goals that embed them in family and community. Hence, flourishing within limits is a real possibility.

Part Two: Consumerism and the ‘political technologies of individuals’: the subjects of power

For a detailed insight into the relationship between the modern state and the consumer-citizen, we must now turn to Foucault’s work on governmentality and biopolitics. Foucault’s notion of governmentality points to a reciprocity in the constitution of power techniques and forms of knowledge. The semantic linkage of governing (“gouverner”) and modes of thought (“mentalité”) suggests that it is not possible to study the technologies of power without an analysis of the political rationality underpinning them. There are two sides to governmentality. Governments define a discursive field in which exercising power is ‘rationalized’. This process involves a series of problematizing operations, wherein governments identify/define and represent ‘reality’ and offer solutions to a series of perceived ‘problems’ (problematisation). A paramount consideration, of course, is the security, reproduction, and continuation of the state itself through a combination of geopolitics and political economy. In advanced capitalist economies, the problematic pursuit of economic growth has come to be rationalized in a number of ways, including through a claim that prosperity and opulence facilitate and support the human need for symbolic interaction, linkage with the provision of public services such as education and health, and finally, government interest in economic and social stability (Jackson 2009). The reproduction of the advanced industrialised state necessitates a reproduction of conditions that support a set of co-dependent subject-object relations, with individuals located in, moving between and latterly, conflating the roles of ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’.

Foucault sought to show how the modern sovereign state and modern autonomous individuals co-determine each other’s emergence (Lemke 1997). For example, in his study of the Chicago School as a social form, Foucault suggested that the key element in the School’s approach is their consistent expansion of the economic form to apply to the social sphere, thus eliding any difference between the economy and the social. A key feature of the neo-liberal rationality is the congruence it endeavours to achieve between a responsible and moral individual and an economic-rational individual. Neo-liberalism encourages individuals to give their lives a specific entrepreneurial form. Critically, in this transposition of individual life choices onto entrepreneurial forms, and rendering ‘economic’ those areas of life that were previously extra-economic, now to be decided on the basis of economic efficiency, a close link is forged between economic prosperity and ‘self care’ or personal well-being.

Reith (2007:39-40) notes that consumers are expected, within neoliberal states, to govern themselves through their consumption habits, with the ideal of consumer sovereignty based on autonomous individuals shaping their own trajectories through their actions in the marketplace. These self-determining agents are responsible for their own welfare, security, and future happiness independent of wider systems of social support. He adds:

…the ideologies of free choice and consumer sovereignty actually become the regulatory principles of modern life[iii]. (Reith 2007:40)

Rose’s (1998) work on psychology, power and personhood provides a useful theoretical departure point for a ‘genealogy of subjectification’ (Rose 1998:23). To write such a genealogy is to seek to unpick the ways in which the self functions as a ‘regulatory ideal’ in many aspects of our contemporary forms of life, including ‘our systems of consumption’. The ‘subject of consumption’ is the individual who is imagined and acted upon by the imperative to consume. (Miller and Rose 2008:114): Rose comments:

A genealogy of subjectification takes [this] individualized, interiorized, totalized, and psychologised understanding of what it is to be human as the site of a historical problem, not as the basis for a historical narrative. (Rose 1998:23)

This genealogical work follows Foucault’s interest in ‘our relation to ourselves’ (Foucault 1988). It is a genealogy of ‘being’s’ relation to itself and the technical forms that this has assumed, according to Rose (1998:24):

Our relation with ourselves, that is to say, has assumed the form it has because it has been the object of a whole variety of more or less rationalized schemes, which have sought to shape our ways of understanding and enacting our existence as human beings in the name of certain objectives.

Of particular interest in this context is Foucault’s keenness to direct our attention to the ways in which strategies for the conduct of conduct frequently operate through trying to shape ‘self-steering mechanisms’. It is through these technologies and mechanisms that modern individuals experience, understand, judge and conduct their selves.

The role of psy- sciences

Of particular importance in his genealogy of subjectification is the role of the so called ‘psy-‘ sciences, including psychology. These, according to Rose (1998) have acquired a peculiar penetrative capacity in relation to practices for the conduct of conduct, and play a key role in our contemporary regime of subjectification and its unification under the sign of the self. Indeed, a critical history of the psy disciplines must take as its object our contemporary regime of the self and its identity. Rose (1998:45) suggests that we might learn most about the relation between the vicissitudes of capitalism and the rise of the psychological disciplines by examining the political, institutional, and conceptual conditions that gave rise to the formulation of different notions of the economy, the market, and the labouring classes. He invites us to attend to the ways in which these conditions problematized different aspects of existence, and to analyse the ways in which these problematizations produced questions to which the psychosciences could come to provide answers (legitimating their claims to authoritative knowledge production in the process). Rose observes:

…and we should explore the ways in which the psychosciences, in their turn, transformed the very nature and meaning of economic life and the conceptions of economic exigencies that have been adopted in economic activity and policy. (Rose 1998:45)

Miller and Rose (2008) are interested in the relations between the object of psychological knowledge – the mental life of the human individual, subjectivity – and psychological knowledge itself. For psychology cannot be regarded as a pregiven domain, separate in its origins and evolution from something called ‘society’:

Psychology constitutes its object in the process of knowing it. (Rose 1998:49)

Psychology can be viewed as a form of technology, as an ensemble of arts and skills entailing the linking of thoughts, affects, forces, artifacts, techniques that do not simply manufacture and manipulate, but which, more fundamentally, order being, frame it, produce it, make it thinkable as a certain mode of existence that must be addressed in a particular way. In liberal democratic societies, norms and conceptions of subjectivity are pluralistic, but the condition of possibility for each version of the contemporary subject is the birth of the person as a psychological self, the opening of a space of objectivity located in an internal ‘moral’ order, between physiology and conduct, an interior zone with its own laws and processes that is a possible domain for a positive knowledge and a rational technique. (Rose 1998:65)

Branches of the psy sciences facilitate the translation of important features of the capitalist complex, notably the objects of capitalisation (Nitzan and Bichler 2009), in a way that they ‘become psychological’, in that they are problematized or rendered simultaneously troubling and intelligible in terms that are infused by psychology. Nitzan and Bichler (2009:160) note that the Friedmanite individual may feel ‘free to choose’ his location in the distribution, but the distribution itself is shaped by the power institutions and organizations of capitalism. And it is this shaping – i.e. the very multifaceted creation of a predictable ‘representative’ consumer – that gets capitalized. Luke (1999:72) comments that under corporate capitalism the plannable life course of all individuals qua consumers becomes a capital asset in that the ‘consummative mobilization’ of production directly boosts the productivity, profitability, and power of corporate capital’s increasingly automated industries.

Psychologists have come to participate in the fabrication of contemporary reality – in producing calculable transformations of the social world – providing the language to establish translatability between politicians, lawyers, managers, bureaucrats, businessmen, and individuals:

Convinced that we should construe our lives in psychological terms of adjustment, fulfilment, good relationships, self-actualization, and so forth, we have tied ourselves ‘voluntarily’ to the knowledges that experts profess, and to their promises to assist us in the personal quests for happiness that we ‘freely’ undertake. (Rose 1998:77)

Within contemporary political rationalities and technologies of government, subjects are obliged to be free, to construe their existence as the outcome of choices that they make among a plurality of alternatives (Meyer 1986). This is never more so than in our choice of lifestyles, which are to be assembled by choice among a plurality of alternatives, each of which is legitimated in terms of a personal choice:

The modern self is impelled to make life meaningful through the search for happiness and self-realization in his or her individual biography: the ethics of subjectivity are inextricably locked into the procedures of power.(Rose 1998:79)

Calculability, or rather the problematisation of calculability of individuals, is one of the contributions of the social role of psychology:

Truth thus takes a technical form: truth becomes effective to the extent that it is embodied in technique. (Rose 1998:89)

Consumption is one of the key sites for the deployment of contemporary presuppositions concerning the self. Expertise has forged alignments between broad socio-political objectives, the goals of producers and the self-regulating propensities of individuals. A complex economic terrain has taken shape, in which the success of an economy is seen as dependent on the ability of politicians, planners, and manufacturers and marketers to differentiate needs, to produce products aligned to them, and to ensure the purchasing capacity to enable acts of consumption to occur. While political authorities can only act indirectly upon the innumerable private acts that comprise consumption, it is the expertise of market research, of promotion and communication, underpinned by the knowledge and techniques of subjectivity, that provides the relays through which the aspirations of ministers, business, and the dreams of consumers ‘achieve mutual translatability’. (Rose 1998:162) In rendering the internality of the human being into thought, in rendering it simultaneously visible and practicable, the psychosciences have made it possible for us to dream that we can order our individual and collective existence according to a knowledge/technique that fuses truth and humanity, wisdom and practicality.

[i] Intrinsic goals are associated with self acceptance (growing as a person), affiliation (quality of relationships and friendships), and community feeling (engaging with the wider world and local community). (Brown and Kasser 2005).

[ii] In her contribution to the preparation Prosperity Without Growth? (2009), the philosopher Kate Soper (2007, 2008), points to a growing appetite for ‘alternative hedonism’ – sources of satisfaction that lie outside the conventional market. She has detected in certain groups a ‘structure of feeling’ that consumer society has passed some kind of critical point, where materialism is now actively detracting from human wellbeing.

[iii] My emphasis.

In contrast with the negotiations leading up to the 1997 agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, the ambition of binding targets to be undertaken by OECD countries after the Copenhagen (COP/MOP 2009) process will be largely ‘evidence based’ and more closely reflect the urgency and scope of ambition conveyed in the latest IPCC science[i]. The architecture of the political agreement coming out of the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol Conference and Meeting of the Parties in Copenhagen in December 2009 and follow-up negotiations is expected to lead to an unprecedented scaling up of the emerging global carbon market. Indeed, market-based instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will act as the templates or vehicles for enhanced arrangements that will both facilitate and link ambitious targets in developed countries and an unprecedented transfer of resources and investment to the developing world in return for a form of ‘meaningful’ participation, short of binding commitments. The upshot of these developments will be further consideration of implementation measures that begin to impact on energy consumption and lifestyles. The IPCC evidence base that is helping to shape current UNFCCC negotiations has left policy-makers in no doubt that lifestyle change will have to be part of the mix when it comes to designing policies and measures that match the ambition of the anticipated emissions reduction and mitigation targets. Specifically, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007) calls for changes in lifestyle and consumption that emphasize resource conservation and contribute to the development of a low carbon economy that is both sustainable and equitable[ii].The IPCC Chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, followed up the Panel’s Fourth Assessment Report’s (2007) treatment of the lifestyle issue with a call in 2008[iii] for a cut back in meat consumption as an individual contribution to curbing climate change.


Sustainable consumption lies at the provocative end of the sustainable development debate, insofar as it forces a return to some of the formative questions that drove Governments to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992). Climate change policy responses after Copenhagen will inject a new urgency into the UNCED Agenda 21’s ‘Cinderella Chapter’[iv].  For Sachs[v] and Princen[vi] and others the efficiency perspective that has dominated discussion on the ‘sustainable production’ side of the equation must be accompanied by a sufficiency debate on the consumption side. The transition towards sustainability can only be achieved through a twin-track approach, which brings about an intelligent reinvention of the means as well as a prudent moderation of ends. Questions about ‘ends’ and ‘what the economy is for’ draw policy makers into uncharted territory in the consumption debate. Is it possible, for example, to imagine flourishing communities where an appreciation of limits and self-restraint has been deeply embedded or re-covered in our culture and society? Few governments in advanced liberal democracies have begun to pursue the logic of the sufficiency debate, and for understandable reasons. Sarkozy’s (Stiglitz et. al.,2009) commission was a unique moment of critique that will, undoubtedly, set a benchmark in the debate on the ends of economic activity alongside the UK Sustainable Development Commission’s report, Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy (SDC 2009).

Part of the difficulty with the emerging governmental challenge of redefining wealth and prosperity, is that it runs against the grain of embedded assumptions about consumption in liberal democracies. As Offer[vii] reminds us, modern consumption theory assumes that rational consumers make choices that are well informed, far-sighted, and prudent. Consumers reveal their preferences by means of market choices, and market choices correspond to their well-being (‘welfare’). Offer[viii] points out that a great deal is at stake in the model of ‘revealed preferences’ as the source of well-being. Indeed, it may be nothing less than the conceptual underpinning of liberal society. The doctrine regards the free exercise of market choice as not only economically efficient, but also as a vital human aspiration (albeit, human choice that must be translatable into knowledge as algorithm (Marglin 2008). It is, in part, for this reason that political leaders have been slow to pursue the ‘sustainable consumption’ agenda since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), when an ambitious redefinition of prosperity was part of the explicit menu of policy challenges.

In the decade since Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992)[ix], technological development and innovation have increased resource efficiency at some levels and in some sectors. However, these developments have not amounted to an adequate response to address critical patterns of unsustainable consumption and production. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, negotiators revisited the consumption agenda and agreed the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (Chapter III) which includes a call for the development of a 10-year framework of programmes[x] in support of regional and national initiatives to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production” (SCP), with a focus on policy responses in the EU and OECD countries. The definition of sustainable consumption, however, had narrowed post-1992 as it ‘evolved’ in the course of negotiations at a range of international policy arenas and became more widely accepted as a policy goal.[xi] Seyfang[xii] (2005) cites, for example, the work of the OECD during the 1990s and its conclusion that market failure was the prime cause of unsustainability. She concludes that, within the strong market-liberal perspective, as reflected in OECD analyses, governments are encouraged to correct prices and provide regulatory frameworks to influence producers and stimulate eco-efficiency, and merely offer consumers more green choices.

Sustainable consumption implies much more than the identification of niche markets and the rhetoric of decoupling (Jackson 2009). It invites us to go back to the origins of the neoclassical economic model and ask what model would have been most viable in the absence of an inflated set of assumptions that we could find endless technical substitutes for our diminishing and non-renewable resources. The consumption question not only provokes a reconsideration of ‘full world’, ecologically constrained conditions, but places ecosystem functioning upfront and central. It does so by generating questions that ask – What is consumed? What is put at risk? What is lost?[xiii] The consumption question also foregrounds intention and societal design.

Mont and Plepys (2007) have articulated the challenge succinctly:

…developing socio-economic systems ensuring high quality of life and sustaining environmental impacts in line with nature’s carrying capacity should be perceived as the contemporary societal goal. The ultimate question facing today’s society in developed countries is whether consumerism actually contributes to human welfare and happiness….Strategies are missing that would conceive ways of shifting from a current culture of limitless consumerism to a society with less materialistic aspirations. (Mont and Plepys 2007:537)

[i] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4 2007) (IPCC, Geneva). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008).

[ii] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4) 2007 (IPCC, IPCC). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008) 16.

[iii] The Observer, 2008, ‘UN says eat less meat to curb global warming’, Sunday, 7 September, p.1.

[iv] Chapter Four of the UNCED Agenda 21 (1992), on sustainable consumption.

[v] W.Sachs, Planet Dialectics: explorations in environment and development (Zed Books, London, 1999).

[vi] T.Princen, M. Maniates, and K. Conca (eds.), Confronting Consumption (MIT Press, Cambridge, Ma., 2002).

[vii] A.Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992.

[x] Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg, South Africa
26 August-4 September 2002 (A/CONF.199/20/Corr.1)    Identify specific activities tools, policies, measures and monitoring and assessment mechanisms, including, where appropriate, life-cycle analysis and national indicators.

  • Adopt and implement policies and measures aimed at promoting SCP patterns, applying, inter alia, the polluter-pays principle.
  •  Develop production and consumption policies to improve products and services.
  • Develop awareness- raising programmes on the importance of sustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly among youth and relevant segments in all countries, through inter alia, education, public and consumer information, advertising and other media.
  • Develop and adopt consumer information tools to provide the information related to SCP.
  • Increase eco-efficiency, with financial support from all sources, where mutually agreed, for capacity-building and technology transfer.

[xi] At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, consumption was clearly identified as part of the problem in a definition that appeared in Chapter 4.3 of Agenda 21: ‘…the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances.[xi]By 1994, following a conference in Oslo, a popular and much less ambitious definition would emerge: ‘…the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of water and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations’.[xi]

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] In the second half of 2009, two high-level reports were published, looking beyond and beneath the flawed assumptions of our growth-driven national economic models. The contents, sponsored by Government-backed commissions in France and the UK, are discursive milestones in the career of a set of questions that challenge our most basic assumptions about the way we measure economic performance and social progress[xiii], and define prosperity[xiii]. Published on the eve of the Copenhagen COP/MOP, they signal a high-level engagement with some of the far reaching challenges for OECD economies arising from the demands of climate change policy. The Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009) was commissioned by the President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy. The distinguished authors register their concern at the way in which narrow measures of market performance are now confused with broader measures of welfare. After all, ‘what we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted’ (Stiglitz et al., 2009:4).