The crisis of consumerism
Over the last fifty years, Western societies have optimised their control of the natural world. They have reorganised the division of labour worldwide, and stepped up industrial mass consumption in a global context, paying no heed to ecological and temporal limits. Consumerism has become the dominant culture globally, and now forms the basis for individuals’ identities, social systems and even entire societies. In recent years increasing consumption in countries with large populations such as China and India are further increasing pressure on our ecological and thus economic systems.
However, the tide toward consumerism appears to be turning. Western consumer societies have recently begun to undergo a remarkable sociological change, one that questions consumerism and looks for a better way to live. A 2010 survey by polling firm Emnid revealed that the great majority of people in Germany – still an island of prosperity – said that they would welcome a new, socially just and environmentally responsible economic system. Many are beginning to understand that endless growth is an illusion, impossible to achieve without oil to drive it – and oil is running out. An increasing number of people see that the prosperity enjoyed by Western consumer societies is not the result of progress but the large-scale plundering of the natural world and people in the global South.
Paradoxically, consumerism has not improved our well-being or made us happier, but instead has overburdened us with debt and weakened our social connections. Young Europeans are now asking for the good life: for meaningful human relationships, not possessions. Questions about the costs and consequences of mass consumption have long been marginalised and relegated to expert discourses on sustainability or climate change. Now they are being taken up by young social movements and civil society actors trying to develop practical alternatives to consumerism. Many of these alternatives are trying to cultivate deeper citizenship relationships with their surrounding areas, treating their cities as an arena for living, rather than an arena for commerce.
The urban gardening movement
One prominent example of change is the urban gardening movement. The movement started in Germany in 1996 with Intercultural Gardens, which enabled people from different cultural backgrounds to grow food together, exchange knowledge and experiences, and empower themselves. Between 2005 and 2009 new forms of mobile urban community gardens started to change our conception of urbanism, especially in major Western cities. These activities are fuelled by growing dissatisfaction with the paradigm of everlasting economic growth and progress. The urban gardening movement develops a new vision of prosperity that sees more sustainable lifestyles as an alternative to consumerism. It does so in a pragmatic, down-to-earth fashion. In urban gardening, the focus is on sharing and exchanging, do-it-yourself, re-appropriating and re-interpreting manual skills and crafts, opening up designs, breaking up objects and spaces, creating and rediscovering common space. Gardening and subsistence, topics for decades closely associated with scarcity, backwardness and poverty are being rediscovered and integrated into a new image of sufficiency.
It is important to note that these ideas have not come from rural areas but the heart of major western European cities. The urban gardening movement rejects the vision of the city as a mere place of consumption and creates highly visible parallel structures of subsistence. In order to reduce meat consumption, activists cultivate local vegetable varieties or turn to a vegan diet. Repair workshops are integrated into the gardens to undermine throwaway patterns of consumption. Open spaces counter the exclusionary economism of the “city of investors”.
This movement has also given new impetus to the debate about public space in many major Western cities. The citizens active in the urban gardening movement shape their city and take responsibility for community spaces and their neighbourhood. These people do not just want to garden, they want to contribute to sustainable urban development. The movement is highly performative and media-savvy. New types of community space and architecture allow local actors to use urban public space as a stage. Tinkering, building and gardening is not just doing, but also brings forth new structures and images. Beds, repurposed containers and cabins become sites for performances or concerts. They beautify and reinvent the space. The movement has brought new life to the debate about what the “good life” in our cities looks like and has included many different groups and communities.
To support development of this new vision of “prosperity”, anstiftung & ertomis is engaged in a wide variety of civil society-based innovative activities in urban and rural areas. We also carry out research into commons, the new do-it-yourself movement and sustainable regionalisation. We strongly believe that quality of life is not just about material possessions. Therefore anstiftung & ertomis networks and promotes subsistence practices in everyday life and draws attention to their importance for a sustainable society in a sustainable global context. We support activities such as open spaces, community gardens and open workshops on crafting, as well as initiatives aimed at reviving neighbourhoods and artistic interventions in public space. We also coordinate a research network, document current research activities in our field of interest, organise conferences and research workshops and, jointly with other foundations, award a prize for research in the field of ecological economy.
With our activities we hope to promote and accelerate the shift from consumerism toward post-material values that is currently under way. The exclusive accumulation and display of goods is no longer the goal in this new lifestyle. Instead, people are motivated by trying to find the smartest possible collective use of things. Collaborative consumption is part of the nomadic-cosmopolitan lifestyle. New urban forms of self-sufficiency not only reduce ecological impact, they are also an important contribution to a democratic society is based on active citizenship.Movement Profile