Alternative hedonism, the good life, and disenchantment with consumerism, by Ulrike Ehgartner, 25 October 2016.

Professor Kate Soper spoke to the SCI about the potential of ‘alternative hedonism’ to mobilise social change towards sustainability. Ulrike Ehgartner reports.

On 28th September, Professor Kate Soper (Emerita Professor of Philosophy at London Metropolitan University) gave the first of the SCI Seminar Series of this academic year. Professor Soper has published widely on environmental philosophy and cultural theory, most famously the monograph What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (1995). Her more recent work on alternative hedonism and the theory and politics of consumption is of particular relevance for the research areas of the SCI.   Professor Soper’s talk—'The interaction of policy and experience: an “alternative hedonist” optic'—clarified her main arguments of alternative hedonism as a new political imaginary as well as responding to the main criticisms of her position.

Disaffection and disenchantment with consumerism

The alternative hedonism thesis gives space to critical responses to the consumerist lifestyle, but emphasises the potential role of self-regarding rather than altruistic impulses on the part of individuals. Many experience negative aspects of affluent consumption and its by-products, such as stress, time-scarcity, traffic congestion, noise, pollution and so on. The consequent disaffection with consumerism, Professor Soper claims, provides a solid incentive for more sustainable ways of consumption. A constituency based on dissatisfactions with consumerism opens a greater potential for democratic  change than attempts to foster individuals’ concerns about environmental sustainability.

Referring to the well-known problem of using indices such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to identify the degree of human welfare, Professor Soper advocates for a more thorough conceptualisation of life satisfaction. Indexes that measure economic prosperity alone are inadequate to indicate societal wellbeing. On the contrary – the importance given to such indexes as measures of quality of life illustrate the extensive dominance of the idea of economic growth.

Professor Soper argues for challenging the dominant notion of “the good life” and advocates for the role of the project of sustainable consumption in making explicit the often implicit dissatisfaction and disquiet with consumer culture. The dominant idea of self-realisation through work and its material benefits is not only bad for the environment, she asserts, but it also does not provide much pleasure for the individual, causing symptoms from stress to obesity. A reduction of the working week and a slower paced living, on the contrary, would have a positive effect on both individual wellbeing as well as the environment.

Provisioning for the “alternative hedonist” experience

Alternative hedonism nevertheless is vulnerable to a critique that it focuses on individual behaviour over issues of structural constraint. However, provisioning for more environmentally friendly and less materialistic lifestyles can, moreover, have a positive impact that goes beyond the individual active user of the infrastructure provided.  An infrastructure that encourages cycling rather than driving for example, improves the living environment for the whole community as it reorganises urban design—reducing the dominance of vehicles, giving more space to pedestrians, creating a safer environment, reducing pollution and noise and so on. Citing the example of the London congestion charge, Professor Soper argued that, while policies appealing to alternative versions of the good life may be initially greeted with ambivalence, they build on “their embryonic presence and potential for development”, and may ultimately reinforce support for alternative expressions of need.

Professor Soper emphasized that her theoretical contribution requires translation into the public domain. Alternative hedonism is vulnerable to a critique that it overly focuses on individual behaviour, thus particular attention needs to be paid to various political agents and the role of the government, as well as the interaction of individual and social structure. As Professor Soper put it, “Consumers who ‘self-police’ their consumption are likely to remain an ineffective minority unless swelled by proactive public policy that allows new structures of feeling to be actualized through the provision of alternative forms of experience”. This claim opened a stimulating discussion on the significance of top-down approaches to foster more sustainable lifestyles and on the shape such initiatives could take in modern democracies. 

The following discussion revolved around the role of economic growth and consumer spending in the capitalist system, the corporate monopoly on promoting the good life, and how these potentially hinder or block institutional changes towards more sustainable forms of life. Professor Soper’s ideas around alternative hedonism encourage rethinking the work-to-spend dynamic, and moving beyond economic prosperity as the dominant model of the good life. It reminds us that a richer standard of living is built not only on economic prosperity but various other components that could create different forms of consumption. Reflecting on the ideas of a consensual, non-materialistic notion of the good life, as well as of possible adjustments of our ‘cost-benefit’ thinking to a healthier, alternative hedonism reveals severe tensions within the idea of civic empowerment in a democratic society. Ultimately, making a strong point for the importance of institutional strategies in provisioning for non-materialistic ways of enjoyment, Professor Soper’s lecture crucially contributed to the critical perspectives on the role of individual consumption for sustainable development.