Over the past six months or so, I’ve found myself considering my options for what I should do after completing my PhD thesis. An academic post, perhaps? Teaching? A job in any of the other myriad of careers that interest me? All these options appeal to greater or lesser degree, but none of them feel as if they fit quite right. Not at this particular point in my life, at any rate. Ever since I can remember—but with some notable exceptions—I’ve either been in school or working in professional situations, wholly directing my mind towards broadly intellectual or specifically academic ends. Now I can feel that part of me beginning to tire, to cry out for some variation, a fallow period in which it can recover its strength and vigour.
Recently, a Canadian colleague told me of an organisation which exists to promote the understanding of organic farming by networking farms in over twenty countries around the world, from the Czech Republic to the Côte d’Ivoire, Slovenia to Switzerland1. Volunteers are invited to visit the farms, and lodge with them for extended periods of time, working solely for room and board. The aims of the organisation are as follows:
- To give first hand experience of organic or other ecologically-sound growing methods;
- To give experience of life in the countryside;
- To help the organic movement which is labour intensive and does not rely on artificial fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides;
- To give people a chance to meet, talk, learn and exchange views with others in the organic movement;
- To provide an opportunity to learn about life in the host country by living, and working together.
Serendipity evidently had a hand in this. For some time I’ve been asking myself a simple question: how does one live an honest life? Life in the developed world seems to increasingly frustrate the pursuit of personal authenticity: to craft an identity that is sincere and ethically-driven seems almost unattainable. Could it be that a period of time on a farm, connected to society yet crucially removed from it, would allow me the mental and physical space to develop that identity?
Although it is ostensibly concerned with the problem of perpetual economic expansion, Clive Hamilton’s Growth Fetish is, I will argue, a discussion of precisely this: what it means to be an individual in the early 21st century. How does one find one’s place in modern, Western society? How does one find one’s place, more broadly, in the world (where “world” reaches out to encompass not just the world of human endeavour but the natural world, too)? Even greater still, Hamilton asks, how does one place oneself within the kind of—and there is no other word for this—spiritual narrative essential for long-term contentment and personal fulfilment?
The conclusions of Growth Fetish are, then, profoundly concerned with these issues. Nevertheless, it is our economic preconceptions that Hamilton first turns his attention to, dissecting with surgical precision those tenets of national and international finance that, he argues, “has assumed such supremacy in people’s minds that it has taken on the character of a law of nature”2. It has become something, we believe, that is entirely out of our control. Yet why should the ordinary man or woman on the street want to change or control anything? As Hamilton notes: “The dominant characteristic of contemporary society is not deprivation but abundance … Most people are prosperous beyond the dreams of their parents and grandparents.”3 We live in an age of super-abundance, the large part of most people’s daily lives concerned not with avoiding poverty, but with how to dispose of surplus material wealth. We have second cars and second homes, expensive entertainment systems, and holidays in exotic, far-flung locations. Yet we also have wallets full of credit cards, second (and third) mortgages, and countless overdrafts, our desire to consume outpacing our ability to pay for it.
The market holds out the empty promise that this desire can be satisfied. As Hamilton points out, “It is perverse to characterise the market as a want-satisfying mechanism”4 when, at every turn, the market attempts to influence the item that we will “want” next. Where once we may have been completely satisfied with that dress, that pair of jeans, we are now at the whim of a single advertising campaign to convince us that they were “so yesterday.” Worse still, we have created a world for ourselves in which we are literally becoming defined by the goods we consume. Objects, Hamilton writes, are not simply objects: “people’s relationship with their possessions is full of psychological complexity. Objects are not just useful: they have meaning”.5 Or at least they did. In a “pre-consumerist” society, people pursued objects to fulfil basic human needs. Now, however, we consume not utilitarian value, but symbolic value. We consume because such a course of action is presented to us as a way of creating (and endlessly re-creating) the self. Hamilton again: “People were once comfortable deriving their identities from their productive activity, but people today must hide the fact that they manufacture their selves from what they consume”.6 This alludes to one of Hamilton’s other, related, concerns, that of the relationship between the authentic self and the authentic activity. A gap has opened up, leaving us incapable of perceiving the connection between our behaviour as active, working, creating beings and our ever-evolving individual identities. Hamilton concludes: “Contrary to the fiction of the economics texts, in which independent consumers go in search of the products that will satisfy their needs, humans have become extensions of the products they consume. When people assume manufactured identities, instead of searching for their real selves, they come together as collectivities of attitudes and elaborate poses rather than real flesh and blood, and this has profound implications for the nature of social interaction”.7