Retail sales dipped unexpectedly last month.
Oh no. At this rate, shoppers will have spent only 0.6% more this year than last. The news was described variously as "shocking", "disappointing" and "bad". Meanwhile George Osborne, Ed Balls and John Swinney all talk up the need to "return to growth", aka business as usual.
It's understandable. Economic growth is needed to pay down the deficit and fund the welfare state. If we stopped shopping, the economy would collapse. Of course, both personally and nationally, we got into this mess by spending what we didn't have, thanks to the deregulation of financial markets, an advertising industry that reinforces the notion of pain-free instant gratification and the death of the stigma attached to debt. Half of all Scots have been deemed financially overweight or obese, often spending more than one-quarter of their monthly income on repayments. If that's the problem, why should we carry on spending money that we don't have on stuff we don't need?
Loading article content
Carol Craig, author of the seminal work The Tears that Made the Clyde, offers a thoughtful contribution to this debate in The Great Takeover (Argyll £5.99), part of her new Postcards from Scotland series, which are short books designed to encourage some new thinking about how we live.
Like me, she's fascinated by the work of Tim Kasser, the American psychologist, who argues the hyperconsumerism that has engulfed modern societies is a response to insecurity, a maladaptive type of coping mechanism. Essentially, our Neolithic ancestors survived better by amassing possessions, like sling stones and wheels, and now we're convinced we need more and more stuff to be happy.
His killer graph is the one that shows personal wealth soaring over the past 40 years, while the line representing those describing themselves as "very happy" is flat. Meanwhile, our oniomania (passion for shopping) is destroying the planet. (We need three planets to sustain the present level of UK consumption.)
So low-consumption economies should be a win-win situation, using resources sustainably without diminishing the sum of human happiness. Kasser's fear is that such is our addiction to retail therapy that lower consumption could increase insecurity, setting off a frantic bout of hyperconsumption. Eat, drink and be merry. Tomorrow we'll all be dead.
Carol Craig's point is that we have choices. She isn't advocating some "back to the caves" option but a healthier balance that factors in loving relationships, self-acceptance and community feelings along with monetary value. She came to this conclusion from her earlier work on why Scots tend to lack confidence and a sense of wellbeing. She realised "materialism can undermine people's sense of themselves, their relationships and their mental health".
That's what drives people from poor areas who buy expensive brands of trainers for their children to offset the stigma of being poor. And because each purchase brings only fleeting pleasure, the well-off too end up working longer and longer hours to buy more and more possessions, to maintain their status. Status that in their own minds is largely determined by "stuff".
The same instinct drives young women who indulge in "hauling" (showing off their latest purchases one by one on YouTube). She compares this with her mother's generation, when young women seemed much more accepting of the way they were and content to save up for the possessions and clothes they coveted. Contemporary culture with its worship of rich, famous, beautiful people merely breeds a restless destructive longing.
Change is possible. Carol Craig concludes with a list of suggestions, ranging from a Christmas present amnesty to limiting your children's exposure to television and ends with an inspirational quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has." You can send Craig your own suggestions for tackling materialism to email@example.com.