High levels of consumption have led to the current financial crisis, as people, companies and countries around the world live beyond their means and overstep their ability to pay back unsustainable debts.

By Julie Pihl Dalbøl

The two linked crises were the subject of a seminar organised by the Worldwatch Institute Europe, and hosted at the European Environment Agency (EEA) on August 16th 2011. The discussion, ‘Transforming cultures: From consumerism to sustainability’, focused on the changes which could transform our culture so that living more sustainably feels as natural as living as a consumer feels today.

The seminar included several high-profile participants, including key note speaker Worldwatch Institute Project Director Erik Assadourian, who is globally renowned for his work on consumerism and cultural behaviour. He was joined by EEA sustainability expert Jock Martin, Worldwatch Europe director Bo Normander, Ikea sustainability manager Jonas Engberg and Danish Members of Parliament Margrethe Vestager (Social-Liberal Party) and Eyvind Vesselbo (Liberal Party).

Erik Assadourian vividly talked about culture as the process of making something artificial – or human made – seem natural. By for example comparing a bowl of meal worms (a local dish from Mexico) with a fried cow’s muscle and dairy output in a McDonald’s burger, he emphasized how culture has an impact on what we consider food, deeply embedded in a culture designed to make purchasing decisions for us.

The consequences of our consumer behaviour, however, is that we today consume more resources than the planet can deliver, driving us towards extinction. For example, if we in the western world want to maintain our current living standards, the earth can only supply 2.4 billion of us. By this challenging message Assadourian’s statement is clear; “consumerism is undermining the possibility for us as human species to thrive in the future.”

In the panel debate that followed, globalisation was mentioned as a big driver for the world’s problems. Some believed that we should use technology and innovation to solve the world’s sustainability and inequity problems, while others believed that it was a matter of encouraging people to change their behaviour and way of living. “We need more ideas for the solutions”, says Margrethe Vestager, followed by Jock Martin: ”We must take some fundamental actions - we need courage,” claiming that the massive inequities we see in our society is self-constructed because we do not think models and structures through when making political, business and consumer decisions.

“We need to consume less. Period. When we will then consume, it must be thoughtful and sustainable. In the future the consumer lifestyle is something that will fall out one way or another,” said Erik Assadourian.

Watch a short video of highlights from the talk:

For further information, visit the Transforming Cultures blog, where a link to Erik's powerpoint slides may be found.

Download The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures from State of the World 2010 by Erik Assadourian