Searching for Alternative Hedonism: Reflections from a presentation by Kate Soper

Kate Soper, a professor in philosophy at the London Metropolitan University, presented twice during the Sustainable Consumption Conference – at the young researchers pre-conference and as a key note speaker in the main conference. She spoke about her concept of ‘alternative hedonism’ in her key note, ‘Towards sustainability flourishing: Democracy, hedonism and the politics of prosperity’.

Put simply, alternative hedonism is the practice of finding pleasure in things other than consumption.  It identifies self-interested motivations for less environmentally destructive practices. We are constantly bombarded with media representations of how consumption can bring us happiness; make us successful, attractive and wealthy, but is consumerism really good for our long term future wellbeing?

Soper sees a contradiction between economic and ecological promises and a denial by politicians who tell us we have to consume more to help the economy whilst trying to reduce our carbon footprint. For a truly sustainable future we need a radical transformation of the global economic system and a re-think of the ‘good life’.

Soper made the completely true point that we work hard to spend the money that we work long hours to earn to enable us to consume luxuries to help us relax and buy time. We might buy a huge flat screen television because we feel like we deserve it for working hard all day. Just like I explained in a previous post, many of the items we purchase are allowing us to ‘buy time’, therefore creating this cycle of work and consumption. If only we slowed down, Soper says, and allowed ourselves to enjoy the simple things in life, then maybe we wouldn’t need to consume so much.

To make the idea of decreased consumption more appealing, we must not advocate a restricted and reduced mode of living, but emphasise the pleasures consumerism denies and the displeasures it generates. Affluence itself is compromised by stress, time-scarcity, obesity, ill-heath and pollution. We could each work for fewer hours, and allow more people to be in employment, thus sharing out the wealth. As Soper states, alternative hedonism responds to the current crisis as an opportunity to move towards a fairer and more life enhancing use of resources. Her ideas might be optimistic, but her reality is far from it. Soper is well aware that a radical overhaul of the current system is unlikely, but I for one found her ideas inspiring. Perhaps regression to a more sustainable future, and therefore a return to the ‘good life’ is the only way forward.

Recommended reading:

‘Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning’, Cultural Studies, Vol.22, no. 5, September 2008

‘Conceptualizing Needs in the Context of Consumer Politics’, Journal of Consumer Policy, volume 29, number 4, 2006, pp. 355-372

The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently, co-editor with Lyn Thomas and Martin Ryle, Palgrave, 2009

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