Skip main navigation

Are we stuck in an iron cage of consumerism?

In this video, Tim Jackson describes the concept of consumerism as an "Iron Cage"
All this really raises the question, why do we go on growing our economies? Why do we go on consuming? What’s the point of it all if it’s not making us any happier? What’s the point of it if prosperity is as much about material things as it is about consumer goods? And if you take that question seriously, you have to start asking about the patterns of behaviour that keep us kind of locked into consumerism.
It’s almost like– I’ve described it as an iron cage of consumerism, because we’re locked into it by both social forces and psychological forces and also by economic forces, by dynamics in the economy that mean that if producers can’t go on selling their goods, they run the risk of going out of business. And so there’s an incentive on enterprise, on businesses, to keep on making more and more stuff and finding new stuff, new exciting things to sell us. And that on its own might not lock us into an iron cage, because we’d still have lots of choice left.
We could choose just to ignore business, even though they spend a lot of money advertising to us telling us how important it is that we buy all that stuff. And the funny thing about it is that persuasion, that art of persuasion that businesses have, falls on very fertile ground, because it turns out that, as social beings, we have a kind of appetite for new stuff, for novelty, for new bright shiny things. And some of that is very, very functional, because these new things sometimes fulfil tasks better than the old things did. But sometimes it’s just symbolic. It’s just about being bright and shiny. It’s about being full of promise and hope for the future.
It’s about hoping that our kids’ lives are going to be better lives than the ones that we had and hoping that society tomorrow is going to be a brighter and shinier place. And it’s that combination of things, it’s that dynamic of businesses continually trying to turn over a profit by making new stuff and our own appetite for novelty that creates this kind of iron cage. It’s not a place that we can’t escape from, but it’s a place that we have to take seriously, because the social, psychological, and economic forces that lock us into that spiral of consumerism are, in fact, very, very powerful.

Tim Jackson argues that we are locked into consumerism by a complex of social, psychological and economic forces – can you identify how these operate in your life or the lives of your family and those around you? How can we overcome them?

This article is from the free online

Global Prosperity Beyond GDP

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education