WEEKLY DISPATCH: Making Climate Action Happen—Part I, The Plague of Manufactured Consciousness

Posted on February 3, 2011 by


As both an academic and community climate change activist, I, like many others, have struggled to overcome barriers to embracing lasting environmentally-conscious behavioural change and a sustainable lifestyle.  But as all of us who have trodden this path have found, long-term behavioural change is hard.  Very hard.

As Australian climate scientist Graeme Pearman explained at a public lecture I attended in Wangaratta in mid-2010, addressing climate change requires us to challenge the very nature of who we are, our expectations and how we perceive our relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us.  Pearman made the compelling point that the climate change problem has its roots in our expectations—expectations shaped by our culture, history, education, the market, advertising and so on—that are not entirely our own.  These false expectations lead us to consumption choices driven by manipulated wants and not fundamental needs.  If follows, then, that if we were more aware of our expectations and their relevance to our place in the world and our impacts on it, behavioural change is more likely to follow.

The first step to confronting our underlying assumptions, expectations and beliefs is to become conscious of what they are.  The alternatives—ignorance, apathy, denial, inaction—are unacceptable responses (or non-responses) that strip a person of control of their destiny in the social, political and economic realms.

Let’s take an inventory of the extreme natural disasters that have occurred over the past twelve months: floods in Pakistan, forest fires in Russia, repeated severe ice storms in Europe and North America, floods across eastern Australia and South America, and now Cyclone Yasi in northern Queensland.  These events have occurred exactly as predicted a decade ago in IPCC reports, which suggested that climate change would make such events more frequent and more severe.  Failure to grasp this on the part of climate deniers represents a wilful disregard for evidence that has become dangerous because of the way deniers have thrown sand in the gears of the public policy process.

Climate change is an existential threat, which human actions are exacerbating.  It is now beyond serious debate that these actions need to be changed, at all levels of society, if our species is to overcome the climate change threat.  These actions that need to be altered include our personal lifestyle, consumption and political choices.  However, climate deniers get traction because their messages are a product of and a justification for the manipulated expectations described above that lie at the heart of the climate change problem.

Let us now briefly consider some of the causes and consequences of externally mediated wants and expectations with respect to consumer choices in Western industrial societies.  This story begins during the Second World War, when the industrial capacities of developed societies were maximised to cater for wartime demand.  At the conclusion of hostilities, new markets for manufactured goods had to be found to satisfy this latent industrial capacity.  Ordinarily, the public’s consumption patterns tend to drive the level of industrial production.  However, the post-war capacity glut created the inverse situation where production began to dictate consumption, requiring some social engineering in order to pervert the laws of supply and demand.

Such magic trickers were necessary because of the oft-verified observation in economics that once the basic necessities of life are catered for, increasing levels of affluence do not usually lead to higher levels of happiness (a condition known as decreasing marginal utility).  In his classic 1961 book The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard described the conscious efforts of the burgeoning American advertising industry to influence subconscious thought processes in order to manipulate peoples’ purchasing decisions.  Today the subconscious manipulation inherent in advertising has been refined to an art form.  According to Australian academic Clive Hamilton (2010, p. 573),

Modern marketing builds symbolic associations between the product and the psychological states of potential consumers, sometimes targeting known feelings of inadequacy, aspiration or expectation, and sometimes setting out to create a sense of inadequacy in order to remedy it with the product…The task of the advertising industry is to uncover the complex set of feelings that might be associated with particular products and to design marketing campaigns to appeal to those feelings.

Indeed the intrusion of modern marketing has occurred simultaneously with the uprooting of many traditional social and cultural anchors, such as the church, employment, class, and family.  Consumer culture, in contrast, is an individualist culture; we’re encouraged to define ourselves as unique, atomised beings rather than members of a wider collective.  The path to bringing that individualised persona to life naturally lies through consumption.  Identity is something to be bought.

Over time this manipulation has had a marked effect on people in consumer societies.  Being a consumptive atom also implies alienation.  According to psychologist Erich Fromm, this kind of materialist individuation turns people into “marketing characters” who experience themselves and the people around them as commodities.

Yet commodification is such a shallow basis for human existence.  Consumerism—retail therapy—is marketed to us to fill the void of intimacy that individualisation and commodification can often rob a person of.  Consumerism then becomes a treadmill; we buy more material goods because we are anxious, lonely and depressed.  We buy because we want prestige and the approval of others.  But those goods will not make us happy, nor will they relieve the angst.  The shallow satisfaction of the purchase soon wears off, the negative feelings return and we go off to buy more goods, and so on, leaving us to chase our tails in a attempt to quench desires that can never be fulfilled.

However, rampant consumerism based on such false expectations faces a snag.  Industrial production, along with agriculture, transportation, and material consumption necessarily consume resources and produce a carbon footprint.  Given that the Earth is a closed finite system, this means there are limits to the amount of resources we can extract from and the amount of waste we can return to natural ecosystems, beyond which the biological processes of the planet and the human societies that depend on them will come under threat.  There is ample evidence to suggest that we have reached that point, particularly in relation to climate change, where the benchmark International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are supported by numerous other authoritative studies, many of which paint an even more alarming picture of the climate trajectory than does the somewhat conservative IPCC (Arndt et al. 2010; Allison, Bindoff et al. 2009).  All of this implies that the machine of rapacious materialism, based on the manufacture of false expectations, has to be wound down if increasing atmospheric pollution is to be mitigated.

In the next instalment of this four-part series, I’ll discuss how false expectations and externally manufactured beliefs intrude in the process of climate-conscious behavioural change.


Allison, I., N. Bindoff, et al. (2009). The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science. Sydney, Australia, University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC).

Arndt, D., M. Baringer, et al. (2010). ‘State of the Climate in 2009.’ Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 91(6): 1-224.

Hamilton, C. (2010). ‘Consumerism, self-creation and prospects for a new ecological consciousness.’ Journal of Cleaner Production 18(6): 571-575.

Packard, V. (1961). The Hidden Persuaders. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books.


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.