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Consumerism and peace

Reprinted with permission of Consumer Sciences Today. Autumn 2002, Vol. 3, No. 3, p. 8 - www.instituteconsumersciences.co.uk

Should consumer scientists work harder for a culture of peace? Sue McGregor, professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax NS, Canada discusses the issues.

Consumerism and peace

2001-2010 is the UNESCO Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World. A culture of peace places the universal welfare of all people, without exception, as the highest priority of a society. Education is the best and most effective tool to promote and implement a genuine culture of peace (1). However, the task of sensitising a new generation of citizens to value the welfare of everyone above themselves is a severe challenge in a consumer society. Consumer societies and consumer cultures value self-interest, material and wealth accumulation, status, novelty, and individualism, and define people by what they can consume. An individual's self-respect and self-esteem are strongly tied to their level of consumption relative to others in the society (2). By contrast, a culture of peace aims for respect for diversity, tolerance, sustainability, equality, empowerment, democratic participation, and transformation of values, attitudes, and behaviours which promote peace within each individual leading to a culture shaped by peace (3).

Peace and happiness

There is a deep contrast between a culture of peace and a consumer culture. Peace is the source of all happiness. In a consumer society, people search for peace and happiness in the wrong places. They believe that wealth, money, and material goods provide happiness, yet they are unhappy even though they have material wealth. This unhappiness exists because they have yet to realize that peace develops from inside the person not from the outside. They do not feel at peace with themselves because they have yet to appreciate that peace is linked to the spiritual aspect of being human not just the outside, physical sphere. This does not mean that people should not value material goods but they should strive not to become attached to them to the extent that they value physical things more than the spiritual, inner-peace sphere of life (1). If one accepts that peace comes from within a person, then every teacher, in addition to the subject area one teaches, must feel responsible for developing a safe context within which a student's character and personality can develop, their inner self (1). This obligation also applies to consumer educators. Not only are they obligated to provide students with knowledge about the marketplace, but they are also compelled to support conditions conducive to the development of a student's character and a sense of responsibility in the marketplace and the world economy. Mercieca explains that the word education is derived from two Latin words, e + duco, meaning out of and lead. Simply put, to educate means leading someone from one place to another. Consumer education as education for peace would mean leading people from being focused on their own self-interest to being concerned for the welfare of others and the ecosystem. Durning (12) advocates for a culture of permanence instead of a culture of consumption since consumerism does not seem to promote human happiness; hence, it does not promote peace.


A culture of peace

Asking people to exercise responsibility for the family of humankind is a daunting task in a consumer society. But, striving to build a culture of peace would have us at least try to foster a society shaped by responsible personal intentions and compassion. At first glance, one could conclude that there is no link between the two fields of education. Consumer education is one agent responsible for socializing people into their consumption role in a consumer society (4) and aims to prepare a person for their consumer role-getting the best value for their dollar by making reasoned purchase decisions, complaining if they do not get their money's worth, taking action on behalf of other consumers, and appreciating how the economy works so they can function efficiently as a consumer agent. Peace education aims for dignity, a sense of responsibility for every person in society, world unity, and sharing. While consumer education focuses on the individual in the marketplace, peace education focuses on relationships between persons, communities, and nations. While consumer education is traditionally concerned with preparing a person to be a consumer, peace education is concerned with preparing a person to be a world citizen. Consumer education is designed to prepare people to adhere to a set of consumer values while peace education aims to prepare people to respect and live by a set of social values (5). Consumer education tends to focus on teaching students about the "consumer interest of each individual" taken to be actions that support their rights as a consumer (information, safety, choice, redress, safe environment, and a voice in the policy process), rights recognized by the United Nations in 1985 (6). Peace education, on the other hand, focuses on teaching students about the "mutual interests of the human family," taken to be human rights, dignity, tolerance, social justice, freedom, equality, and environmental integrity, plus other issues (5).

Consumer education

The fact of the matter is that students do not opt to, or do they have the opportunity to, pursue either consumer education or peace education in high school or secondary institutions (7) in the USA and Canada. The fact that a majority of students receive neither peace nor consumer education may be a serious obstacle to the peace making and 'consumer making' capacities of North America. This reality is complicated in that consumer education does not usually include peace and peace education does not include consumerism.

Reframing consumer education to consumer citizenship

Conventional consumer education needs to be redesigned to educate people for peace as they engage in their consumption role. Dramatic changes in lifestyle in recent decades have resulted in cultural, economic, and technological transformations that require of the individual a broader understanding of his/her role in a global consumer society. "Consumers exercise a form of citizenship by making their consumption choices, but they are not always aware of their individual and collective responsibilities for the society and the environment" (Document 4-2/99 of the European Commission's directorate for health and consumer protection). www.unl.ac.uk/cice/en/latenews.htm#Introduction

A strong and evolving movement is the development of the concept of consumer citizenship. This movement proposes that socializing people to see themselves as citizens first and consumer second is a powerful way to shift away from a market society culture to a culture of peace.

The following are three examples that illustrate the holistic link between peace and consumers as world citizens.

  • A recent UNESCO initiative addressed the issue of sustainability, which includes the concept of consumer citizenship: www.unesco.org/education/tlsf and www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/theme_b/uncofrm_b. Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future is rooted in a new vision of education that helps students better understand the world in which they live, addressing the complexity and interconnectedness of problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, population, health, conflict, and human rights that threaten our future; in effect, peace education.

  • Another exciting initiative is stemming from the European Union. Established in 1996, CiCe (Children's Identity and Citizenship in Europe) is a network of lecturers and researchers in higher education who share an interest in how children and young people learn about and understand the societies, economies, and polities within which they live in the context of European society: www.unl.ac.uk/cice/en/enhome. CiCe is now linked as a member of the Comenius* Network on Consumer Citizenship. The goal of the Comenius Network is to define education proposals for Consumer Education and Consumer Citizenship in a number of European countries. Consumer education and teacher training: developing consumer citizenship is a Comenius transnational three-year project whose aim is to further co-operation between European countries in the field of consumer education in the context of citizenship development. What form of citizenship is implied here? How can consumer education contribute to a wider vision of the consumer as an active, responsible participant in the development of a just and safe world? In what ways does the exercise of citizenship include the practice of aware, critical choices in the marketplace? To what extent are lifestyles, which neither limit the development of other human beings nor destroy the world's environment, prerequisites for being a good citizen? These questions all relate to human security issues and peace. There was a conference on this project in April 2002, in Hamar, Norway when I was one of four keynote speakers. For more information see: www.hihm.no/informasjon/konferanse/Info/consumer_citizenship_internatio.

  • I have several papers on my website dealing with consumer citizenship under the research paper button at www. consultmcgregor.com. One such paper deals with the new concept of participatory consumerism (8). Participatory consumerism concerns personal and social transformation for the liberation of oppressed people in their consumption role. People who are oppressed are being exploited and taken advantage of due to their circumstances and feel they cannot flee from, or change, what appear to be irreversible conditions. In a consumer culture, people are so indoctrinated into the logic of the market that they cannot 'see' anything wrong with what they are doing. Because they do not critically challenge the market ideology and the myth of consumerism, they actually contribute to their own oppression (slaves of the market) and the oppression of others who make the goods and services and the oppression of the ecosystem. Strong, unsustainable consumption behaviour patterns develop, having been formed and unchallenged over a long period of time (9). Participatory consumerism would involve people in creating new knowledge drawn from deeper insights into their mind and their heart about why they are consuming. These insights involve reflection, value clarification, and socially responsible decisions that take into account known and unknown social, ecological, and generational consequences. Reflection involves exploring one's own experiences in a conscious manner in order to acquire new understandings and new behaviour patterns (10). Participatory consumerism would produce a compassionate culture in addition to the existing consumer culture, maybe someday replacing it. The intent of participatory consumerism would be equitable communities and societies that maintain, for the time being, a free market structure characterised by justice, peace, security, and freedom. Eventually, those practising participatory consumerism would strive for an economy of care, a moral economy to replace the current capitalistic driven market economy (11).

References

1. Mercieca C (May 2000). Culture of peace: Paper presented at the Millennium Forum: www.millenniumforum.org
2. Goodwin N R, Ackerman F & Kiron D. (Eds.). (1997).The consumer society.Washington, DC: Island Press.
3. Canadian Centers for Teaching Peace (2000) Year 2000 UN International Year for a Culture of Peace: www.peace.ca/un2000celebration
4. Bannister R & Monsma C (1982) Classification system for consumer education concepts: www.emich.edu/public/coe/nice/benefits
5. Fisk L (2000). Shaping visionaries: Nurturing peace through education. In L. Fisk and J. Schellenberg (Eds.), Patterns of conflict, paths to peace (pp. 159-193). Peterborough, ON: Broadview.
6. McGregor, S.L.T. (1999). Globalizing consumer education: Shifting from individual consumer rights to collective, human responsibilities. Proceedings of the 19th International Consumer Studies and Home Economics Research Conference (pp 43- 52). Belfast, N. Ireland: University of Ulster Jordanstown.
7. Bannister R (1996) Consumer education in the United States: www.emich.edu/public/coe/nice/ hisconsed McGregor S LT (2000). Status of consumer education in Canada. Paper presented at the Government of Quebec 2000 Première Conference on A Global Marketplace, Liberalized Regulations and Growing Poverty (p.46). www.opc.gouv.qc.ca Rerdon B (1997). Human rights education as education for peace. In G Andrepoulos and R Claude (Eds.), Human rights education for the 21st century (Ch 2). Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.
8. McGregor S L T (2001). Participatory consumerism. Consumer Interests Annual 47 www.consumerinterests.org
9. Freire P (1985).The politics of education. NY: Bergin & Garvey.
10. Suojanen, U. (1998, May 31-June 3). Action research - A strategy for empowerment. In K. Turkki (Ed.). Proceedings of the International Household and Family Research Conference (pp. 81-88). Helsinki, Finland: University of Helsinki. Peace and consumerism
11. Goudzwaard B & de Lange H (1995). Beyond poverty and affluence:Towards a Canadian economy of care.Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
12. Durning A (1992). How much is enough? NY: W.W. Norton.

Contact: sue.mcgregor@msvu.ca Web: www.consultmcgregor.com Dr. Sue McGregor is a home economist and a professor in the department of education at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS, Canada. She is currently coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies programme at MSVU. Her recent entry into the peace education field provides synergy between 30 years of consumer, family and home economics education and peace, citizenship and human rights education.

*Johanne Comenius was a cosmopolitan and universalist who strove incessantly for human rights, peace between the nations, social peace, and the unity of mankind. His name was chosen as a label for the public education branch of Socrates work, Europe's education programme.