Tim Kasser's video, "The High Price of Materialism," shows how value systems affect the environment. New Dream

What revolutionizing values could mean for capitalism – and the planet

Digging into the psychology of materialism with Tim Kasser

Tim Kasser will speak in a video address for the Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 12 May, which can be viewed online through the conference’s Digital Edition.

“When people focus on the materialistic values and goals encouraged by consumer capitalism, they live in ways more damaging to the Earth.”

For nearly 30 years, psychologist Tim Kasser has been conducting scientific research on people’s values and goals, and this has been one of the presiding findings throughout.

Kasser’s research, which he now conducts from Knox College in the U.S. state of Illinois, has led to several books and papers showing that when we are consumed by materialism, we live in ways that use more resources and create more pollution, emissions and other types of ecological destruction.

In his most recent book, Hypercapitalism, he shows that one way to diminish these materialistic values and goals is to focus on “intrinsic” values – like growing as a person, developing closer relationships and helping make the world a better place.

Here, Landscape News spoke to Kasser about his take on the state of the planet, the importance of values, and practical solutions each individual can take to improve the way we treat our environment.

The transcript of this interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Could you tell us more about this cool animation you’ve done on your book, The High Price of Materialism?

I was on the board of an organization that was called the Center for a New American Dream (now called New Dream). The executive director was interested in making a series of these animated videos where somebody draws as the author speaks.

It was a very interesting experience for me. I’d never done anything quite like it before, and it was a lot of fun to work with the artists and develop the drawings. Essentially, I wrote the script first and then recorded it. Then the artists sat down and made some sketches, and eventually, we ended up with the video, which has done far better than any of us ever dreamed.

The other thing I’d say is it actually became an inspiration for my most recent book too. It’s called Hypercapitalism and it’s told entirely in cartoon format. It isn’t animated obviously, but that animation had done so well that I thought maybe it could be the format for this particular project.

Could you tell us more about your book?

The book is co-authored with Larry Gonick, who has made his career doing non-fiction cartooning. He’s probably best known for the cartoon History of the Universe. He’s also done cartoon guides on statistics, chemistry and physics.

The book is in two parts. The first part is an analysis of the current state of our political, economic and social systems in most of North America, Western Europe and other parts of the world, which we call hypercapitalism. We describe what its basic principles are. Then we lodge that in the research about values that my colleagues and I have done for the last 20 years.

The fundamental premise of the first part of the book is that the values of our economic system, with their focus on money, status, consumption, power and competition, are the very values that tend to undermine ecological sustainability, pro-social civil behavior and well-being.  

Then the second part of the book is all about solutions that people are trying in their own personal lives, in organizations, in cities or in governments. Solutions that are organized around trying to create lifestyles or policies that are more focused on those healthy sustainable values instead of hyper-capitalistic, materialistic values.

Who is your primary audience?

I would say I was aiming for the hip, socially conscious, late high-schooler or early college student, as well as people in their 20s who appreciate comics. I’ve heard that children as young as 8 have read it by now, and I’m sure older people are reading it too.

One thing I’ve learned in my teaching is that capitalism is the water in which we swim. A lot of people don’t really actually understand what its basic principles are and how it operates. They know it’s there, but they don’t really know what Adam Smith said about it, and they don’t know the big shifts that have happened in capitalism, especially after World War II.

It’s also oriented toward people who know there is something wrong but can’t quite put their finger on what to do instead. There’s that famous idea from Margaret Thatcher that “there is no alternative.” Really, there are lots and lots of alternatives. I think we’re aiming to broaden the ideas for people who are searching for something that would be better, more sustainable, less soul-sapping and more connecting.

What’s your take on the planet at the moment?

It really depends on the day. There are some days when I look at the trends, and I think, wow, a lot of stuff is headed in the wrong direction. Then I look at other trends and I look at how environmentally aware people are now. I look at the success of things like benefit corporations, or alternative indicators of progress, or how people still make choices to live voluntarily simple lifestyles.

Some of these are struggles that have been going on for a really long time. Historically, humanity has gone through a lot of nasty stuff, especially in the 20th century, but we’re still here. We’re making progress.

The other thing that gives me a lot of hope is what they call intrinsic values, as opposed to materialistic values. These are values for your own personal growth or your connection to your family and then for helping the world be a better place.

People generally tend to say that they prefer intrinsic values to materialistic values. We know that the more people focus on intrinsic values, the happier and the less depressed they are. People who focus on intrinsic values act in more pro-social and more ecologically sustainable ways.

It’s actually a relatively simple solution: if we can shift our own lifestyles, communities, business patterns and politics to focus on these intrinsic values, we can suppress materialistic values and promote well-being, civil society and sustainability.

Tim Kasser,

But you suggest that shifting our intrinsic values is not enough, and we also have to participate at the policy level.

Of course we need to make individual changes in our own lifestyles. But it’s clear that that’s insufficient. It definitely buys into this capitalist idea that it’s all about individuals behaving in an economic fashion. We need to move beyond that, especially in our policies.

There are policies at multiple levels – in workplace, in the city, at the state or regional level, and of course at the national level. I would encourage the average person to think more about policies in their organizations and in their cities, because it’s really hard to make changes at the national or international policy level.

Chances are you actually might be able to sit down and talk to your city council person face to face. There’s so much interesting that’s happening at the city levels around ecological sustainability and putting intrinsic values into the way that people are living their lives.

One fascinating thing is how it’s happening in cities with both conservative and liberal mayors. It’s also a good practice ground. I tell my students when they’re complaining about policy stuff: “Well, let’s try to change our college, because if we can’t change Knox College, we’re never going to change the world.” Get that practice and work on their policy level.       

The changes that we make in our own cities are important too. Most importantly, they can snowball up. You take a look at what’s happened in the U.S. over the last 10 years with regards to marijuana and gay marriage; the federal government eventually caught up to what was happening at the city and state levels.

If you can do it at city and state or provincial levels and demonstrate that it works, then other cities and states will follow along, and eventually, the federal government will catch up.

What’s your take on the global reaction to the floods in Mozambique and the burning of Notre Dame, in terms of values?

I think part of the problem is that the hole on the roof of Notre Dame or the floods in villages in Mozambique, you can totally see them. They’re very material things. Money does solve money problems. Fixing Notre Dame Cathedral is a money problem.

Things like carbon or species extinction, they’re hard to see. It’s hard to see that there are only so many lions left in Kenya. The same is true for all kinds of other environmental problems. I think that that’s a big reason why we don’t have as much success in solving those issues as we do for these smaller, more delimited issues.

But that’s another reason why working at the city level and working at your own organization level is really worthwhile – because you can actually make some progress, and that helps build hope, which is a motivator to then go do the next thing.

In Africa, we have not reached rates of capitalism like in the West and Asia, but development is happening more quickly than you can blink. How can we start thinking more smartly in terms of values?

I think Africa’s potentially the last place where we can make a stand. As I was saying earlier: the more people focus on materialistic values for money, status and consumption, the more it ends up suppressing pro-social and pro-ecological values.

When business leaders and political leaders say, “Let’s go down this capitalist path as quickly as we can,” the suppression of those pro-social and pro-ecological values is going to be the cost. We’ve seen it over and over in history.

That doesn’t mean it’s inevitable, because what if political leaders and business leaders say, “Wait a second, we’ve seen what’s happened in all of these other countries. Look at what happened to their societies, to their families, to their wildlife. Is that really the path that we want to take? What can we do in order to balance the need to feed our people – which is a real need in Africa – with the need to maintain these other values?”

I think that’s the fundamental question. The problem is, can we have business and political leaders who’ll either have the guts to say that or be responsive to the people who are pushing them to balance economic growth with other priorities?

Countries like Bhutan and France are trying to include happiness and well-being as part of their economic indicators. How does that work?

Part of the problem is that we measure progress primarily by economic indicators. Is the GNP or the GDP growing? Is the stock market going up? What countries like Bhutan – and France to some extent, as well as some cities around the world too – have done is to say we need different indicators of progress.

What we need is to not just have economic ones be the sole way that we make decisions but also other things like happiness or air pollution. What they’ve developed is a dashboard of alternative indicators of progress that the politicians use in order to make decisions and then are hopefully held accountable to by voters.

If a politician can say, “Hey, what matters is the economy. I made the economy grow, re-elect me,” then that’s going to work. But if what matters is balancing economic growth with pollution, improving education, decreasing depression levels, then that’s how politicians will be re-elected or not. Bhutan has totally been at the forefront of this.

There are lots of cities that have looked at this as well. A colleague and I will be publishing a paper in Social Indicators Research. We think it’s the first experiment ever to show that if you randomly assign people to choose alternative indicators instead of economic indicators, it makes people behave in more sustainable ways as they make decisions.

We have people pretend they are the mayor. Then they have to make a whole bunch of decisions, and they get either the economic indicators or the economic plus well-being and ecological indicators. Those alternative indicators had a really strong impact on their decisions. To me, that’s really hopeful as well. It’s not that difficult to develop these alternative indicators, and they can have some really positive downstream effects.



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