Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, the magazine that sparked off the Occupy Wall Street movement, talks consumerism, advertising and spirituality -- and why he thinks another world is possible.
It started as an idea at an activist magazine. To take a cue from the grassroots protests across the Middle East and North Africa and hold a public demonstration at the heart of American Capitalism. Since then, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the world and given focus to the anger and horror many of us feel at the ongoing spectacle of governments treating financial markets like some kind of volcano-god, throwing the poor, the needy (and increasingly the majority) into the flames to appease it. The idea to give those feelings focus came from Adbusters magazine, a publication founded by the charming and eminently reasonable Kalle Lasn.
You have said that consumerism is at the root of a lot of the environmental, psychological and justice issues of the world. Could you explain that link?
Yes. When it comes to the ecological crisis we're in, the link is kind of obvious. All the consumption is the mother of all our environmental problems, really. As a species, there's six or seven billion of us and as a species we are just consuming too much. And especially the one billion very rich people who live in the UK and North America and Australia and Japan and Europe. We are just one billion, about, what is it - 20 % of the population of the planet. And yet we consume three quarters, or even as much as 80% of the world's resources. And we spew out roughly the same amount of the toxic chemicals and create about 80% of the waste and carbon and so on of the world.
And this is obvious.
Maybe it's hard to argue this about people in India, but when it comes to the rich one billion of us, then we are the problem. And it is our consumerism and our huge footprint and this denial we are in that somehow we can fix the problem by changing a few light-bulbs and occasionally using a bicycle or buying a hybrid car instead of an SUV or whatever -- we're fooling ourselves. Our footprint is 200 or 300 or 400% bigger than it should be. And if we don't find ways to reduce that footprint then the global economy and the global ecology is going to collapse and force us to do that.
So here this link between consumerism and ecological catastrophes is quite obvious.
On the psychological front, people who first started out as physical environmentalist have -- quite often because they're stressed-out or have some sort of low-level mood-disorder where they wake up in a funk every morning - all of a sudden they wake up to the fact that maybe one of the reasons that's making them feel so lousy (and making them dash off to the malls all the time and go crazy at Christmas and somehow try to fix all their problems by buying another pair of jeans or buying another car or buying another present for their wife or whatever) is actually this incredible onslaught of marketing messages that is forced into our brain every day whether we like it or not.
If you add it all up: the few dozen adverts you see on TV and the few hundred popping in your face when you're on your computer and the billboards you drive by and all the logos we wear on our shoes and our shirts and our buildings... If you add it all up over a 24 hour period, then the number of marketing messages that one way or another get into our brain is somewhere between three and five thousand. And a few researchers have now postulated that our brains may not be capable of absorbing that number of quite often very aggressive marketing messages (which are often laced with erotic titillations and quite often violent titillations, or emotional blackmail techniques where they make you feel lousy about how big your thighs are or about how your skin isn't as smooth and beautiful as it should be or your hair is lousy or whatever). They use this as a way of saying: 'You've got a problem and we can fix it.' And that kind of emotionally-charged, erotically-charged advertising could well be one of the multiple factors that are leading to this epidemic increase in mood disorders and anxiety attacks and depressions that we have now.
We're in an epidemic of mental illness. The World Health Organisation is telling us that mental disease will be bigger than heart-disease in about ten years or so and we don't know what is causing this epidemic. But more and more evidence is coming out that one of the multiple causes is consumer culture itself, which is constantly doing bad things to our brain.
And then when it comes to politics, the link isn't so obvious here and many people will disagree with me. But when 9-11 happened and we started debating about what were some of the root causes of this war on terror that we're forced to fight (and which looks like it may be a war that will go on for a long time, if not forever), then many people, myself included, started saying that one of the root causes of the war on terror is this incredible gulf between the rich and the poor people of the world, where we, the rich one billion suck up three quarters of all the goodies on the planet and in the global economy, we leave a lousy 25% to the rest of the people on the planet. And then we wonder why they hate our guts. And then we wonder why so many of them decide they are willing to fight against Empire. And rightly or wrongly, whatever their reasons are, I think this huge gap between the poor people and the rich people of the world is undoubtedly in my mind one of the root causes of geopolitical instability and one of the many causes of this war on terror that we're in.
You've mentioned advertising as a driver for over-consumption, but is there a role played by industry itself in creating a throwaway culture that contributes to over-consumption?
Yes, of course there is. I think that we, as a society and a culture has really dropped the ball, where all kinds of stuff is thrown at us, like drugs that don't work and appliances that don't have enough of a life and planned obsolescence which is built into the products we buy. But, quite frankly, in the larger realm of things, I think this is a minor problem, compared to the fact that over the last couple of generations we have created a culture in which we teach our children to have this incredible sense of entitlement. Kids grow up these days thinking that they deserve all this stuff. They want a $200 pair of sneakers and are buying them not because they don't last for more than a year but because, somehow, they think they put some 'swoosh' into their life. And they don't realise that you can't buy 'swoosh' and confidence and that sort of stuff - you have to earn it.
But anyway, we've created a culture of entitlement, we're rearing kids that are narcissists, and we ourselves don't think anything of continually solving our problems by just buying more stuff.
We don't raise much of an outcry against the toaster that doesn't last for more than a year or the car that's got a built-in obsolescence at its very heart. So I think we have a much bigger fish to fry here than just buying toasters with a longer life.
You suggest things weren't always like this. When did this all start?
I think it started soon after the Second World War. I was born in the middle of the Second World War and I remember the hard times, but when I was a kid it didn't feel like hard times. I remember a time when everybody, including my parents, were forced to do a lot of stuff themselves and grow some of their own vegetables, make their own stuff, buy stuff that lasted longer and not buy things they didn't need. And at Christmas time we made presents for each other and there wa this wonderful family solidarity. And a lot of us went to church - I remember going to church before I got disillusioned with Christianity for various reasons - and there was a community solidarity in which religion played a large part.
But, then, soon after we won the war, especially in the United States, suddenly the hard times were over and the technological revolution was in full swing. Cars were coming out and people were buying cars and houses and advertising was becoming more and more of a dominant part of our lives, and everybody jumped onto this consumer bandwagon and that's when consumer culture was born: in the ten or twenty years after the Second World War, between 1945 and 1965. That's when we allowed consumerism to start dominating our lives, without knowing any better. That's when we allowed family fabric and community fabric to diminish. Thirty years after that we found out that consumerism does have this incredibly dark side to it. But, by 1995, consumerism was the ethic of our time. Not just in the First World, but throughout the entire planet: everybody wanted to play that consumer-capitalist game. And so we came up with all kinds of ways of extending credit to people.
You know, my parents, when they didn't have the money, they didn't buy anything. And when we did borrow money (we had a mortgage) then we took it very very seriously and we had a 25 year plan to pay it back. One of the things that happened after the end of the Second World War was that credit became looser and looser. First there were lay-by plans, then credit-cards and now, most recently, you didn't have to have a penny, you didn't even have to have a job and you could buy a house. We created a credit system that allowed the consumerist ethic to grow even if the money wasn't there.
And right now we're in the middle of that bubble bursting in our faces. And maybe this is exactly the moment we've been waiting for. Maybe if the bubble bursts and the pain gets bad enough, then maybe finally this will be a wake-up call. And maybe this will be the moment that will be remembered 20 or 30 years down the pipe, the moment when consumer culture turned a corner and turned back into more of a sane, sustainable culture again.
You are quite critical of traditional 'lefty' attitudes in your book and magazine, so I'm assuming you're not picturing some sort of communist utopia. What's your ideal of what society could be?
I must admit, I have been saying for years that we need to jump over the dead body of the old Left. But, nonetheless, I think we need to jump over the dead body of the old Christianity as well. But I do believe that both in Christianity and in the Left there are certain ideals, ethics and emotions that I can't let go of. When I was going to university, the political Left was a powerful camaraderie.
Most of my friends were idealists who believed in some sort of a utopia, and somehow I still believe in some of those emotional signatures that the Left has imprinted on me. And I don't think for the rest of my life I'll be able to let them go. So I still, in some sense, believe in the Left. But just like Christianity, I think the Left has seriously lost its way and lost its soul. So 'my future' is a sort of anarchist future. A sort of radical-democratic anarchist future, where people are deciding their own destiny very much on the local level. There's very powerful communities who decide whether they are going to let a MacDonalds come into their community and to what extent they are going to help the farmers in their community to sell their stuff, and if there's an economic downturn, deciding how they will help businesses to survive in their own community. To decide maybe to have their own money, if some communities want to do that. And to basically have politics bubble up from the people again. This is my vision of the future.
Not to have a top-down world, where, for example, in the world of sneakers or music or cars, we've got half a dozen huge mega-corporations that have 90% of the market share and when you want to buy a pair of sneakers you basically have to choose between a Nike, an ADIDAS or a Reebok and that's about the size of it. Or, when it comes to getting your information, you still (despite all the wonderful ways you can get your information) have half a dozen huge media-megacorporations that control more than half of all the news and information-flows on the planet. We have a global economy that is controlled by just a few hundred very large corporations and the World Bank and World Trade Organisation - they are very much controlled by a small number of very powerful financial people (many of them in the United States and the UK).
So, my dream of a new world is where we, the people, take the initiative, take back the power, start changing certain rules. On a global level, implement a Tobin Tax, start launching anti-trust actions against media mega-corporations, start having true-cost markets where the cost of every product tells the ecological truth. But, above all, to have vibrant bio-regions and to have vibrant communities within those bio-regions that are living sane, sustainable lives.
Do you feel that consumer capitalism has given us anythign positive?
I think it has. I think at a time when we didn't really know what the hell we were doing, consumer capitalism or globalisation gave us this global system that, whether we like it or not, we had to evolve into. And of course, I think it's gone way too far and we've given too much power away, but, I think that the fact that we do have the beginnings of a sort of global governance and a global system - with all its flaws - this is something positive because we don't want to go into the dark ages where all these little communities don't give a damn about what's happening across the river or across the ocean. I think now we, the six-seven billion people on the planet, we are one unit. And we have to start forming a unitary spirituality and unitary global systems and unitary global markets where every product tells the ecological truth, etc. We have to operate on both the global level and the local community level. And somehow gettign that balance right is where the future lies.
For people like me, who are Christians and who sympathize with many of your ideals, do you think there is a place in an ideal society for people of faiths like the Christian faith?
I absolutely believe - this is actually one of the positive things that I really believe in right now and that gives me some strength - I believe that just as the political Left lost its soul and now there's a big struggle for it to gain its soul, I believe that in the world of spirituality (perhaps a little bit less so in Buddhism than in Christianity at the moment, and I believe Islam still has a very powerful frugality ethic to it - I think there are more social ethics and more community values in Islam right now than there are in Christianity and I'm really down about what the Catholic Church has done recently in its refusal to really step up and deal with this sexual abuse thing that's been simmering for the last 20 or 30 years. I mean that has been a real downer for me. I just can't believe that the Catholic Church is playing politics with that issue to the extent it is)...
But, having said all that, I would go so far as to say that I believe that if there is going to be some kind of sustainable future, it's going to be the spiritual people (and I include myself among them, even though I don't call myself a Christian or a Buddhist, but I believe that there is a mystery to this life I'm living and I will never fully understand it and I believe there's some sort of larger thing happening there - whether you want to call it God I don't know and I don't much want to talk about it -but I am a spiritual person myself)... I believe that the spiritual people may actually be the only people that have what it takes to allow and equip us to be the people who finally turn things around.