Council of Europe

I was invited to attend the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on April 23-34 as part of a consultative group to identify and assess the best ways in which to respond to the challenges of globalization, the economic crisis and climate change, guided by the need to create a ‘Europe of Shared Responsibility’ (the title of the meeting). Amongst other contributors were Claus Offe, Anna Coote, Sabine Urban and Jean-Claude Barbier.

My own particular involvement was in the area of consumerism, specifically the need to conceptualise new forms of ‘responsible consumption’ that would include both a renewal of ideas of citizenship at a time when there is an identified crisis of confidence in models of representative democracy, as well as the need collectively to renegotiate what I referred to as ‘one-dimensional’ understandings of well-being.

My contribution was informed by a guiding question that has been preoccupying my thoughts for a little while now; namely, how is it possible to reconcile the rights to individual free (consumer) choice with the urgent need to create fairer, more stable, and more sustainable global societies?

That is, if Bauman is correct in stating that we are no longer able or willing (unwilling because unable?) to imagine what the ‘good society’ looks like and would be like to experience, and so remain preoccupied with securing the ‘good life’ only for ourselves, understood solely in terms of the acquisition of more and more capital and consumer goods, then how is it possible to meet the twin challenges that we face today – the global economic crisis and climate change?

This was something that struck me in the weeks before arriving in Strasbourg, when I heard President Obama’s address to European students in a sports stadium in the same city. He remarked that it was his firm belief that a life lived purely for individual gain – that is, solely to consume more and more goods – was not only boring but also meaningless and unfulfilling. He called for a greater sense of public duty, of caring for others, and not for the first time echoed JFK’s famous declaration of what we could do for our country.

In short, at the very beginning of this project and with all possibilities still open, it would seem that there is perhaps now a geuine opportunity to begin to explore new models of the ‘good life’ that not only look beyond the ‘consuming life’ but that also always already include a sense of personal responsibility for starting to create the collective ‘good society’.

I return to Strasbourg in mid-June to present a paper to the Council on ‘responsible consumption’. I’ll post on this issue again when I return…