Toward a Foucauldian Ethics of Sustainable Consumption

I’ve turned my last post ‘Self-Cultivation and the Art of Voluntary Simplicity’ into an essay, which itself is based on the rather-too-long manuscript I posted a few months ago, called ‘Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence.’ I hope this much abridged essay might be less daunting, despite the fact that it is framed by Foucault’s ethics. I’ve posted the abstract below, and posted the full manuscript on my SSRN page here, where many of my academic papers can now be downloaded.


Abstract: Michael Foucault argued that ‘the self’ is socially constructed. So far as that is true, inhabitants of consumer societies have probably all internalised the social and institutional celebration of consumption to varying extents, and this will have shaped our identities and worldviews, often in subtle ways. If it is the case, however, that overconsumption is driving many of the world’s most pressing problems, then it may be that ethical activity today requires that we engage the self by the self for the purpose of refusing who are – so far as we are uncritical consumers. This would open up space to create new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity. This paper explores the possibility of self-fashioning such post-consumerist forms of subjectivity by infusing the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’ – which signifies the attempt to live ‘more with less’ – with Michel Foucault’s notion of ethics as an ‘aesthetics of existence.’ After outlining Foucault’s ethics, this paper describes several ‘techniques of the self’ that could be employed by those who wish to actually practice the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity as an aesthetics of existence.’

The full essay can be accessed here.



5 Responses to “Toward a Foucauldian Ethics of Sustainable Consumption”

  1. jim says:

    Interested in your work, and also by Foucault – but having problems with this sentence:
    “If it is the case, however, that overconsumption is driving many of the world’s most pressing problems, then it may be that ethical activity today requires that we engage the self by the self for the purpose of refusing who are – so far as we are uncritical consumers.”

    As this is an abstract, could you simplify for a non-academic…?

    Thanks. Great work, by the way.


  2. Holly says:

    Having survived the Foucauldian tsunami through academe, I tend to roll my eyes whenever the name comes up. However, I found the second, “practical” part of the paper quite apropos.

  3. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your question. I’ll have to provide a short answer for now. Foucault, as implied in the abstract, argued that our identities are shaped by the world we live in. We live in a world where consumption is widely celebrated and encouraged without apparent limit, and that cultural assumption has probably come to shape our identities to some extent, since it is so dominant. In other words, consumer societies are at risk of shaping us into uncritical consumers who unthinkingly assume that more income / consumption is the answer to all life’s problems.

    But what if the pursuit of more income / consumption is now causing some of the problems that income / consumption is supposed to be solving? I believe that is where many of us are at today, and yet we live in a society that urges us to consume more and more, and we internalise that message to some extent. So when I suggest that we need to ‘refuse who we are’ – so far as we are uncritical consumers – I am suggesting that we need to refuse those parts of our identities that have been shaped to think that consumption is the answer to our problems. The ‘techniques of the self’ which I outline at the end of the paper are intended to assist in that task of overcoming those consumerist aspects of our identities, and if successful this would open up space for new, post-consumerist identities to be created.

    I hope this helps. For now, must run.

  4. Jim McCool says:

    Thanks, Samuel, it does indeed help.
    Latest post from Jim McCool…remaining

  5. Johnny Rutherford says:

    Hi Sam,

    Not responding to the above post; was looking for a general place to write but couldn’t find one.

    Just wanted to alert you and your readers to the amazing work of Peter Lach Newinsky – radical activist/permaculture farmer/poet. Not sure if you know of him, but his site is worth checking out.

    Thanks as always for your inspirational writings; keep it up.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge