The pursuit of entertainment, the experiences of pleasure and fun, is a major “driver” of climate change, yet it is relatively unexplored. Despite the salience of pleasure and fun in daily life, in almost every aspect of consumption, the subject is widely ignored in the many sciences focused on the relationship between the environment, the economy and consumer culture. We seem much more comfortable discussing “happiness,” than the everyday emotions and motives involved with consuming goods and services. Happiness is usually depicted as a relatively passive long-term state, while people are anything but passive in their pursuits of pleasure, and many are willing to sacrifice their ultimate happiness in life by pursuing the short term pleasures of goods and experiences. I suggest that if we are truly concerned with transforming consumer culture in the direction of greater sustainability, in lowering the huge carbon footprints of the global middle classes and wealthy elites, we need to take the pursuit of pleasure more seriously.
The pursuit of pleasure is a central part of the consumer economy, but it has barely registered as a topic in work on sustainability, where it remains something of a ‘black box’ that exerts pressure to increase consumption. Yet, we lack any way to measure the environmental impact of pleasure-seeking and consequently the fraction of emissions it drives. We have estimates of how much carbon pollution comes from agriculture, construction and transportation, but not from producing and enjoying activities like individual sports, social gatherings, the arts or gourmet dining, to mention but a few. We can measure the greenhouse gases released by pouring concrete for a building, but not from the many pleasurable activities that might be enabled by that building.
Why is there such a gap in our knowledge of such a fundamental force in our consuming lives? I have been asking this question for years, surveying literature in fields as diverse as sports management and neurobiology without finding a useful theoretical frame. But without thinking about the pursuit of pleasure, it is hard to imagine why houses are getting bigger and more elaborate, giant stadiums proliferate on the landscape, and the cruise ship industry ferries millions of people in endless circles. Understanding consumption and consumer culture takes us far beyond the seeming concreteness of “needs” and into the realm of “wants,” a fraught and dangerous territory full of value judgements and moral strictures, taboos and transgressions. Nevertheless, if we recognize the role of expansive consumption in driving our many environmental crises, we need to go there, and think further about concepts that seem subjective and experiential. In several papers and presentations I have asked more specifically, why the experience of fun has been mostly missing from our scholarship on the drivers of climate change, why it is so under-studied and under-theorized.
Rather than treating pleasure as an end in itself, most of the literature on leisure and entertainment is concerned with their social and cultural functions. Fun is often said to build social relationships, signal wealth or social status, or release the tensions created by work. Yet many sources of fun are destructive and even deadly for participants, and in excess the pursuit of fun can be a source of social disorder. Others deal with fun by locating it in geography (fun places), or in time (holidays, breaks), or it is subsumed in a larger and more abstract category like “leisure.” But fun is actually pervasive, and can be a component of almost any activity – we are remarkably proficient in finding fun in even the most dire situations. Fun can also be a dangerous topic. The problem of climate change is overwhelmingly serious, and in discussing solutions we want to set off alarms about consumerism, not celebrate its many pleasures. Nor do we want to open ourselves to accusations of frivolity, taking a problem lightly.
The assessment of pleasure, entertainment and fun is not just a problem of sustainability. The issue of which forms of pleasure are socially and individually positive, and which are destructive and dangerous is fundamental to all moral systems. This valence has been a preoccupation of religion, philosophy, ethics and law for thousands of years. As an anthropologist, I find it hard to imagine any society that did not regulate pleasure and pain, since basic categories of social structure are defined by the boundary between the sanctioned and forbidden.
I would argue that those boundaries, their flexibility and changeability should be a central focus of sustainability social science. Many people see the discourse of sustainability as a threat to their freedom to consume, the sovereignty of wealth in the marketplace. This is not just a misconception – it is a real obstacle that needs to be taken seriously. To do that we need to accept and study the manifold pleasures of consumer society.