Kalle Lasn is not one to sit around on his ass. As founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, Adbusters Magazine and one of the founders of Buy Nothing Day, he has for 20 years been an important figure in the anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist and pro-environmental movements. His magazine, Adbusters, has been something of a beacon to those wishing to engage with how economic injustice, cultural dysfunction, political oppression and environmental degradation are linked, while at the same time championing vital and vibrant attitudes to art, design, literature and architecture. He is also the author of Culture Jam, a book that has had an immense impact on the anti-consumerism movement worldwide.
He is clearly a passionate (not to mention nice) guy, and interviewing him is both a delightful and challenging experience, as he darts from one tangent to another, always finding something more to say, explain or enthuse about.
In this interview he talks about how consumerism has almost ruined politics, the planet and our psychological well-being. He also talks about how it feels to have achieved bugger-all over the last twenty years and how faith and religion can and must be part of the fight against global consumer capitalism.
Oh, and he also shares his vision for an ideal, radically-democratic utopia.
There are bits I agree with and bits I don’t, but hey – we’re all adults here, and this is a reasonable introduction into some of the ways religious peeps can engage with the anticapitalist movement. Especially my wife…
Jonathan Langley: Kalle, my wife made me promise to tell you that your book, Culture Jam, changed her life. So, er, thank you!
Kalle Lasn: It’s strange, but lately, seven or eight years after publishing the book, I’ve been getting a few people saying something like that to me. It’s really quite bracing!
JL: I’m writing something about consumerism for a Christian magazine, <it didn’t end up getting published – or written, for that matter>so some of this will have to be pretty ‘beginner’, but: How would you define Consumerism?
KL: Well, just to turn the conversation just a little bit: I think that by-and-large the world really is tuned-out. And especially… I don’t know if I should say this but especially Christians. People who have a chance and an inclination to do something about it – they tend to be tuned-out. I wonder if they are even at the beginner stage. Am I wrong?
JL: I think you’re fairly right, though recently there have been movements, but they are still very much at the fringes. I think there’s a terror of Communism that still comes from the 50s.
KL: When we first launched Buy Nothing Day, over 15 years ago now, the environmentalists were the first people to jump on board, then after that there were the mental environmentalists, the people who didn’t like the advertising that came with our consumer culture. But, you know, the thrid group that really jumped on board and started doing Buy Nothing Day and also But Nothing Christmas were the spiritual people, and mostly the Christians. So there is something there, a very fertile ground there for Christians to become the people who take this large perspective of what’s going wrong with our planet right now and really starting to do something about it.
JL: I think there’s a lot in common between what most Christians believe about the world and life and what’s important and what organisations like the Adbusters Media Foundation are telling people.
KL: Well, when that first happened, that was a surprise for me. Because I didn’t expect mainstream people, for some reason especially Christians, to jump on board, but they did. And over the years I’ve analysed it down to this idea of simplicity and frugality that has always been at the base of most religions. Most religions I can think of, they all have this simple frugality at the heart of their ethic and certainly in Christianity that’s the case. So I think that Buy Nothing Day, Buy Nothing Christmas or just living a simpler life or becoming one of the crusaders for a different kind of culture (the idea of taking the ‘consumer’ out of ‘consumer culture’ and turning it into an authentic bottom-up culture again) – I think this is something that could really take off among Christians.
KL: I think we’re in a really dangerous moment right now. When we launched Buy Nothing Day and I first wrote Cutlture Jam, the world was still a fairly rational place where there was still time to think about things and plan a better kind of a future, without any real sense of urgency. But since then, I don’t have to tell you, we’ve had the Stern Report, warning us of the biggest market failure the world has ever seen and this never-ending war on terror that is partly fuelled by this huge gap between the rich people and the poor people of the world. In the psychological space (at least in North America, I don’t know if it’s the same for you in the UK) where we’ve got between three and five thousand marketing messages a day coming into our brains and we’re in a epidemic of mental illness. So ecologically, psychologically and politically you could almost say we’re hitting a wall. So I think that this idea that spiritual people, whether they are Buddhists or Christians or whatever – for them to turn the roots of consumerism (which is the mother of all those problems I just mentioned) – for spiritual people to come out and be a real force to be reckoned with for the first time.
I mean ever since I was a little kid, for the last fifty years, religion hasn’t really (except for a few little skirmishes here and there) played a meaningful or visceral or powerful role in shaping our culture. I don’t know if you’ll agree with that or not, but it seems religion has been a kind of passive player. And now I think it’s time for spiritual people to really start strutting their stuff again. Because it’s not going to be the business types in the corporations, it’s going to be up to us, the people, to do something about this problem and to take ‘consumer’ out of consumer culture.
And I’ve always felt, ever since the first years of Buy Nothing Day that Christians could really do something about this and I’ve always thought that spiritual people have two faces. One is a kind of passive ‘I wanna be nice to everybody and meditate on the side of a river and go to church on Sundays and be a very gentle, passive person who generates wonderful things in this world, just by the beautiful gentleness and simplicity of their nature. But now I think it’s time for the other face, the more ferocious face of spirituality to show itself. And throughout history spirituality hasn’t always been the way it’s been here for the last 50 years. It’s time for that ferocious face to be shown again and for Christians to start really confronting the status quo in a very visceral way.
JL: You 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?
KL: 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 poppin 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.
JL: 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?
KL: 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.
JL: You suggest things weren’t always like this. When did this all start?
KL: 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.
JL: 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?
KL: 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 ADDIDAS 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.
JL: Do you feel that consumer capitalism has given us anythign positive?
KL: 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.
JL: What advice would you give people about what they can do?
KL: This is something that has to grow out of your own life. You have to wake up one morning and feel lousy. Or one Christmas you need to feel that the Christmases you’ve been celebrating with your kids and family for the last ten years have just been plain wrong, and this year you’re going to celebrate Christmas in a wholly different way. And you have to decide that you’re going to stop going to the supermarket as much as you do and start buying way more of your stuff from local farmers and so on. And unless you decide to do it yourself, you’re copping out. You’re saying: ‘I’m not convinced, my heart’s not in it, so please help me!’ Well, I’m not going help you.
JL: But what about the people who agree with what you’re saying but don’t perhaps have the knowledge that you do? Don’t you have a role to play?
KL: Well, of course, I’ve got a book, I’ve got a magazine and if people find that this is an assistance ot them, great! But, ultimately, that big step, deciding whether you want to be part of consumer culture or become part of a new culture, I think ultimately asking someone else how it should be done is not going to work. Not unless it’s an epiphany that you yourself have. Above all, the biggest epiphanies come from suddenly looking over at your neighbour or looking at some kid in your class and suddenly seeing somebody who is spiritually charged up and living life to the hilt and doing life in a whole different way from what you’re doing and saying: ‘Wow, what’s going on here? Am I missing something?’
Prescriptions don’t work. I started Adbusters almost 20 years ago now, and I can tell you: prescriptions don’t work. We have had a lot of prescriptions in Adbusters and tried to tell people what to do. It never works.
JL: Do you ever lose hope?
KL: Until a few years ago, I was one of these people who grew up in a physical environment, fishing in rivers, jumping around, playing with snakes in Australia and what-not. And I think I was one of the lucky few who didn’t grow up in a crazy, cynical, digital environment that so many grow up in these days, and I was 100% an optimistic person. There was not a cynical fibre to my being. And yet, in my early sixties, when the Stern Report came out and when those scientific reports started coming out warning that there’s not going to be any more edible fish in the sea by the year 2048, and when I looked around me and started wondering: ‘what the fuck have I really achieved in 20 years of putting out Adbusters and launching Buy Nothing Day?’ And I suddenly realised that in these 20 years, we’ve actually gone backwards. And for the first time in my life I did start feeling a little blue myself waking up in the morning.
And for the moment, I’m struggling to regain that unmitigated optimism that I had when I was younger.
JL: You’re probably not going to be turning to Prozac for that, though, I imagine…
KL: Well, I sure hope not. But my feeling has always been that when you feel yourself going down into the dumps a little bit then you have to reconnect with the world, reconnect with your friends and family, rather than start taking pills.
JL: For people like me, who are Christians and who respect and have been impacted by a great deal of what you do, do you think there is a place in that utopia you mentioned for people of faiths like the Christian faith or the Muslim faith, faith of those types? Or does it have to be an amalgam?
KL: No. 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.
JL: Thanks so much, Kalle, it’s been a pleasure.
KL: Delighted. I got myself all worked up there and now I feel much better too. Adios and give your wife a pat on the back from me!