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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Flooding, consumption and the normality of everyday life

‘Flooding, consumption and the normality of everyday life’ latest blog by SCI PhD student Patrick Gould weaves together reflections on climate change, disruption, time, consumption, normality and the circular economy, with current research and business and policy responses.

As spring takes hold, the wettest and warmest winter on records recedes into the background for many. But not for all. Of the thousands of questions asked over the winter of devastating floods across the North of England, one of the most important for people affected is presumably: should we stay, or should be go?

People describe being fed up of the now regular ‘once in a lifetime floods’ and some see the only option is to move from the area, however tough it may be to leave. Others cling to their homes and their communities, refusing to move, gradually piecing their possessions, and lives, back together again.

One vital aspect of people’s resilience in the face of disruption to everyday life is consumption. Whilst many things destroyed in the floods hold sentimental value, replacing furnishings and consumables with like-for-like or new is widely achievable. Consumption plays an enormous role in transforming a house to a home and thus provides meaningful action in the process of making our lives go ‘back to normal’.

The idea of ‘back to normal’ is important for discussions around sustainability, post-sustainability, consumption and production. An expression used in times of trauma or shock, it reflects certain beliefs about the past, present and future. It offers an insight into the everyday, mundane and commonplace - the things we take for granted. Indeed, ‘normality’ and ‘common sense’ are topics that have always interested sociologists—finding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

The proliferation of cheap mass consumables has been a defining feature of consumer societies over the last century. The consequences of replicability, mass consumption, planned obsolescence and affluence on imaginations of the past, the normality of the present and the (im)possibilities of the future have been regular themes in social science, and in popular culture by writers such as Don DeLillo. Consumption has come to form a central component in people’s relationship to time in modernity and postmodernity.

Whilst the resilience of those in towns and villages affected by flooding continues, the issue remains that as extreme weather events become more common with human-induced climate change, continuing patterns of production and consumption, that is, going ‘back to normal’, will not suffice in the long term.  Combined with the increase in destitution and the inability for many people to rebuild their lives as a result of flooding, the response to these events is of considerable importance.

The rhythms and tempos of consumption in the home, for example, replacing your sofa every five years, or replacing your kitchen every ten years, have been issues covered by many academics at the Sustainable Consumption Institute. In understanding how everyday life, consumption and action are structured in advanced capitalist societies, Dale Southerton points to the cyclical and ordered relationship between time and consumption and how they are spread differently depending on social class, culture and status.

How ordered patterns of consumption and production are changing through acceleration and disruption presents a major challenge for societies: climate change makes the relationship between time and consumption increasingly unpredictable. In times of disruption, how are different groups of people using consumption as a form of resilience or adaptation?

Last month the head of sustainability at IKEA, Steve Howard, discussed these challenges, as well as what he coined ‘peak stuff’. Western societies, in particular, he argued, need to change their whole system of production and consumption – with reducing, reusing and recycling seen as ways of mitigating resource depletion. He set out IKEA’s commitment to providing more of these services in their stores, recognising the environmental dangers of current forms of global production and consumption. However, two primary concerns have been raised about Howard’s account.

Firstly, Western societies cannot be disentangled and separately managed from the world economy. Secondly, new product development still dominates the revenues and growth of businesses; particularly in the kind of industry IKEA operates in. Whilst schemes such as trade-ins and repairing will augment existing sales and marketing strategies, scepticism remains over whether they are likely to gain enough ground in time to meet carbon emission reduction targets set at the recent Paris Climate Summit and avoid catastrophic climate change.

At a policy forum in January, the chief executive of the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP), Liz Goodwin, echoed similar arguments to Howard. But she also criticised the Paris Climate Summit agreement for neglecting resource efficiency and waste reduction. Tied in with a recent European Environment Agency report on the ‘circular economy’ in Europe, the decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation has gained increasing attention and momentum in policy and industry, as highlighted in the UK by the Courtauld Agreement, the voluntary grocery sector waste reduction and resource efficiency initiative.

The circular economy is increasingly being adopted as the panacea to the twin threats of economic stagnation and environmental degradation. Moving beyond narrow behavioural change responses to sustainability, it calls for a systemic approach from ‘cradle to cradle’. The circular economy is promoted as the next industrial revolution, a systemic reorganisation of production and consumption that will usher in a new era of economic, environmental and social security. Researchers however have pointed to three spheres that need to given greater attention as the circular economy gains traction if the concept is to be critically examined: technocratic politics, environmental politics and the moral economy.

Rather than schemes and policies that aim to continue things as normal, such as Flood Re, a flood reinsurance scheme starting in April this year, the unanswered and difficult questions remain [pdf]: if this keeps happening, does insurance cease to function with widespread insolvency? How will people rebuild their communities? Indeed, the recent floods caused in the North of England are estimated by KPMG to have cost £5bn . By contrast, a circular economy approach would promote possibilities around mutual ownership, renting and take-back schemes. The future of a ‘sharing economy’ may be forced on communities affected by climate change as the previous ways of doing things become increasingly strained. 

On 5 February, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit committee met to discuss Government responses to flooding. Whilst there was a much broader discussion on flood prevention through better policy instruments (like Flood Re) and water and land use projects than in previous years, there was still an expectation that given enough time, resources and knowledge the problem can be managed. In particular, by ensuring people are able to produce, exchange and consume in such a way that allows a sense of normality.

Of course the concerning thing about climate change, however, and what scientists have been warning us about for decades, is that some things we cannot control. Despite being the era of the anthropocene, we are unable to control the climate. As events such as the floods experienced in the North of England illustrate, the false dichotomy between leaving and staying will become more evident.  The disruption of the floods brings home both people’s understandable desire to ‘get back to normal’ and the increasing disruptions to normality we face. The irony is, to face the challenges of climate change, we can’t carry on as normal at all.