'Many big ideas have struggled over the centuries to dominate the planet,' begins the argument by Jonathon Porritt, government adviser and all-round environmental guru.'Fascism. Communism. Democracy. Religion. But only one has achieved total supremacy. Its compulsive attractions rob its followers of reason and good sense. It has created unsustainable inequalities and threatened to tear apart the very fabric of our society. More powerful than any cause or even religion, it has reached into every corner of the globe. It is consumerism.'
According to Porritt, the most senior adviser to the government on sustainability, we have become a generation of shopaholics. We are bombarded by advertising from every medium which persuades us that the more we consume, the better our lives will be. Shopping is equated with fun, fulfilment and self-identity. It is also, Porritt warns, killing the planet. He argues, in an interview with The Observer, that merely switching to 'ethical' shopping is not enough. We must shop less.
From pictures of Coleen McLoughlin weighed down with designer bags to branding endorsements by the likes of David Beckham, the image of consumerism as a universal aspiration is ubiquitous. Last week 3,000 people stormed Primark's new flagship store on London's Oxford Street before the official opening time, putting two staff in hospital and earning the description by BBC2's Newsnight of 'a plague of locusts'. There are, however, a growing number of dissenting voices such as the so-called 'Froogles', individuals who use the internet to seek a simpler lifestyle, and organisations and websites which urge people to kick the retail habit.
Porritt, chairman of the government's Sustainable Development Commission, has concluded that consumerism is central to the threat facing the planet, cannibalising its natural resources and producing the carbon dioxide emissions which result in climate change.
In a film for Channel Five, he points out that Britons throw away their own body weight in rubbish every seven weeks, with 100 million tonnes of waste pouring into the country's 12,000 landfill sites every year. If all six billion people in the world were to consume at the same level, we would need two new Earths to supply all the energy, soil, water and raw materials required.
'I think capitalism is patently unable to go on growing the size of the consumer economy for any more people in the world today because levels of consumption are already undermining life support systems on which we depend - so if we do it for any more people, the planet will go pop,' Porritt told The Observer. 'So in a way we don't have a choice about this: we've got to rethink the basic premise behind capitalism to make it deliver the goods. In the long run, when you really look at what happens on a planet with nine billion people and really serious constraints on the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we can emit, it's almost inevitable we will learn to have more elegant, satisfying lives, consuming less. I can't see any way out of that in the long run.'
Porritt, co-founder of Forum For The Future, Britain's leading sustainable development charity, believes that consumerism has taken over our lives almost unnoticed. 'Shopping has become a recreational activity,' he continued. 'There's a lot of evidence that people really do see shopping now as an amenity pastime. We're well beyond the time where shopping was just a way of transacting what you needed in life. It's now all about identity and status and recreation and companionship, even about meaning in people's lives. There's always been a "keeping up with the Joneses" type thing, but it's now almost universalised and there is a sense of buying to be more like something or to get the image of somebody, particularly with clothes or branded goods, where there's very much that sense of, "If I buy something with this name on it, maybe a little bit of the magic of that name will rub off on me and I'll be a better person", whereas we all know you're exactly the same person just waiting to go out and make your next branded purchase.'
Porritt's film cites China as an example of how booming economic growth has produced an explosion of consumerism with mixed results: millions have risen out of poverty, but the consequences for the environment are severe. He added: 'There's always been a more privileged part of society which was into buying more than they needed in order to demonstrate how wealthy and influential they were, but the benefits of mass consumption have now been spread so wide that we've got anywhere between 1.5 and two billion people on the planet today who can use their purchasing power like that. The total spend on advertising is just so enormous now that it's little wonder people are seduced into this idea that their personal happiness results from spending in the way they're being encouraged to do.'
There are some pockets of resistance. 'Froogles' include New Yorker Judith Levine who, realising that she had spent $1,000 (£500) in the run-up to Christmas in 2004, decided to buy nothing but necessities for the next year, chronicling the experience in her book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping
A group called The Compact, made up of 10 friends in San Francisco, gained members around the world: their mission, to take a '12-month flight from the consumer grid' and boycott all non-essential products. Every year, in November, Buy Nothing Day encourages people to 'shop less - live more', and last year there were multiple events in Manchester and Oxford and at least six other British cities. Meanwhile, websites such as Freecycle.org enable users to exchange unwanted goods and preventing them going to waste.
February saw the launch of Buy (Less), whose website parodies RED, the global fundraising campaign led by U2 singer Bono which tells consumers that when they buy RED branded products -which include clothes, a credit card and mobile phone - a slice of the money will be used to fight Aids in Africa. Buy (Less) Crap challenges the concept, urging its visitors to 'join us in rejecting the ti(red) notion that shopping is a reasonable response to human suffering'. It provides weblinks to several charities so that people can make direct donations instead.
'I've always been very nervous about this implied assumption that the more you put on your credit card, the more your charities will benefit, which is a bit perverse, but is what happens when you're using credit cards of that kind,' Porritt said. 'I think it clutters up the awareness we need to encourage in people now that there's an awful lot of unnecessary consumption, conspicuous consumption, irresponsible consumption, and we're just got to get used to cracking down on that in our own lives and really thinking through the implications of all that.'
Red officials argue that their campaign is not about buying more but about buying differently. They say that is about buying an 'ethical' version of a product rather than a 'non-ethical' one. But Porritt argues that there is not only a need to shop differently, but to shop less. 'I don't subscribe to this view that all we need to do is consume a little more thoughtfully, a little bit less damagingly. When I look at the amount of consumption that almost instantly turns into waste, with huge amounts bought for no particularly good purpose and then discarded or thrown away, I do find it inexcusable. When some people are buying food they're not buying for a particular meal, they're not thinking it through very carefully, they're almost buying speculatively as if, "Well, we might eat that this week, if we don't we'll chuck it away." I find that extraordinary. I'm not being a miserable, parsimonious, old tightwad, it's just why would you buy stuff that's not needed?'
He denies that he is advocating a return to the austerity and rationing last seen during and just after the Second World War, although he describes low air fares as 'ludicrous' and warns a sacrifice will have to be made to reduce carbon emissions. 'I know for sure that if we ever had a golden age, as far as most people are concerned, it's been over the last 50 years. That's the period of the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people, so I don't have any nostalgia for past eras where life was simpler but more primitive. I don't talk about going back to anything, I talk about using technology a great deal more intelligently and efficiently to continue to give us a very high quality of life with a fraction of the environmental cost.
'We need "sustainability literacy", enabling people to see what the costs of living in a certain way really look like. We're blind to a lot of that. When people take holidays in far-flung places they very rarely think about the impact of hundreds of thousands of tourists descending on some destination somewhere in the world. We've just got to get wiser to what happens when we enjoy the perks of this life.'
His sentiments were echoed by the conservation group Friends of the Earth. Tony Juniper, its director, said: 'Our consumer culture is completely out of the step with the capacity of the planet. If we're going to have a world that is in a fit state to live in by the end of the century, we're going to have to drastically reduce the amount of material demand.
'We need a legal framework for economic activity, but in the end this is about culture, and culture shapes politics. At the moment the culture is being shaped in an unsustainable direction by the advertising industry. It's perfectly possible to present an alternative, but no one has the budget: Friends of the Earth has a few thousand pounds, whereas millions are spent to promote a single car.'
Trevor Datson, a spokesman for Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer, insisted it shares many of Porritt's values. 'There's no question there's too much waste in society, and we'd agree with Jonathon there. The thrust of Tesco's moves on the environment is helping customers choose a greener lifestyle. Our carrier bag scheme is designed to incentivise rather than castigate: we've saved 350 million plastic bags since last July by offering club card points for people who re-use bags. It's the power of making people feel good about green choices rather than having to live like a monk.'
Mountains of waste
· 3.3 million tonnes of food are binned every year in the UK
· People get a new mobile on average every 18 months
· Last Christmas, more than 6 million PCs were left on standby in empty offices
· 1.5 million computers are thrown away every year, of which 99 per cent work perfectly
Buying into a low-cost lifestyle
'Froogles' started life as a broad American movement of environmentally motivated types who wanted to reduce drastically their consumerism. They use the internet to exchange goods for free.
Buy (Less) is an organisation that encourages individuals to donate money to charities and inspire less consumption.
Justin Rowlatt, a reporter on BBC TV's Newsnight, became Ethical Man when he led a green lifestyle for a year. He installed energy-efficient lightbulbs, avoided animal product foods and gave up his car to switch to public transport.
Buy Nothing Day started in 1993 and became an international event celebrated in 55 countries. Its aim is to make consumers think about how buying goods impacts on the environment and poverty.
In December 2005 a group of professional friends in San Francisco got together and called themselves The Compact, aiming to go 'beyond recycling' by reducing clutter and waste.
A New York City couple, Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, are spending a year experimenting with a new lifestyle they call No Impact. They only eat organic food produced within 400km of Manhattan, producing no rubbish, and using no paper (including toilet paper) or carbon-emitting transport.
· Big Ideas that Changed the World: Tuesday 10 April, 7.15pm, Channel Five
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