No, this crisis won’t make minimalists of us all. When the pandemic comes to an end, we’ll quickly fall back into our old bad habits, argues anthropologist Dominique Desjeux, who specialises in consumerist behaviour at the University of Paris.
Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, commentators in the French press have predicted this crisis will teach us valuable lessons about the limits of mass consumption, forcing us to change our behaviour.
Sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin wrote: “Confinement can help us to start detoxing our way of life.”
Similarly, politician Hubert Védrine claimed in Le Figaro that coronavirus has challenged people’s faith in consumerism.
Professor Desjeux disagrees. “After the crisis, we no longer face the same constraints as we experienced during the pandemic, so people are likely to just go back to normal,” he said.
“As an anthropologist, I employ a particular method to understand culture. Working with a team of about 90 others, I try to understand people’s practices first and then I look at their values afterwards.”
From such research, he has learned that while people might believe certain things or hold certain values, this doesn’t necessarily translate into actions.
To demonstrate, he described a study he conducted for a well-known cosmetics brand. From interviewing a focus group of about 10 women, he discovered that although they all liked the company’s make-up, they were concerned about the damage this might do to their skin.
That health concern, however, did not stop them using the products.
“It’s quite normal for there often to be a big gap between values and practices,” he said.
Based on this disconnect between thought and reality, Prof Desjeux believes that even if our values are brought into question by the crisis, we still will not shake off old habits. “If you want to change people’s behaviour, you need strong constraints on consumption and production,” he said.
“There are several types of constraints which determine practices: material, social and symbolic.
“A material constraint would be if someone has no money to buy a product. Social constraints are what you are encouraged to do or not do, based on who you are living with. Symbolic constraints are to do with how you shape your identity.”
If such constraints were state-imposed, it could provoke varied reactions.
Prof Desjeux said: “For example, if we look at the gilets jaunes movement, you can see that the loss of purchasing power and the difficulty to consume made them unhappy and angry.”
He contrasted this anger to the younger generation in France, many of whom oppose the consumption of meat and are becoming vegetarian out of concern for the environment.
Prof Desjeux also noted that different nations would react in different ways.
He drew a comparison between the French and Finnish government responses to coronavirus.
Whereas the former found it necessary to impose fines to keep the French indoors, the latter only needed to announce a lockdown for it to be effective.
Regardless of the cross-cultural differences, consumption is mounting globally and Prof Desjeu x is sure of one thing: “Today we know well that it’s no longer possible to continue consuming as we have done because the planet’s resources are limited.
“Countries are using up more and more resources, which causes pollution, produces carbon dioxide, and, because of the scarcity of water, minerals, petrol, energy and proteins, there is an increased risk of war.”
His research in China has brought him to a controversial conclusion about how to solve this problem.
“About seven years ago, for one or two weeks, China got rid of plastic bags altogether, and then they decided to invest more in green energy,” he said.
“They were also the first country to produce solar power. Then, in Beijing and other big cities, there are rules on whether you can drive a car around or not.
“They hold a kind of lottery system for people who want to buy a car.
“In some cities, they even use the digits in your number plate to control whether you are allowed to drive. So China is a very interesting case of minimalism.”
Based on China’s example, he believes that to effect real change in people’s behaviour, governments might need to take authoritarian measures, imposing the constraints that are so integral to his research.
However, the Chinese government is often oppressive, challenging freedom and censoring information.
So Prof Desjeux is apprehensive about his conclusion: “Without constraints we won’t be able to change our behaviour. But then again, constraints could also threaten democracy.”