Awakening our Global Social Consciousness

Today, the third Monday in January, is known as Blue Monday, “the most miserable day of the year”. According to Paula Jarzabkowski in her article in The Conversation “The combination of being fed up with winter, the grim aftermath of Christmas spending, and the back-to-work blues supposedly reach[es] a head on the third Monday of the new year.” I did not know that there was an international day dedicated to in-work consumers who live in colder climes that are privileged, pressured or (for want of a better word) silly enough to overspend before Christmas, but  discovering this new term prompted me to post this piece I have been contemplating for some time …

As most people did in the lead up to Christmas, I reflected a lot on the year that has passed. There were three particular events in 2015 that made me consider the notion of an awakening of our global social consciousness: Black Friday, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, and the terrorist attacks in France and Beirut.

The first area that provoked my thinking pertained to consumerism and its relationship to environmental awareness. Black Friday hit Denmark (and many other countries) in November. According to the Copenhagen news daily, The Post, this discount shopping day got its name because it was the day when retailers accounts went from red into the black. Further investigation reveals however that the term was coined by the Philadelphia Police’s traffic squad: It was the first day of the shopping season and the name was given because of the terrible traffic the shopping frenzy caused in the city. (Read more here). In spite of the despair caused for traffic police, there was and still is satisfaction for retailers in the form of profits. Judging from the jam-packed public transport I experienced on Black Friday and the frenzied scenes in images in the media, consumers were very satisfied with their bargain buys too. Who wouldn’t be happy to get their desired goods at half price or less? Without answering the question directly, I suggest that Black Friday is nowadays problematic for both the local and the global.

Josephine Fock, MP for the Alternative party, noted in the aftermath of Black Friday that Denmark has one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. Furthermore, if the rest of the world consumed as much as Denmark did, we would need four planet earths. The week before COP21 opened in Paris, she drew attention to the environmental costs of over consumption and calls for labels showing consumers what the carbon footprint is of the products we buy. (Read the article in Danish here). I wonder if we would indeed change our behaviour if we had such a label staring us in the face and allowing us to make a more informed choice? We know about the damage to the environment from the fuel emissions that result from long distance transportation. We already know about the terrible working conditions that so many people endure in Asia and other parts of the world in order to keep costs and prices down for consumers around the globe (see for example The Other Side of Black Friday Price Tags). Nonetheless, we continue to buy more and love, really love bargain prices.

  • Incidentally, between 1995 and 2013, Denmark increased the amount of municipal waste produced per capita by an astounding 43%. Of all the EU countries this amount was only exceeded by Malta (44%). At the other end of the spectrum, Slovenia reduced its municipal waste production by 31% and Bulgaria by 38%. Read more here.

As my dear friend and colleague Cecilia Milwertz reminds us, Asia—and other parts of the world where our low and high-cost products are made for pitiful wages and under terrible working conditions—can no longer be thought of as a place on the other side of the globe. It is very present in different forms in Denmark and at home elsewhere in the world. Cecilia presented an exciting new research project at the University of Copenhagen recently: Manufacturing the World. The Interconnectedness of Chinese Workers and Danish Consumers. The project will involve fieldwork in China with factory workers and in Denmark with Danish consumers, cooperation with a Danish independent research and media centre, and cooperation with a theatre group in Denmark. The project “is concerned with the paradox between, on the one hand, acknowledging how our current system of production and consumption practices creates inequality and threatens the possibility of a sustainable future on the planet and, on the other, our continuing perpetuation of this system.” It is applied research and as such will produce actionable results. In a sense, Cecilia’s project is one of many attempts by activists (understood in the broad sense of persons who take action in order to make a difference) to call for us, the privileged consumers, to awaken and act on our global social consciousness and work towards global social justice.

The labelling suggested by Josephine Fock is just one tool that could be used at the grassroots level to ease the process of acting on one’s consciousness about the environment. It is a great idea. It is action. It is, however, action from the bottom up and in order for things to improve for those at the bottom of the global socio-economic ladder, there needs to be targeted action from the top down too. We are all familiar with the term corporate social responsibility. When it first came into popular use, I felt some encouragement that there was now real focus on placing social responsibility on businesses. Unfortunately, the measures taken by most companies do not yet go far enough to ensure truly global social justice for all … will they ever?

  • In their publication Greening Household Behaviour, the OECD rightly pay attention to consumers’ recognition of different labelling, their trust in the labelling and also the differences between consumers’ green opinions versus their actions (See page 253 of the report). There are of course notable differences between the two.

One of the pivotal moments in civil society in Europe last year was when journalists decided to write about and post images of the children washing up dead on the shores of Europe. What was it about these images that made people take action? It seems that a trigger is needed in order to become socially conscious about events happening around the world. We have been saturated with images of children suffering elsewhere in the world since the 1980s and so in a sense the image is not new. I suggest that the trigger for grass roots action was not the dead child, but rather that he died on our shores. The results of war and terror in other parts of the world that have been funded and supported by various ‘Western’ countries had come back to us. The outfall was happening here, at home in Europe.

Engaged in migration research, I have been quite conscious that I have not yet written anything anywhere addressing what is happening to the asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving on the shores of Europe. I was literally paralyzed by the terrible images that appeared in the press and the shameful actions and statements made by extremely powerful politicians governing European countries. The ‘crisis’ is also reminding me of the great divide that can exist between state and society even in so-called democratic states. However, I was and am also comforted and encouraged by the compassion and activism shown by journalists and the general public whose social consciousness was not only awoken, but acted on. Witnessing and reading about the extraordinary acts of kindness was the highlight of the year.

  • Anna Klitgaard is a Danish journalist who has made several trips to Greece, organizing supplies and rallying support from her Danish and international networks. She has written and continues to write extensively about the situation and just came back to Denmark after following the refugees on their journey from Turkey through Europe. Read more on her blog Cosmo Journalism

The massacre in Paris is another event of 2015 that made me ponder the notion of a global social consciousness. In the aftermath of the attacks, there was much discussion about the difference in attention given to the happening in Paris versus that in Beirut. We were faced with utter sadness for the loss of life, but also some anger or at least irritation about the real or imagined hierarchy that is seemingly assigned to disaster, tragedy and suffering.

  • There is an abundance of scholarly work by psychologists and social psychologists on in-groups and out-groups, social categorization, inter-group trust, and interpersonal perception which can explain the differing reactions to events that happen in the world and how they affect us. A good place to start is with works by Professor Thomas Malloy of Rhode Island College.

There are many articles you can read on the topic, but the global dimension of the attacks made a strong impression on me: They happened in Paris, were orchestrated by an organization with roots in the Middle East, and the alleged culprits were actually resident in Belgium and had different heritage. With these attacks, once again, the consciousness about global social phenomena such as terrorism is localized and, if not awakened, then at the very least relativized and brought to the fore. Perhaps Paris received such a different press and response from institutions such as Facebook in the ‘West’ simply because of the subconscious closer identification with Parisian denizens for ‘Westerners’. I spent New Year’s Eve in London and met people who felt intimidated by the terror alert and preferred to stay away from the popular hubs of celebration, but also met and saw so many who were not intimidated and carried on the party. Both positions were understandable and both decisions were seemingly extremely conscious.

Without a doubt social media has been and continues to be a powerful force in the sharing of information and awakening our social consciousness beyond our own backyard, globally. However, I sometimes feel that the flow of information is still too often contained within communities who share social interests and socio-political orientations. We are often ‘friends’ with people we are similar to, and we ‘follow’ causes, organizations and persons that appeal to our own interest and this keeps us contained in our small worlds or boxes. We have to actively look outside the box, beyond our own four walls, beyond our national boundaries, beyond our ethnic origins, beyond our learned cultures of behaviour, and beyond our immediate communities if we are to truly awaken our global social consciousness, and become actively involved in changing society for the better. This continues to be a challenge for most.

Last year I made an effort to discover alternative news sources; this year I aim not to buy any new items of clothing, and to continue to try to reach a broader audience with my scholarly and non-scholarly writing. Have you made any changes lately that reflect your global social consciousness?

 

 

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