Columnists: Sea Rotmann, Operating Agent HTR Task (DSM TCP by IEA)

Published on: 27 Apr 2012

Are we citizens or consumers? Can we even change?

These questions have fascinated me for years. Watching the excellent Adam Curtis documentary ‘The Century of the Self’, I gathered a lot of new insights. (you can stream it here )

The true (evil?) genius of one man lies behind much of the shift in attitudes that happened over the last century: Edward Bernays. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who grew up in the United States, used the teachings of his uncle to create a new approach he called ‘engineering of consent’. He is often referred to as the ‘father of public relations’, after distancing himself of the term propaganda (the title of his best-known book) when he learned how his works influenced Joseph Goebbel’s anti-jewish propaganda.

One of his first, and best-known public relations efforts were for the American Tobacco Company in the late 20's. ATC realised that only half of their potential customer base was buying their products, as it was socially unacceptable for women to smoke. So, Bernays dressed up some New York debuttantes as suffragettes and marched them down the NY Easter Parade. They stopped in front of the world cameras to pull up their skirts and take out their cigarette holders, proudly igniting their ‘torches of freedom’. Within 5 years, smoking in women had risen by 13%. He later fronted an anti-smoking campaign in the 60's.

One thing that Bernays understood better than anyone, was our innate desire for short-term gratification. Where products were about durability, practicability and quality before the war, it was all about luxury, quantity and rampant consumerism after Bernays and his contempories ‘engineered our consent’. Of course Bernays cannot be blamed for our obvious ambition to achieve status and happiness by consuming and displaying largely needless things, something later termed ‘Affluenza’. He merely exploited a very strong human bias: the inability to weigh long-term consequences, especially negative ones, when faced with short-term benefits to the contrary.

Even though many of us understand the concept of climate change, resource depletion and peak everything, it plays little part when we are making short-term purchasing or energy-using decisions. Our limbic brain usually overrides the complex workings required to calculate the ongoing, planetary effects of our actions, and simply enjoys the luxury of retail therapy, instant mobility or any other ‘treat’ afforded by seemingly limitless energy, and other resources. Nobel price winner Daniel Kahneman describes this ‘dual process theory’, as ‘System 1 (intuition)’ and ‘System 2 (rationality)’ duel during our waking lives. System 1 usually wins, something Edward Bernays and most corporations know well how to exploit.

In light of this inherent human bias towards short-term gratification, not to mention the other 100s of cognitive biases (type it into Wikipedia, I dare you!) that are constantly (mis)-leading the human brain, is it really possible to achieve the utopia of more sustainable lifestyles, low-carbon energy transition and long-term behaviour changes? Are we even still capable to take the rational, altruistic path away from rampant consumerism towards inclusive citizenship and community spirit?

I don’t have an answer to this question, and instinctively fear that only a major climate crisis, war or resource deficit, will return us onto the ‘right’ path. For centuries, we managed to live within our, and our planetary constraints. Other than an elite few, we were forced to be citizens of our small communities, as rampant individualism would have spelled certain doom for all. It has only been 3-4 generations since we really ‘turned‘ and much of the world’s population has yet to follow our bad example. I hope that there is a way to stop before it’s too late, and I believe that understanding and positively affecting (rather than manipulating, as Bernays et al arguably did) human behaviour will be an ever more important tool for policymakers and community groups.

Germany managed to reduce its emissions by 23% since 1990, whilst continuing to be a world powerhouse. It is possible. If you have any ideas on how to make it happen, or simply want to engage in the discussion, drop me a line at

Other columns by Sea Rotmann