Age of Austerity?

Posted on October 2, 2011


The Age of Austerity is here!  Or at least, it’s here in Britain according to our politicians. We’ve been told that this ‘Age’ is necessary: a reaction to the excesses of The Past and the term seems to be used to summarise all the things that must be done (or not done) to pull the world out of its giant debt crisis.  Cynically, whenever a politician wants to justify cuts to services and spending the words ‘Age’ and ‘Austerity’ seem to appear with alarming alacrity.

But, if we accept that there is a certain level of austerity that is required to get the globe through this crisis, what kind of austerity should we be aiming for?  And if it is indeed an ‘Age’ that we are going to be austere in, then what else does the Age of Austerity really refer to?  And how long is an ‘Age’ anyway?

The focus of austerity measures seems to be entirely economic and monetary.  We haven’t seen any analysis of the impact of austerity measures on the environment, or how an austere future could also be a productive and a sustainable one. The concept of austerity itself is interesting, as it is reminiscent of those times when money was tight and people had to make do.  For Britain and even Europe, this harks back to WWII when the community took on rationing for decades .

So, if we were to redefine this age of austerity, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about 3-5 years, but 20-30 years.  Perhaps we would be talking about how to fundamentally reshape the economy, and in so-doing, not simply allowing the burden to fall on individuals for this reshaping.

If we were to consider a longer period of austerity, where would we look for the road-map? I wonder whether in a way, we would look back thirty or forty years to understand what we were all doing before the age of mobile phones, the internet and ultra-cheap air travel.  A re-shaped ‘austere’ world might have all sorts of opportunities and innovation – finding transformative ways for us to live within our ecological and economic means – but perhaps also, a new meter for consumption.  When did we cross the threshold where air travel became cheaper than train travel, and when travel itself became commonplace?  When did consumption itself become de-rigeur.  It wasn’t so long ago that we thought we had reached the apex of consumption with the ‘Greed is Good’ decade of the 1990s.  We now know that the excesses of the nineties, simply set the tone for the noughties.

But this isnt just a rant against consumption, as I don’t genuinely beleive that anyone would really want to turn back the clocks thirty years or so.  I don’t think either that we will simply ‘solve’ our way out of the curent challenges.  I do think that we need to reshape the way we view consumption per se.  Because aren’t we also having a crisis of meaning as well?

Aren’t we in some kind of crucible, where, like kids left with keys to the pantry, we have painted all the walls with chocolate and eaten all the icecream out of the fridge, and now we’re tired, bored and have a headache.  It seems to me we have not much further to go – either as a consuming culture, or as a culture looking for something new to say to itself. Are we in fact coming to a bit of a stop?  How many frontiers are there?  So, is there a next step? What is it, and if it is there, do we have any clue where it leads?

If the crucible produces some kind of inter/intra space – a new morphology – how much swirling about do we need to endure before it emerges?  What creative triggers do we need to unleash – or perhaps that is the point of a crucible:  we can’t see beyond the intense heat of the moment and we simply do not know what new shape we will take on when or if we finally emerge.