GROWTH BY CONSUMPTION
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.
These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption.
A growth economy based on consumption must also be based on obsolescence.
Things must deteriorate, give way to their replacements. Ultimately, growth by consumption requires continuously increasing the socially acceptable rate of the consumption and disposal of goods, without drawing too much attention to itself, the implicit faultiness of the goods themselves, and escalating waste and pollution. These are the factors that have emerged in our consumer society:
- Consumption based on planned obsolescence, a balancing act of producing goods designed to break or wear out sooner than necessary without destroying the consumer's desire to replace them.
- Consumption based on creating perceived obsolescence, the actionable desire if not perceived need to replace an item that still works with a new one because of its features, styling, novelty, status, etc.
- An increasing demand for efficiency and convenience. Obsolescence is greatly enhanced by the ever-increasing value of real or perceived efficiency and convenience that might come with the premature replacement of an item. One circumstance that inflates the value of efficiency and convenience is that massive consumption itself requires most people to work longer and harder than ever before, thus setting up a feedback loop: work harder so you can buy more, then replace your stuff more frequently for optimal efficiency and convenience, because working harder leaves you with less time. This is also true when considering whether or not to repair an item. It's often more efficient and convenient short-term to replace the item; long-term inefficiency and inconvenience is not captured in the price.
- Increasingly complex living. As the designers of the consumption model for growth have known from the beginning: "We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption" (Victor Lebow). The complexity of life, created in large part by the quantity and complexity of what we consume, complicated by the workload required to afford it, itself provides a motivating force for the elusive efficiency and convenience new products promise to deliver.
As with turnpike theory and supposed peace dividends, however, the benefits of efficiency and convenience, if they materialize, are immediately "re-invested" in more working and consumption. This requires us to sacrifice the things that studies show truly make us happy (family, friends, leisure time).
It also places additional demands on our time for dealing with our "stuff" (learning about and organizing, cleaning, storing, repairing, moving, and disposing of them). But that doesn't prevent most of us from acquiring far more stuff than we can manage.
- Misplacing consumption as a source of social status, self-esteem and happiness. A successful marketing campaign convinces the market that an update confers greater social acceptance and appeal and personal happiness than others already available and in use. As Annie Leonard argues in TSoS, this act of persuasion requires insidiously convincing us that currently we, our belongings, and our life aren't sufficient, but that new stuff can fix that. Buy the new suit, get the job. Buy the new hair gel, get laid. Buy a lot, be happy!
As Victor Lebow explained in his "vision," tremendous social pressure is critical to this system. Powerful cultural influences must be applied so that people measure themselves and others by possessions and consumption, so that everyone is motivated to demonstrate their value through consumption.
These social pressures are the reason why, for example, someone may experience social embarrassment for having an old car and then also feel poorly about themselves for being inadequate by this measure. Unfortunately, we are products of our culture.
"...in this system, if you don't own or buy a lot of stuff, you...don't....have...value" (TSoS).
How sick is that?
Annie suggests that our consumer society isn't "like gravity where we just have to live with it." She's right, of course, yet mostly we do just live with it.
To the extent we push back against these bad attitudes and behaviors, it's not working. We are not changing enough hearts and minds, nor are we sufficiently withdrawing our support from this destructive system with which we have no good future prospects. Our time should and must be going into communities and activities that produce a healthy but human and earth-sized economy balanced with all our other interests, concerns, needs, and desires, including the sustainability of it all. After all, we are not products of our culture without consent. It can be hard to change as well as to be different, but we all know people who have. And if we work together to change, it stands to reason we can influence the culture and change others as well, especially if we can provide viable, working, existing alternatives with good exit ramps from the mainstream culture. Having yet to do that, it can't be any surprise that we are not preventing the other bad effects of our country's current economic beliefs, either.Don't get me wrong. I know habits are hard to change, sacrifices are tough to perform. (It took me twenty years, '78-'97, to quit smoking! And I don't think consumerism and the love of convenience, style and the momentary thrill of new stuff is necessarily easier.) I'm certainly not there yet, not by a long shot. I'm just sharing my process of sorting it out, hoping that provides insight, motivation and encouragement to others that they should and can to. Pretty much everyone living sustainably today at one point wasn't. They had to adapt, one step at a time. We can too. And we must.
The damaging socio- and psychological (and spiritual?) effects of determining human value by consumption are not the only bad things about worshiping growth by consumption. And worshiping is exactly the right word. It is a belief system with social demands. I would call it an economic cult except that it is too mainstream. It's a religion, the most popular one in the country, just as Lebow suggested it should be. Nothing but belief tells us that economic growth and consumption are essential to lives worth living, much less that we should subordinate our humanity and an environment hospitable to ourselves and millions of other species dependent on the one we now have. And our beliefs come from the marketers, the media, government and the owners who pay them, who all preach the consumption gospel. But more on that later.
So what else is wrong with basing life and the economy on consumption?Many people in the U.S. believe or at least behave as if the labor and civil rights movements eliminated human exploitation. They assume that modernity has permanently dispatched historical levels of domestic exploitation to the past, as if they cannot possibly return. As Faulkner said, "the past is never dead. It isn't even past." The conditions of the abattoirs and the canneries are not past. They were simply displaced, overseas, to other areas and populations with no present ability to fight them. The characters of the leaders who run these businesses today have more in common with their predecessors of a hundred years ago than they do with the average workers of their own times. You can see that in the decisions they make and the justifications they use regarding those overseas extraction, production and distribution operations. You can see that in their opposition to raising the minimum wage and their well-known desire to eliminate it. We are talking about a rate of pay that does not in most places cover the cost of room and board, yet even just this level of subsistence was provided to most slaves throughout history. That gives strong justification for use of the description, "wage slavery," which many in our society reject instantly as unhinged hyperbole. What's more, there are even still pockets in this country at any given time where human trafficking, traditional slavery with physical abuse thrown in, is practiced. So no, the better conditions secured by labor were hardly universal and by no means a given. Our leaders will remove them if and when social and economic conditions allow. Bet on it.
Well, first, it requires hellacious materials throughput. Massive extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. With finite supplies of resources, depletion is an issue, especially since we insist upon using so many of those that do not replenish very quickly at all, rather than devoting ourselves to working with, using and limiting ourselves more to the ones that do.
And second, an economy based on growth and consumption produces enormous systemic pressure to reduce prices so that purchases and consumption are sufficiently growing. And, at every step in the system, this pressure encourages and rewards the use of calculating, short-sighted expediency and the reduction of short-term cost at the expense of long-term environmental and social impacts. And that's applied to materials, including energy, toxic chemicals, and people, which translates directly into environmental and human exploitation, often as much as can be gotten away with, which in many cases is plenty to produce widespread degradation, want and misery.
Moreover, the economic pressures of globalization--yet another economic choice thrust upon us as desirable and inevitable by members and supporters of the current economic establishment--have produced waves of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions, reversing achievements that the labor movement spent decades to overcome and realized just a few short decades ago. But this is how competition works, practically speaking, we are told. Just as the workers were told a century ago. For this reason, and the fact that resistance to it has not been successfully mounted as yet, as Eric Bowman of the Northwest Cooperative Development Center recently said, "we're all on track to become low income workers."
By this line of thinking, those who have horrible jobs should appreciate them or work harder for better ones. (And we even have Democrats thinking and saying these things.) These arguments conveniently overlook the finite, dwindling number of "better" jobs available. They fail to acknowledge that this system is designed to allow its operators to create conditions at will to ensure "a constant supply of people with no options" (TSoS). This is only the way the market works if that's the way we manage it. Taken a step further, these arguments insist that these unfortunates have only themselves to blame for the vulnerability of their resources, including their environment, traditional economies, communities and labor. Forget that they have been denied any leverage in the form of options. Forget that those who have taken away the leverage are the same people coming around to take advantage of them.
Environmental and human exploitation is often spoken of as "externalizing costs." Exploitation allows costs to be externalized from the price by simply not paying those costs. Eliminating those costs means stealing resources outright or, as TSoS notes, for an amount that only people with no options will take, and having taken will still have no options. Everyone seems to win in the consumption-driven materials economy except the exploited, until you look at the future, which after all is always approaching. In the future, no one wins. But the owners tell us, through their government and media, that the future is nothing but what it needs to be for them to have their way today.
But even this is not all. Mass consumption produces mass waste. Toxic chemicals used in production are often released during disposal. And dioxins, the most harmful man-made substance known, are created when waste is incinerated--the number one source of dioxins. And, in our system, where money and power are king and exploitation is "good business," much of that waste and toxicity is shipped overseas to the same areas and people we degraded for extraction and production. (TSoS)
And still that's not all. All along the way, from one end of the materials economy to the other, from extraction to disposal, we are burning fossil fuels for energy. Why are we doing this when renewable energy technologies have been available for decades? Because that's what the owners want and have demanded for decades, and have justified based on formulas that support fossil fuels on cost because most of the costs (environmental, health, military and tax subsidization) have been externalized from the price. And, truth be told, this system never needs to make sense to be followed. It's a religion and the owner-priests are in power because too many people believe in them, fear them, or have been bought off or pacified by them. So the current capacity of renewable sources now and for the foreseeable future is a small fraction of what it could be as well as of what we use. Of course, we would be able to subsist on far lower levels of renewable energy but for the massive levels of consumption we have been led to indulge in.As TSoS also notes, recycling alone, while vital, is not enough to address even just the environmental issues here with resource depletion and Climate Change. This is the first reason why minimizing our footprint on the planet requires us to also minimize our footprint in the mainstream consumption economy, which is the long way of saying: consume less stuff. A lot less stuff.
And so, in addition to all the other bad effects of this model--the sociological and psychological and spiritual damage; the exploitation of other people's lands, economies, communities and individuals; the wanton depletion of resources--we are burning extraordinary amounts of toxic fossil fuels, thus imperiling ourselves, the rest of the world and even people in the future with the impacts of Climate Change.
If we could entirely export the ravages of Climate Change just to save ourselves, is there any doubt whatsoever that we would? And if "we" does not include the 98%, do you think the 2% would hesitate for a moment to abandon it for safe harbor? Of course not. Because that is exactly what they are doing. Well, the 1% is doing it, and the other is hoping they can stowaway. And the 98% is lost.
All this for lack of a better choice of economic religion and the public will to leave the one we have.
If we aren't prepared to leave the church and live differently, how can we expect our "leaders" to do so, especially since they assume they'll be waiting out the storm in luxury?
Only by dramatically reducing consumption, the current growth economy around which most greenhouse gases are released, can we have a substantive positive impact on climate change.
The good news is that doing so will address all of the other problems with a consumption- based growth economy as well.
The consumption economy depends upon our dedication to what TSoS referred to as the "work-watch-shop treadmill." That treadmill feeds us the messages that motivate us to devote our lives to working; rely upon mainstream media for information, entertainment, and perspective on what is desirable, normal, acceptable and valued; and to go out and seek fulfillment first and foremost in consumption.
Again, these changes in mainstream attitudes and behavior are not accidental. Government and business, directly and through the establishment corporate media, are flexing ever-greater muscles of message and opinion control, and it works well, as Chris Hedges implies during the Q&A period of a talk transcribed and excerpted below.
Audience Question: "...a culture that is so taken over, whose mind and soul and thoughts are totally taken over by manufactured messages beyond anybody's scope of reference, beyond anybody's knowledge...[snip] Where do you see this trend going when television is brainwashing America...?
Hedges: "yes, well, I hate..., I don't own a television. And I don't watch it....
...because I don't want to speak in the language which they give me. And one of the things that frightens me is [snip] the death of a print-based culture and the rise of an image-based culture. Totalitarian societies are always spectacle and image based. They do it really well. And...you can go back and read Cicero and the arena, and how the Roman Colosseum and the arena and the games poisoned civil and political discourse in ancient Rome. And that's precisely...it's a very powerful form of pacification."
Previously, responding to a different question, Hedges discusses the extreme measures the state was taking, an effort they openly acknowledged to him at one airport, to watch his movements and activities as not only a form of surveillance but of intimidation. He goes on to talk about wider public interventions and control:
Hedges: "I don't pose and there is no threat to the state, but I can you assure that, perhaps, well, I think more than perhaps... I think the reason that the draconian controls were so severe in places like Pittsburgh and Toronto was that they were seeking to deliver a message. They militarized the whole center of Pittsburgh. Turned it into the Green Zone, literally. They brought back a Pennsylvania National Guard battalion from Iraq in full combat gear and set up check-points and roadblocks and infiltrated groups and crashed websites and e-mails, and these poor anarchists that brought a food bus, a school bus that they converted to make food, and that lasted about an hour, although it was parked in a private driveway, before they took it away. I mean most of the protesters at Pittsburgh were retired Quakers in sandals. Um. But the message was "don't try this. DON'T. TRY. THIS."
And I can assure you that the corporate state, which has built a frightening internal security apparatus, will use it. They used to say that "the Gestapo broke bones, but the Stazi broke souls." And we've become the Stazi, as anyone who has looked at what we do in our Super Max prisons will tell you."
The latter excerpt begins at 1:53. The former at 3:20.
[For those unfamiliar with Chris Hedges, he is not some fringe journalist. He developed his chops in long years covering dangerous situations as a foreign correspondent for top news outlets.]
Capitalists have long promoted themselves as the champions of free markets while moralizing to others why they should be as well. But--without even factoring the impact of the monopolistic machinations of twenty years of merger mania in flagrant efforts to further consolidate power--it is obvious that this is the epitome of a planned society, a society designed, controlled and run for consumption, to the financial benefit of very few. As much of a planned society as humans can create.
This plan has been pursued and nurtured through manufactured consent and approval, on our behalf though not for our benefit, in lieu of alternative social designs, measures and purposes that actually would and absolutely could benefit everyone.Until Climate Change impacts produce too much damage for growth to continue and planetary processes restrict consumption, the plutocracy will continue to defend economic growth by consumption at virtually all costs. Given the game we are are playing, the one we have agreed to play, why should they leave money on the table? Until the end, they will promote the game, like barkers on the midway, as the only way to:
- Create sufficient jobs
- Maintain a robust economy
- Continuously increase "standards of living"
- Perpetuate "progress," progress traps notwithstanding.
- Enjoy "the American way of life," which has become uninhibited consumption
- Fulfill our manifest destiny as an exceptional nation
- Maximize shareholder value, because everyone knows that this is the only way to run a market, except...
...what is never mentioned is the actual purpose: to enrich the 1% at the expense of all others, even shareholders if necessary.
A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse. - wikipediaCould this not describe our entire civilization at this point?
Isn't the state of leadership in the federal government, on Wall Street, and in the boards of multinational corporations around the globe evidence of this?
It could be argued, I believe, that this is the logical endgame of a culture that embraces an economic theory and practice the central premise of which accepts greed as an inevitable, desirable virtue. What but pervasive moral hazard and corruption could ensue?
We can change the world. But will we?
Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺ is a DKos Group. At the same time, specific Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺ are also Trade Secrets (heh...) to be revealed to, expanded upon and owned by people who pay attention and participate. :) It's going to take somewhere between 5-10 diaries to lay out the territory. IMO it's very interesting stuff and, of course, it's Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺. So it's got that going for it.
Two other groups, Affordable Sustainable Housing, and Intentional Communities Research and Development also address Stuff That Matters Most™☮ ♥ ☺, as will become evident directly. If I could I would probably put the diaries of those groups in folders for this group. Maybe DKos 6 or something. In lieu of that I will just include links to those groups in diaries of Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺.
When the territory becomes clearer to those paying attention :) I will be inviting contributors and encouraging people to inquire directly with me on that because it is more than one middle-aged, well-meaning curmudgeon can cover, though if there are no takers, I will still try, because, guess what? It Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺.
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Selected Current Diaries That Matter In Other Ways ☮ ♥ ☺