The ecological damage done to our planet owing to unfettered consumerism will be compounded by population growth. Despite optimistic projections for the global population to plateau at about nine billion people by 2050, the per capita rate of consumption is expected to continue to grow exponentially as impoverished third world people strive to attain a Western standard of living. Worse still, at over six billion people today we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet (even ignoring potentially catastrophic impacts upon food and water security owing to anthropogenic global warming).
“Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources puts us in global ecological overshoot, depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend.
“The result is collapsing fisheries, diminishing forest cover, depletion of fresh water systems, and the build up of pollution and waste, which creates problems like global climate change. These are just a few of the most noticeable effects of overshoot.
“Overshoot also contributes to resource conflicts and wars, mass migrations, famine, disease and other human tragedies — and tends to have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who cannot buy their way out of the problem by getting resources from somewhere else.”
This is clearly unsustainable and insane. We need to find a better way to factor ecology into our economy.
Until quite recent times, despite their shared etymologies, the fields of economics and ecology have each developed largely independent of the other. The now-familiar term ‘ecology‘ which has not yet been in use for 150 years, shares a common root with its older cousin ‘economy‘, first coined in c.1530. Both words derive from the ancient Greek oikos meaning “house, dwelling place, habitation; the former term, literally means “household management” and was used in the 17th century with respect to the wealth and resources of nations, whereas the term ‘ecology’ simply means the study of the nature of a place or, more broadly, the environment at large.
Although the environmental movement is an fairly recent historical phenomenon, ecologists have long recognized how economic activities impacted upon ecosystems. In contrast, most economists remained focused on their own discipline and anything that was not a cost or benefit to a party directly involved in a transaction of interest was considered an ‘externality’. Their economic models were based on abstract ideas largely unfettered by the realities of nature and, excepting a few useful ‘resources’, excluded such external factors from consideration so that the universe of economics was unbounded and heedless of natural limits to growth – no such parameters need clutter the models. That some of these ‘externalities’ might be be harmful to the environment was not a concern to them, at least not until quite recently.
An abstract approach to economics happily served the avarice of its most ardent stakeholders who were singularly interested in pursuit of larger slices of an expanding economic pie. An insatiable consumer demand fuels an incessant and accelerating churn of ever increasing production and consumption. Never mind that this mode of so-called progress entails a commensurate depletion and degradation of the natural environment of this small (and seemingly shrinking) planet.
This Western Idea of Progress, ineluctably linked to the pursuit of limitless economic growth, first emerged during the Enlightenment and has since been chased with alacrity by classical liberals advocating for free markets. In his Development as Freedom Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen cogently illustrates how Adam Smith’s concern for the social values and the public good have been largely eviscerated from popular discourse while the essential laissez faire elements of his theories have been removed from the pre-capitalism context of mercantilism to serve as fundamental truths for modern corporate capitalism.
Over the 100 years following the inception of ‘capitalism’, a term first used by Karl Marx in 1877, the corporation rose to dominance and created unprecedented wealth. In charting its career, documentary filmmaker Mark Achbar’s award-winning The Corporation [video], based on the book by Joel Bakan subtitled “The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power”, takes the corporation’s “status as a legal ‘person’ to the logical conclusion by putting it on the psychiatrist’s couch to ask “What kind of person is it?” Unsurprisingly, the ‘personality’ discovered was wholly infused with pure self-interest.
Progress in our post-industrial society has been marked by an obsessive focus on maximizing wealth and consumption, often conspicuously with the excessive acquisition of stuff. What has become the sine qua non of measurement of such progress in most societies is the so-called standard of living, which focuses on economic conditions, with just a nod to some other factors (such as education and health care) that affect the quality of life. A basic measure of income, gross domestic product (GDP), is how the standard of living is commonly rated but more colloquially it is often represented in terms of consumption, for instance: how many cars, televisions, dishwashers, etc. are there within the average household? Progress has also often been closely measured by some consumer trend, such as the number of some particular kind of appliance per household over a period of time.
The presumption underlying the conventional measurement of our standard of living, of course, is that more stuff means a better quality of life. Sure, our modern society has provided us with longer lifespans, better overall health, tools to ease our toil, devices to facilitate our communications, vehicles to quicken our transportation, etc., but at what cost? Aesthetic or intangible qualities of life and worldly matters beyond the economic sphere, those nuisance ‘externalities’, have conventionally been given considerably less weight. Are we any happier now than our ancestors were in their time? The country of Bhutan offers a rare exception to this obsession with wealth in its measurement of a gross national happiness (GNH) index. Oh, there have been attempts to create more representative meaningful measurements of progress, such as the genuine progress index (GPI), which “adjusts for factors such as income distribution, adds factors such as the value of household and volunteer work, and subtracts factors such as the costs of crime and pollution.” Although, as Noam Chomsky observed in his March 21, 2010 address to the Left Forum [video], whilst the GDP has increased steadily since 1950, the GPI has stagnated, remaining relatively flat since the 1960s. Yet, consumption continues unabated; will we ever have enough stuff? When is enough enough?
Adam Curtis’ brilliant film The Century of Self [video] documents the rise of consumer capitalism. It shows how public relations pioneer Edward Bernays applied his uncle Sigmund Freud’s new psychoanalytical theories towards manipulating public opinion. As might be expected, he was soon enlisted by corporations to use behavioural science for innovative advertising and marketing campaigns designed to create demand for products and services where none had existed before. People’s desires were molded; they were easily convinced that they should get more stuff – stuff they really didn’t need but were told they must have. Everyone else wanted it, needed it, so they just had to keep up with the Joneses.
In her ground-breaking book No Logo, Naomi Klein explores how consumerism represents a recent shift in our culture where the brand is now glorified over the product or services it represents. Carefully crafted corporate marketing campaigns and omnipresent advertising inculcate an insatiable desire for the brand itself and, by extension, its associated products and services. Now, it’s not so much the stuff that’s important as what it represents: the idea, the brand; the product is just a by-product of cool. Still, in this society, more and more stuff must be consumed to maintain one’s place at the leading-edge of cool. Klein has since written much about the rise of globalism.
In a shrinking interconnected world of global media and cultural exports, people in developing countries are acutely aware of the Western way of life and all its wealth as portrayed on their television and cinema screens, which undoubtedly inculcates a demand for these same things. Globalism, fueled by rapid communications, transportation and cheap fuel, has allowed for the export of these Western ideals along with the products and, now, the developing world is playing catch-up.
In 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%:
Yet, if we have already overshot the Earth’s sustainable carrying capacity by 40%, how long can we expect to survive when the global South catches up to the North? Even if global population growth is stemmed and eventually declines (steadily if collapse can be averted but likely much more precipitously otherwise), we will need to shift away from rampant consumerism to a no-growth economy, a steady state based on renewable resources. It would be insane to persist in the pursuit of socioeconomic systems that deny natural limits to growth.
 Paul Ehrlich is quoted in Julia Whitty’s excellent article The Last Taboo in Mother Jones magazine.