In the Mood


Welcome 2010. I hope you bring better times to the world. As I begin another year of blogging, I am feeling pulled by many conflicting themes and moods. If I am optimistic, do I really believe it? Or if I am pessimistic, am I missing hopeful, but barely visible signs, of improvement and change? What about the cynicism that comes through in spite of attempts to hold it back. In particular, am I being too hard on the greening endeavors of business as a cultural sector? Can I stop my mood swings at merely being skeptical? Even as I start this blog, I am having a hard time finding the track to follow, based on just what I read today. Here’s some evidence.

The NYTimes reports that people are adapting to economic hardship by spending more time and money doing things, rather that buying things.

Quietly but noticeably over the past year, Americans have rejiggered their lives to elevate experiences over things. Because of the Great Recession, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll has found, nearly half of Americans said they were spending less time buying nonessentials, and more than half are spending less money in stores and online.

But Americans are not just getting by with less. They are also doing more. Some are working longer hours, but a larger proportion, the poll shows, are spending additional time with family and friends, gardening, cooking, reading, watching television and engaging in other hobbies.

This comes on the heels of many articles of a few months ago that claimed that people were indeed buying less simply because they had less to spend, but anticipated that they would return to the old spending habits when their money started to come back. Neither of these findings can be taken as evidence of any fundamental change in cultural values. The data are insufficient, so I am left to select the one or the other primarily based on my mood.

In 2009, I wrote more than a few blog posts dissing the “greening” or “sustainability” efforts of Walmart and other vendors and producers. I was (and am) still at best skeptical about Walmart’s plans to use a sustainability index to create what Daniel Goleman and others call radical transparency. The idea is simple, but the realization is very, very hard. It means nothing more than that vendors will give consumers all the information they need to make choices consistent and aligned with their values, in this particular case, their stance toward sustainability. But there’s the rub. Unlike the conventional values that economists and psychologists tell us drive individual consumption actions, (this will make me beautiful), sustainability cannot be reduced to any similar subjectively created criterion. Sustainability is a quality that will always be outside of an individual’s cognitive metering system, and a company’s scoring formula.

Should I always be suspicious, as I usually am, of the motives of such companies, claiming to do well by doing good. Jared Diamond, writing in the NYTimes, recently extolled the effort of a few big corporations—Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Chevron—following conversations with their chief executives. (Also see my earlier post about this.)

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.

Diamond is one of the most well-known scholars and writers on the development of and collapse of cultures. His arguments rest on the existence of positive feedback loops in arguing why the West gained its technological edge. In Collapse, he argues that ecological deterioration working its way through systems linkages (more feedback) eventually brought on the demise of these cultures. Yet in his short oped piece, he chooses to overlooks the role of these corporations in upsetting the global system’s ecology even as they engage in actions designed to minimize their own negative contributions. Whose interests are they serving? Should I believe Diamond and those well-informed colleagues who write positively about Walmart’s and other firms’ greening efforts, or should I pay more attention to the many critics of Walmart like the next item?

The main article on Alternet today is a screed against the monopoly that Walmart has become. Alternet is a place I know that, even before I go there, will cater to my cynical moods. Today was no exception. The main point of the story was that Walmart has so much control of what it offers on the shelves that the customers have less, not more choice, than they would have in a less concentrated and competitive array of vendors. For the policy wonks, Walmart exhibits the extremely rare pattern of both monopolistic (dominant seller) and monopsonic (dominant buyer) behavior. This is not the same as at Amazon, where you can find virtually everything published, and also other merchandise sold by a myriad of small vendors using the Amazon site as a online catalogue.

It wasn’t always this way as Barry Lynn, the author of the Alternet piece, points out.

Until we elected Ronald Reagan president, both Democrats and Republicans made sure that no chain store ever came to dominate more than a small fraction of sales in the United States as a whole, or even in any one region of the country. Between 1917 and 1979, for instance, administrations from both parties repeatedly charged the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the chain store behemoth of the mid-twentieth century that is better known as A & P, with violations of antitrust law, even threatening to break the firm into pieces.

Then in 1981 we stopped enforcing that law. Thus, today Wal-Mart is at least five times bigger, relative to the overall size of the U.S. economy, than A & P was at the very height of its power. Indeed, Wal-Mart exercises a de facto complete monopoly in many smaller cities, and it sells as much as half of all the groceries in many big metropolitan markets. Wal-Mart delivers at least 30 percent and sometimes more than 50 percent of the entire U.S. consumption of products ranging from soaps and detergents to compact discs and pet food.

Given that I believe very strongly that we are and have been on the wrong path to sustainability for some time, you can guess where I will usually come from. Reducing unsustainability, which is what virtually all these “positive” efforts are, does not create sustainability. This is still one of my mantras, but it is very important to recognize anything that is, indeed, moving in the right direction. I’ll try to keep the positive moods at the ready in case this does happen.