Best Wishes for 2011


I'm going to take a break until after New Years. I need some time away to get refreshed. I wish all a happy and productive 2011. But before I go, I have a few thoughts coming from my teaching at the Marlboro College Graduate Center MBA in Managing for Sustainability.

I have just finished teaching my course on sustainable consumption. The experience has been both illuminating and chastening. I have discovered that the treatment of consumption on which I based a significant part of my book, Sustainability by Design, is too simplistic to account for all the intricacies behind consumption--sustainable or not. The model of addiction I used remains convincing to me and fits the patterns that can be observed in the US and other affluent countries.

The underlying drives and motivations behind that pattern are diverse and often contradictory. The readings include explanations from the diverse fields of economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Each has a different cut on why people consume and where the roots of the motivations that lead to the nature and consequences of their choices in the marketplace lie. Economists tend to take, unsurprisingly, a rational utilitarian model that brackets the source of preferences and tastes. Anthropologists, Mary Douglas for example, see consumption as a form of communication, underpinning social actions that conform to community norms. I am convinced more by those who argue that consumption is driven more by cultural drivers than by preferences and tastes coming from some mysterious internal source.

Julie Schor recounts the French philosopher Diderot's tale of his dissatisfaction with his existing decor and furnishings upon receiving a new dressing gown. He replaced one article after another, deeming them unsuited to stand with the new acquisitions. Novelty forces the old to stand out and appear shabby in comparison. The modern version can be found in the need to replace whole systems every time a new piece of neat technology appears.

There's more but I wanted only to give you a taste of what we have covered. The students are about one-third of the way through their MBA program. Ours is a largely web-based distance learning program, with a few face-to-face weekends each trimester. Having been a more conventional teacher for some time previously, I am still learning how to teach via this so-called blended system of classroom instruction and web-based exercises. In any cases, the results this time are terrific. The centrality of consumption to sustainability comes through loud and clear. The complexity of the role and origins of consumption is understood as a warning not to take the conventional view in economics or marketing courses for granted. Useful, but not the last word.

We learned that consumption is central to cultural existence. Given the nature of the Marlboro program, many of the students have a strong advocacy background and come in with positions hostile to consumption. Now, we have learned to be more balanced. Sustainability as found through flourishing implies that people are leading satisfying and meaningful lives. To the extent (quite large in some societies) that consumption gives meaning, identity, and creates intersubjective or reciprocal relationships, it has to be considered with a much more nuanced and positive perspective. We all finished with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the social world in which we live but with a stronger basis to make that world sustainable.

Happy Holidays and a flourishing New Year.

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David M. Carter said:

John, I hope you have an enjoyable and refreshing holiday break. I, for one, appreciate the effort you undertake to write for your blog.

I would like to add a little to what you wrote about the vagaries of consumption. Like you, lately I have been veering toward more of a social normative model as the primary driver of unsustainable consumption. Another good resourse on the subject is Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Goeffrey Miller.

At a recent conference on environmental studies, I had the pleasure of lunching with a repected psychologist. She is a strong proponent of behaviorism (think Pavlov's dog) relative to sustainable (or unsustainable) behaviors. I told her that I had a distaste for behaviorism stemming from my undergraduate experience, during which behaviorism was the flavor of the day in psych departments. She steered me straight on the value of behaviorism as an approach to understanding human behavior.

Since that meeting, I have viewed the issues you so cogently write about from a behaviorism perspective. What I am starting to recognize (perhaps I'm slow) is how prevalent corporate domination is in our culture. Economics, politics, and the media are now almost completely controlled by a hedgemonic power structure hell-bent on wealth accumulation and centralization. And, this complex and sophisticated infrastructure creates an environment (a rat cage, if you will) within which we all operate in a state blind to the realities of the natural world.

I have been partial to the viewpoint that humans have choice over the behaviors they undertake. Yet, through the lens of behaviorism, it is easy to see that we are highly controlled by the power structure designed to focus our behavior toward the maximization of profit for the few at the expense of the many. This may be an inappropriate discussion topic for an MBA course, but it seems to me that the global corporate structure that humanity has created may to the primary cause of our unsustainable consumption.

Hopefully, in 2011, you can address this topic in your blog. I am interested in what you have to say about it.