The End of Consumption[, as We Know It].


Ali commented on the last post that reducing consumption will not solve the problem of over-consumption, defined as consuming at rates that cause significant damage to the environment. His argument is that reducing consumption, ceteris paribus, has to be accompanied by increased savings that, unless they are stuffed into a mattress, re-enter the economy and produce more consumption somewhere else.

This appears to be a variant on the Jevons paradox or rebound effect where efficiency gains show up as increased consumption. Again if all other things were the same, reduced consumption can be viewed as a kind of personal efficiency gain: deriving the same level of satisfaction with less expenditure in the money economy. If this is set in stone, then there is little to do but wait for the waves to ash over Manhattan.

The only way out of this paradox, then, is to look at the ceteris paribus qualification, and ask what kind of change in the economic context might make the paradox vanish. The proponents of steady-state or no growth economics, Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and others, claim that the economic system does not need to grow forever. I am not enough of an economist to spell out the consequences of such a shift. One thing does seem likely: the role of banks would change, or at least the role of debt in the society would be drastically less than it is today. No growth does not mean no change. There could still be plenty of room for investments in innovations that improve life quality.

I accept that there are many problem and obstacles to creating and then maintaining such an economy. Getting there would require a massive redistribution of wealth among and within nations. It all seems so distant that we, like Ali, stop short of looking further at the ceteris paribus clause. Sorry, but we cannot avoid a serious examination of the foundations of modern culture, and expect to envision and and attain sustainability.

The absolutely necessary condition is that we re-conceive of what it means to be human. The model I have used in my book and teaching is a model of human action as oriented to caring, defined as finding satisfaction (perfection or completion) in a number of non-overlapping domains of concerns. The figure, taken from my book, shows these domains.


The key to the paradox is to recognize that concerns in virtually all these domains can be satisfied through transactions in the money economy and, alternatively, by activities that fall outside the conventional economic framework, that is, they are not priced. In conventional terms, all of the latter activities are deemed either leisure or unpriced work, giving a special place to leisure as superior to unpriced labor. I think this is an error. Leisure, in my scheme of things, is only one of the 11 categories. It makes more sense to me to split time into two kinds: time spent in the conventional economy as a producer or consumer, and time spent otherwise. Let me call this other time, "concernful" time."

We have become so used to and dependent upon market-based consumption to satisfy our basic human strivings that we have largely forgotten how live otherwise. We spend so much time on the treadmill of wage work that we have no time for concernful time. Everyone of the 11 domains suffers. That suffering shows up as psychological distress, unfulfilled relationships, disenchantment, etc. That's the source of the addiction. This is not a screed against consumptions without qualification, We must eat to live. Mary Douglas writes that consumption is the means by which we signal our intentions to others. Interestingly, she speaks about consumption, especially in non-market economies, as means to satisfy concerns in many of the domains in the figure. Maslow's hierarchy assumes that as we rise through the levels we gain more satisfaction from non-economic activities.

This argument is nothing entirely new, but gets lost in the complications of thinking about steady-state economies. I've run on too long for one day. I will continue in the next few posts. The take-away: if we continue to use homo economicus as the ontological structure of humankind, we are stuck in a paradox with no exit. Only if we replace that ontological foundation with one based on care, homo concernicus, will we be able to act out life as humans must, without destroying ourselves and the world in the process. Strong words, but critical ones. I'll expand on this in the next few posts, but not for a couple of days.