The Contradictions of Capitalism Unsustainability


As anyone that follows my blog would notice, I am slowing down again. I have been busy on other things, many of which are simply the wonderful “distractions” of summer. At this stage of life more than in earlier years, these so-called distractions are the essence, rather than the activities that pull one away from connecting with the whole world, not just a small piece of it at a time. I am working hard to organize a course on pragmatism I will be leading at my geezers Institute for Learning in Retirement in the fall. Much of the early writings contained arguments as to why pragmatism was distinct from other ways of thinking. I think I have begun to understand that feature and see its importance in practice, particularly in the constellation of beliefs and their consequent practices (habits) necessary to create the conditions in which flourishing can emerge.

From this snippet of thinking, I began to visualize a whole list of concepts that formed two opposing or contradictory places in a cultural paradigm. Acting on the basis of the Unsustainability World column representing current cultural beliefs and norms, all we can do is tinker at the edges of our lives because we are continually reinforcing these as we act. If we shift to the antipodal set of the Sustainability World, we can, conversely, begin to change our routine behaviors towards producing the possibility of flourishing. The items in the two columns are not all direct opposites, but connote opposite senses. Sustainability and unsustainability are opposed in a normative sense, but come from different categories of meaning. Sustainability is a possibility that flourishing will come forth; unsustainability is a set of real phenomena, each signaling that something is going wrong with the world with respect to our human aspirations.

Sustainability World Unsustainability World
Sustainability Unsustainability
Creating Sustainability Reducing Unsustainability
Being Having
Authentic Inauthentic
Care Want (Need)
Love Fear
Intrinsic values Extrinsic values
Enchantment Disenchantment
Spiritual Secular
Complex Complicated
Interconnected Autonomous
Bio- or eco-centric Anthropocentric
Holistic Reductionist
Communitarian Individualistic
Cooperation Competition
Pragmatic Dogmatic
Constructivism Positivism
Technological skepticism Technological optimism
Equity Efficiency

I would like to make this list as inclusive as possible and welcome any additions or comments. My blog email address is at the bottom right-hand column of this page. I will work my way through the list in my posts to the blog. (I cleaned up the table and made a few minor changes to reflect the comments I received. The last pair are not opposing concepts, but are opposed in practice in the neo-classical economics policy world)

Today, I’ll start with the distinctions, authentic and inauthentic. This pair is on my mind because I am winding up a course on consumption at Marlboro. The students have been going through a reader on “sustainable consumption,” edited by Tim Jackson. It’s a good source for about a dozen or so different theories on what drives consumption and whether consuming is good or bad for both the world and us. I am also a member of a growing network of sustainability researchers, connected through a network called SCORAI, The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative. Members of this group, and many others, were present at the Rio+20 conference advocating for changes in the way we run the world.

I am as unhappy with the phrase, sustainable consumption, as I am with the way sustainability is used or the parent term, sustainable development. If one were to interpret the phrase based only on the text, the meaning would be some sort of ongoing consumption pattern that fits our normative desires. One of the problems at Rio+20 is that the cultural worlds represented there have very different senses of what kind of consumption they are seeking to sustain. I have no idea of what form of consumption is consistent with either the Earth’s capacity to provide the needed or the normative objectives of nations, and find this definition no more helpful than its parent term, sustainable development. Neither is related to sustainability as I define it. In fact both are being used in ways that would undermine the possibility of flourishing.

Instead, I suggest the pair, authentic vs. inauthentic consumption, and argue that the former is essential to attaining sustainability. Consumption refers to any act in which resources of the Earth are consumed. Hugging a friend does not fit this but sending candy to another friend on Valentine’s Day does. Authentic consumption entails acts motivated or coming from an intention to take care in any of the several categories of care--subsistence, transcendence, family, aesthetics, etc. Some might describe these actions as coming from an inner calling or spirit. What matters is that they are not driven by some external voice.

Inauthentic consumption entails acts driven by cultural pressures, of which there are many, many these days. It’s not just the ads that bombard us everywhere, it’s a cultural sense of neediness, wanting to be like celebrities, finding identity in material goods, and more that is pervasive and lies underneath the patterns of consumption. Inauthentic consumption is insatiable; there is no finality or completion to any act of consumption. As population and wealth--the means to consume--grow, the levels of materiality entailed in consumption grow in parallel reaching levels that stretch the Earth’s capacity to or beyond a breaking point.

Tim Kasser, in his book, The High Price of Materialism, offers up some suggestions for changing the system. He focuses on family and society. His thoughts for family are all directed at children. I guess he has given up on the present generation. For example, one thought is to “Talk to your children about materialism.” His suggestions for society agree with those of many others, for example, “Regulate advertisements.”

I believe that any shift away from inauthentic to authentic consumption will bring us closer to sustainability. Given the complexity of the world, it is impossible to measure how big a shift is needed to reverse the present unsustainable conditions. Waiting for some expert to compute that magnitude is folly, and is often a delaying tactic by those who like the world just as it is. I also believe that language matters. Talking about sustainable consumption inevitably leads to just such a situation as this; it revolves about managing the world on the basis of some number or other measure. Focusing on the authenticity of our acts gets much closer to the underlying causes of the problems we see today, and also addresses the more fundamental issue of our errors in understanding what it is to be human. I’ll get to these in further posts.

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David M. Carter said:

Brilliant stuff, John! I think this is really important work. You, Tim Jackson, Tim Kasser, and others, are leading the charge in this critical area of human understanding. Your heading playfully shows capitalism crossed-out. Interestingly (it may be this was intentional on your part), capitalism could be considered the CAUSE of many of the conditions listed on the right side of the ledger.

I suggest your consider changing "need" to "want", opposite of care. The obfuscation of needs and wants created through ubiquitous advertising messages has normalized many wants as perceived needs. It could be argued that needs are related more to care than wants. Research has shown that met needs lead to higher levels of well-being, while met wants above that lead to no further increases in well-being. On the contrary, if basic needs are not met, then it is possible that care could be compromised due to desperation. To me, needs and care go hand-in-hand.

I'm not sure how this would be portrayed in your list, but you may want to consider the moral tradition of "virtues" and "sins". I don't think the "spiritual/secular" dichotomy fully covers this. For example, the virtues of temperance, charity, kindness, and humililty are important for true sustainability. On the contrary, the sins of gluttony, greed, envy, and pride work against it.

Chuck Ransom said:

Very thought provoking. I am going to follow your posts as I am very interested in this list you have created. I don't quite get the inauthentic consumption in regards to consuming resources for our survival. Wouldn't ones basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter be at odds with this model. I would consider those authentic consumption. Perhaps, I will "get it" as you explain further in future posts.

The only other comment I would like to make is about the equity--efficiency dichotomy, as efficiency is inherent in our natural system and is a sub-product of true equity. I have a lot to learn yet, so please bear with me on my remarks... maybe just thinking out loud.

I agree with David's remarks. Look forward to hearing more.

Cristina Rocha said:

Dear John,

We met in Delft some 13 years ago. I don't know if you remember me, I was working in the product-oriented environmental management systems concept.

Well, that does not really matter. What is important is this very interesting blogue of yours, to which I would like to propose one addition, which is fruition (to enjoy something) versus acquisition (to own something). Hope it makes sense in English, I felt that this idea was somewhat missing in your list.

As for the dichotomy between equity vs efficiency, I don't really understand it. In my mind, efficiency (doing things right) would oppose to effectiveness (doing the right things). Since this is commonplace, you would have had good reasons for chosing equity (that in an obvious approach would oppose to inequity).

Just a few thoughts, all the best,


John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:


Thanks for the comments. Authentic refers to actions taken out of caring. Taking care of basic subsistence fits into the category of caring for oneself, and would fit the authentic category. Consuming anything beyond those necessary to care for oneself, like clothing purchased to look good, would be inauthentic. The boundary between the two modes is fuzzy.

The efficiency/equity pair is directed to the poles of primary economic policy goals. The case for "free" markets is dominated by efficiency criteria; a sustainability policy would focus on fairness, equality, or equity. Efficiency is always a ratio. Economic efficiency is measured by the dollars or labor required to produce a given output. Material efficiency uses materials consumed as the numerator. Energy efficiency uses energy consumed and so on. Equity is a measure of the distribution of something valuable; is that distribution fair? Equity and equality may line up, but not necessarily. The opposition of these two distinctions, efficiency and equity, is not perfect, for sure, but illustrates the polarity between the standard set of beliefs and values and a corresponding sustainability set.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Thanks as always, David,

I agree that care versus wants is a clearer pairing that care vs. need. Need is a messy concept at best, requiring reasons about why. Want is clearer as it is simply an assertion that requires no further discussion. My use of need follows its ubiquity in economic and psychological conversations.

norah chaloner said:

Sustainability vs Unsustainability

"Being ......... Having" should be changed to
Sharing......... Having.