Why We Really Consume As We Do
Neoliberal environmentalists, befitting their essentially misanthropic, right-wing outlook, and its tendency to reduce major problems to matters of individual failure (as their counterparts in other areas do when discussing poverty, substance abuse, obesity, etc.), make much of the depravity of people’s spending and consumption habits. “Oh!” they say, “isn’t it horrible! All that money they spend and that gas they burn and all those things they buy and throw away! What horrid self-indulgence! What appalling personal irresponsibility!”
I totally agree that our current consumption patterns are far from ideal. What I have taken issue with in the past, and continue to take issue with now, is their characteristically neoliberal explanation for why it is that people consume as they do. I take the position that there is a good deal of consumption which has nothing to do with the consumer’s “choices” in any meaningful sense of that term, and everything to do with choices made by persons far more powerful than they, with a focus on three aspects of this — the private-public balance in our economic lives; the consumption directly required by the fact that it is required of people who work; and finally, the production priorities of manufacturers, who virtually eliminate consumer choice in many key areas.
1. The most basic reason why we consume so much is, to borrow from the ever useful John Kenneth Galbraith, the reality of public poverty, which makes high private consumption necessary to meet any given need. There is no public transport — and so people have no choice but more expensive, more polluting, private cars. There is no national health care system — and so they must buy health care as a commodity sold in the marketplace by a profit-seeking enterprise, which also entails great costs (with the result that the U.S. spends twice per capita what France does per capita, while achieving poorer outcomes, almost half the adult population uninsured and underinsured).
The average annual cost of car ownership is $8,500 per vehicle, and a typical household has two, suggesting a figure of $17,000. At the same time the price of health care for a family of four under a typical employee-sponsored insurance plan will run $28,000. Already this swallows up most of a median household budget (some $56,000 a year), while the pattern continues through every area of life — such as housing (which has contributed to those long commutes in which people burn up so much gas in their cars) or education (private schools, especially at the post-secondary level, demanding vast fees).
2. Much of our consumption is not a matter of indulgence, but a necessity due to our working lives. White collar workers are expected to purchase costly, formal work attire. The manner in which cities have been planned, people housed and work distributed means that each is apt have little choice but to drive a privately owned car long distances each day if they are to work at all. The long hours involved in preparing for work, getting to work, on the job, and then coming back from work, leave little time for meal preparation — and so they have to eat out, or buy pre-prepared frozen meals, simply because they are harried. The long hours, the lack of maternity and paternity leave rights mean that parents of even very young children have little choice but to turn to child care services, using which entails still more driving. (Indeed, the way extra clothes, transport, eating out and child care eat up a two-income household’s second income was the basis for Elizabeth Warren’s study The Two-Income Trap.) And of course, this taxing, grinding schedule, entails considerable physical and mental stresses, and physical and mental problems that run up their already burdensome medical bills.
3. In addition to the reality that so much consumption is a matter of individuals doing for themselves privately and less efficiently what might be done collectively at lower cost; and the bills, ironically, paid simply for the sake of being able to have a job which will pay the bills; there is the question of the goods that are made available for purchase. Orthodox economic theory imagines the consumer as king, but the reality is entirely different. Especially in an oligopolistic marketplace, consumers buy what business is willing to sell within their price range, and for most the range of choice simply does not include much that is sensible. Many a consumer would love to be offered a choice of goods that includes items which will be durable and long-lasting; and which it will be within the power of a non-specialist to repair more cheaply than replacing them outright. They would love to be able to not pay for the arms race among competing advertisers, love to not pay for features of which they know and understand nothing and which they are unlikely to never use, love to not pay extra for new versions that really offer no advantage over the old versions.
By and large, they do not get such choices. Instead they get goods which will last a short time, which it is extremely inconvenient and expensive to repair so that replacement is the more practical option, which are heavily advertised and loaded with unwanted and unneeded extras and modifications and the rest of what the term “product differentiation” covers. And when they throw out the old goods of this type, because they have been so short-lived and unrepairable, the companies do not exactly make it easy for them to minimize the cost to the environment as they do so. American cities recycle paper and plastic and glass; they do not recycle electronics the same way, dumping the responsibility on the individual consumer who must, yet again, pay a private company out of pocket for something that could be (and should be) a public service — which, inevitably, means less recycling of what can be recycled. When they throw out what cannot be recycled, the companies have not exactly worried about its doing as little damage to nature as possible.
One could imagine the situation being quite different. One could picture a situation where public affluence means that people can live decently with less overall and less private expenditure; where shorter work weeks and decent leave periods translate to less commuting and the rest and therefore less consumption; where people, able to buy even technologically advanced items designed to last, and which they can repair, buy less; and at every stage and in every way, less damage. That so many fail to acknowledge the possibility, indeed reject it vehemently the moment it is mentioned, says less about modern life than it does about their inability or unwillingness to imagine modernity on any other terms — their passionate belief in neoliberal capitalism or nothing, and determination to not proceed from their valid, correct awareness of its ecological sustainability to the social questions inextricably bound up with it.
Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.