Journey to Earthland is an impressive and laudable torch light to the future. I offer a few brief observations, motivated largely by a desire to amplify a point that Paul Raskin repeatedly raises but does not sketch out in detail: that the dissolution of consumerist lifestyles occurs in conjunction with—or is arguably even a precondition for—the proffered emergence of Earthland. This issue has important implications because it is already possible, in an expanding number of countries, to glean the hallmarks of a putative transition to post-consumerist systems of social organization.
To appreciate nascent developments along these lines, it is first necessary to recognize that while prevailing modes of production and consumption are tightly bound up in inseparable configurations, production is the horse and consumption is the wagon in dominant relationships. In other words, producers have long engineered consumption-intensive lifestyles (and continue to do so), and the contemporary consumer society was created as a “solution” to ameliorate encumbering problems in the realm of production, most notably the tendency for productivity improvements and other efficiency gains to outpace consumptive demand and to lead to surplus output.
Beginning for the most part in the first third of the twentieth century (due to the widespread commercial diffusion of general purpose technologies like electricity and the internal combustion engine), producers and their promotional surrogates were forced to devise ever more creative strategies to push excess production through profitable distribution channels. During the decades following World War II, especially—but by no means exclusively—in the United States, these processes were further augmented by several auspicious trends, including demographic developments that generated a large youth cohort, post-colonial political circumstances that perpetuated extremely profitable forms of resource exploitation, patterns of decreasing income inequality (which prompted creation of large middle classes and hence demand for a widening array of consumer products), and increasing female labor-force participation. These phenomena—in combination with explicit public policies that reduced propensities to save by establishing government-sponsored pension schemes (and, in many countries, health care programs), building new transportation systems that made it relatively cheap to transport goods over long distances, enabling the provision of unprecedented amounts of readily obtainable credit (beginning in the 1970s), promoting of neoliberal international trading regimes—all in combination ensured sufficient market pull to absorb the surfeit of production.
This consumption-impelled system of social organization—predicated on an ever-increasing volume of resource throughput—is starting to break down as consumers lose their capacity to fulfill their previously engineered responsibilities. The ultimate blow is likely to come, though, not from erosion within the consumer sphere itself, but through the withering away of wage-based labor. The building wave of digital automation (artificial intelligence, robotics, automated vehicles) will significantly diminish demand for labor across large parts of the current employment spectrum and, as Paul Raskin envisions, jeopardize livelihoods and lead to increasingly precarious social and economic conditions for households.
Without adequate gainful employment, the so-called “rolling crisis” will intensify. While more socially progressive countries may be able to respond by designing programs to provide a universal basic income and other related alternatives that Journey anticipates, this will not generally be the case. At least in the near term, most displaced workers will need to rely on their own resourcefulness, though in communities where societal resilience has not been completely destroyed, there may be opportunities to build novel provisioning networks based on traditional forms of cooperation and mutual aid (which Paul himself notably describes on page 89). Regardless, consumerism is likely to unwind over the next couple of decades as the virtuous cycle of consumer capitalism loses coherence and livelihoods become increasingly unreliable. Conditions during this period of time that Journey refers to as the “General Emergency” will more closely approximate the decades of the mid-nineteenth century, which were characterized by widespread privation. It bears remembering that the formalization of modern social welfare programs to soften the sharp edges of the industrial age only came about as a result of protracted social mobilization and difficult processes of political reform.
To my mind, Paul Raskin is absolutely correct in observing that we are in the midst of a transitional moment of historic significance. His primary focus, commendably, is on the longer term that may emerge out of the supreme and vexing struggles in which we are currently mired—and will likely continue to unfold for the foreseeable future. Journey is a powerful statement and it offers a forceful vision to which we should maintain a tight hold as we navigate through what can reasonably be expected to be a phase of profound disorientation and confusion. If, in the end, we successfully make it to Earthland (or even a close proxy), we will indeed be extremely fortunate. This, though, will take more than propitious planning and effective execution. We are also going to need a fair amount of luck.
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Maurie Cohen is Professor of Sustainability Studies and Director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute, co-founder and Executive Board Member of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), and editor of the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.