Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"
Peter Sterling’s essay gives us insight into what makes human beings vulnerable to the tendency to consume goods and services far beyond what is required to meet our needs. But it seems to me unlikely that this potentiality is the main driver of the consumption excess of the current era. After all, most societies throughout human history have not been consumer cultures.
Our attempts to address humanity’s encroachment on planetary boundaries have so far been based on the idea that we can accomplish this without pain and simply by more efficiency and more growth. As Fred Magdoff, David Korten, and others have already noted, this “way of life” is no accident, but an intentional set of behaviors pressed upon us for over a century, and especially since 1950 when the “great acceleration” of this excessive behavior took off. Edward Bernays, the originator of the field of public relations, wrote in 1928 that “mass production is profitable only if... it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity....Today [business] must actively seek to create...the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.”1
The growth fixation shows little sign of decline amongst our governments and business classes, who endlessly focus on how to stimulate economic growth. This is despite the intractable poverty of billions, and despite the fact that growth continues to extract vast quantities of materials and energy from a finite planet. The idea of a growth economy based on renewables is yet to materialize. Korten, among others, points the way to a transition direction that draws on Sterling’s thinking, but accepts the socio-economic specificities of the problem: finding and promoting satisfactions compatible with human cooperation and respect for nature; “restoring our connections to community and nature and creating institutions that support this restoration.” In the end, while corporate capitalism remains our economic system, it is difficult to see such changes being implemented from above, unless pressure can be applied by large numbers of citizens.
1.Edward Bernays, Propaganda (2005; New York: Ig Publishing, 1928), 84.