Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"
The discussion on consumption has thus far entered the arena of neuroscience, with concepts like neuro-circuits of satisfaction. That we get certain pleasures is certainly rooted in certain parts of the brain, but that can hardly account for the vast diversity of pleasures in one’s life. In particular, I have a problem with the statement “Capitalism shrinks the diversity of possible rewards.” Capitalism produced smart phones that opened up lots of new rewards for human connectivity.
I fear that neuro-circuits will soon evolve into genetics. Now, I am a proud anti-reductionist when it comes to genetics and human behavior. Of course, I understand that neuroscientists have applauded the plasticity of the brain, and the brain-environment interaction is as powerful as the gene-environment interaction. Humans have considerable plasticity in their behavior choices, far more than ants. It was father Marx who wrote in 1844 that humans are the only animals whose nature it is that enables them to change their nature. “The genesis of human society is man’s real nature; hence nature as it develops through industry, even though it is an estranged form, is true anthropological nature.”1
Lest someone begin looking for the genes for consumption or for living simple lifestyles, I shall make a few observations.
First, I shall make some phenomenological observations about consumption. I get satisfaction from some forms of consumption (eating out, some types of material purchases, including books, fine leather gloves, performance events.) My consumption values have changed with age and with knowledge. I do not consume veal (although I enjoy its taste) because of the way animals are treated. Reason can alter consumption patterns. As was mentioned, learning is embedded in our neural circuits. My consumption is also affected by my income and my history. Because of how I grew up as a child, I consume rather frugally. I hold onto things for a very long time. (No, it is not genetics or neural circuits unless they simply adapt to my environment). I grew up with poor parents who had similar values. My current car is 2001. I held onto my Chevy Nova for nineteen years. I still listen to a portable Sony FM Walkman circa 1980s. I still listen to audio tapes.
In summary, the profile of my own consumption arises from multiple factors, including my history, my income, my professional life, my accommodation to my family values (I would prefer making presents than buying them, but I am overruled), and my power of reason.
Second, beyond the personal side of consumption, I taught a course on the political economy of the environment for a number of years and always had a segment on consumption. I benefited from the work of Allan Schnaiberg, who described three theories of consumption: (1) Pure Consumption Model, characterized by neoclassical consumer sovereignty; (2) Distorted Consumption Model, in which corporations create needs and demand; and (3) Structured Consumption Model, in which government infrastructure shapes our consumption patterns.2 I support (2) and (3) as primary drivers of modern consumption.
The conclusion I reached is that environmental degradation is a result not simply of how much we consume, but also of what is being consumed. That should be fairly obvious to this community of observers and analysts. If the composition of the GNP (not necessarily its dollar value) changed from consuming material resource commodities and energy to consuming education, personal training, music lessons, and theater performances, we would dematerialize the economy and slowly reshape the phenomenology of consumption. There is nothing intrinsic about material goods consumption that indicates that it should be the summum bonum of gratification. Most people have a biological stop function for food consumption; clearly, there is no biological stop function for other forms of consumption.
Some of you may recall the IPAT Equation first developed by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren: Total Environmental Impact (I) = Population (P) X Affluence (A) (consumption per capital) X Technology (T) (environmental impact per unit of consumption).3 The last factor is critical. If through reason or the plasticity of gratification centers of the brain, we consume by reducing the third factor, we have a chance to live more harmoniously with the biosphere. Recall Vance Packard in The Wastemakers (1960): “The pressures to expand production and consumption have forced Americans to create a hyperthyroid economy that can be sustained only by constant stimulation of the people and their leaders to be more prodigal with the nation’s resources” and that the American economy was in “development of consumption for consumption’s sake.”4 In his review in the New York Times, A.C. Spectorsky wrote that he gleaned from Packard: “America was being forged into a nation where the acquisition of material possessions was doing for anxiety-ridden adults what thumb sucking does for the insecure child.”5
And let me end with father Marx: “The production of too many useful things results in too large a useless population.”6
1. Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Third Manuscript, trans. Martin Mulligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), accessed via Marxists Internet Archive,
2. Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1980).
3. Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, “Impact of Population Growth,” Science 171, no. 3977 (March 26, 1971): 1212-1217.
4. Vance Packard, The Wastemakers (New York: David McKay, 1960), 21-22, back cover.
5. A.C. Spectorsky, “Book Review: Wanted: More and More Buyers for More and More Goods,” review of The Waste Makers, by Vance Packard, New York Times, Sunday Book Review, October 2, 1960, 18.
6. Karl Marx, “Human Needs & Division of Labor Under the Rule of Private Property,” in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Third Manuscript, trans. Martin Mulligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), accessed via Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/needs.htm.