Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is Consumption Evil?

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

One major tendency among many environmentalists today is to valorize asceticism and to criticize consumerism. On this topic a lively debate has ensued over the last few days in response to Michael Shellenberger's blog post criticizing Gandhi for his advocacy of poverty and rejection of modernity.

Representing one side in this debate is "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan, who is on quest to to "reduce his impact" on the planet by giving up consumerism and eschewing many of the modern products and services that we take for granted in our daily lives.

I certainly admire the efforts of No Impact Man and others in the "personal sustainability" bandwagon. I am impressed by their earnestness and zeal to make the world a better place. However, I disagree substantially with their underlying ideology. The arguments they make are fallacious. Below are some of their arguments and my responses.

Argument no. 1. Consumption is evil because it uses up the earth's limited natural resources and causes global warming and other environmental problems.

No Impact Man and other anti-consumerist environmentalists look at products and services only from the point of view of the raw materials they consume. However, a product is much more than that. Consider the Apple iPhone, which was brought up in the debate cited above. Say someone buys a new iPhone for $199. How much of the $199 goes into the actual raw materials? I don't have the actual numbers, but I am willing to bet that if you try to sell the few ounces of sand (for the silicon chips), copper ore (for the internal wiring), crude oil (for the plastic, and for the transportation from factory to consumer), and other raw materials that go into making an iPhone, no one will be willing to pay you even $20 for it. So are people just plain stupid that they are willing to fork out $199 for an iPhone? Surely not. Then what is the extra $179 for? The answer has to be that people are paying not just for the raw materials, but for the human genius. Each iPhone consists of not just of a few ounces of sand and copper, but a huge dose of human ingenuity, human creativity and human toil. An iPhone is 90% human genius and 10% raw materials. Or, to put it another way, it is 90% human resources and 10% non-human natural resources.

If you throw away consumption because of the utilization of non-human natural resources, you also throw away the utilization of human resources that comes with it and actually forms the bulk of consumption. And without the utilization of human resources and human talent, these talents will go untapped, unrecognized and unrewarded. What does this do to the idea of development and civilization, whose ultimate aim is to provide as many people as possible opportunities to nurture and utilize their talents and abilities? If we were to stop consumption just because of problems with 10% of it, it would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Buying and selling being two sides of the same coin, if you refuse to buy other people's talents, the day cannot be far off when you will not be able to sell your own talents - your ideas, your abilities, your labor.

This is not to say that we need not worry about the 10% of consumption that involves natural material resources. I admit that there are problems - global warming being the biggest one. However, the answer cannot be to stop or drastically reduce consumption altogether. The answer must lie in using human ingenuity to develop new technologies to ensure that the 10% of consumption that involves non-human resources is environmentally sustainable. New technologies have to be found. New forms of energy have to be developed. New hi-tech recyclable materials have to be invented. New efficiencies have to be found.

Argument no. 2. Consumption is evil because it snatches natural resources away from those in the developing world who are less fortunate than we are.

According to this argument, the problem of poverty in the developing world is caused by people in the developed world using up more than "their share" of natural resources. There is a grain of truth in this argument, at least for a handful of globally traded commodities, like oil. If tomorrow Americans were to cut gasoline consumption drastically, worldwide demand would fall and more people in the developing world would be able to afford it. But this is hardly likely to make a serious dent in poverty in India and Africa. The reason for poverty in the developing world is not the lack of natural resources, but rather the lack of demand for those these peoples' talents and labor. In other words, the primary cause of poverty is non-utilization or under-utilization of human resources. The key to fighting poverty therefore lies in making more opportunities available to more people in the developing world so as to enable them nurture and "sell" their talents and labor. This means that what the poor in India, Africa, etc., need most are education, health care, functioning infrastructure, and access to markets.

Consider the poor living in inner-city neighborhoods in the U.S. Can their poverty be eliminated simply by reducing consumption elsewhere in the country? I don't think so. Rather the answer to poverty surely lies in providing better schools, better health care, and better job opportunities.

American consumption, by increasing the overall demand for human labor, can actually help reduce worldwide poverty, as it has already done in China.

Argument no. 3. The problem is not with consumption per-se, but that consumption in the U.S. has crossed all limits. It is excessive consumption that is evil.

I am not a believer in unrestrained or rampant consumerism. I believe in moderation in everything. I believe in the golden mean. However, I believe it is up to individuals and families to decide the extent and form of consumption they are comfortable with. It is up to each individual to decide what to consume and to define what is "excess" and what is "moderate". Some may like to buy books, some may like gadgets like the iPhone, some may like shoes, some may like to travel, and some may scrimp on everything else but splurge on their children's education. Who is to say what is excessive and what is moderate? One individual can choose to reduce all consumption to a bare minimum and shout from the rooftop how happy that makes her, just as another person can splurge on gadgets, or shoes, or whatever, and proclaim how happy that makes him. That is perfectly fine. All that I object to is the implication some people convey (perhaps unintentionally) that their particular consumption pattern is somehow morally superior to others, and the corresponding tendency to look down scornfully on the consumption patterns of others.


Blogger arduous said...


June 27, 2008 11:19 AM  

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