Simple Living may not be an Answer

It is popular among environmentalists, and especially those of an ecospiritual persuasion, to blame the current ecological crisis on greed, consumerism, and corporate capitalism, and this accusation surely contains a great deal of truth. Both for the earth and for our own spiritual development we need to reduce our ecological footprint and bring an end to consumer culture. In the words of the Earth Charter,

“We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.”

We can probably agree that consumer culture is supported by the intensity and ubiquity of advertising. Business-funded advertising is usually intended to increase the market share of the advertiser, but it also has the consequence of encouraging consumption in general. An ad for a particular brand of car is also an ad for all new cars. Stimulating consumption is always good for business.

But selfish consumers are only half the story. Production is a factor, too. Wages and profits depend on the overall size of the economy, so there are strong pressures from both business and workers to continually increase both consumption and production. They both must increase, because for the economy to function properly there needs to be a reasonable balance between consumption and production.

  • Too much consumption can lead to inflation;
  • Too much production can lead to stagnation and depression.

The spiritual environmentalists’ emphasis on reducing consumption without considering production thus pits business against environmentalists. Not just unsustainable businesses, but every business, every worker who has a job in a business, every government that taxes business, and every pensioner who has invested in business is threatened by a reduction in consumption. Simplifying our lives may support sustainability, but if very many people reduce their ecological footprint they can hurt a lot of other people.

One alternative to reducing consumption is to minimize the natural resources that go into production. In an earlier post I suggested how taxation policy might be used to reduce the consumption of resources while maintaining economic activity. Even without changes in the tax system, individuals can choose to spend on the goods and services that embody the fewest resources. This is a worthwhile thing to do, and unlike an absolute reduction in consumption, it does not threaten the underlying structure of the economic system. It will be opposed by resource industries and their political servants, but it will not necessarily be opposed by other businesses, workers, or government. For entrepreneurs, this shift in demand can be an opportunity to develop “green” products and services for a new market niche!

So we can switch to greener products.  Simply reducing consumption alone is not a good option, so maybe we environmentalists should redirect our attention from consumerism to the other side of the economic coin, production. As far as I know we don’t even have a counterpart to the word “consumerism” for our addiction to making things.

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