Eat, Sleep, Buy, Die

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Sustainability / ECONOMIC GROWTH

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Eat, sleep, buy, die
No government has challenged the
cherished notion that economic growth
is the route to global prosperity. Jonathan
Rowe imagines what a flesh-and-blood
politician in the US might say on the
stump to expose the charade.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk today about the economy. Not ‘the economy’ we hear about in the news each day and in other politicians’ speeches. I want to talk about the real economy, the one we live in every day.

There’s a big difference. The official economy is in a record expansion. How many times have we heard that? How many times have we heard about the great abundance? And yes, a lot of money is sloshing around. Some of it might even slosh towards us.

But when you look a little closer you start to see a different picture. People feel drained and stressed. They say they have no time and that the kids are always nagging them for things. The traffic keeps getting worse, the beaches close because the water is so bad and the visual space is full of ads.

There’s something out of whack here. Prosperity is supposed to mean well-being. It is supposed to mean more time for life and thought, not less. If times are truly good then you’d think we’d all feel good about the future. Yet a majority are deeply worried. More than 90 per cent of us think we are too concerned about ourselves and not concerned enough about future generations.

The problem here goes deeper than the growing income gap and the way millions are being left behind. The question is: what does it mean to be ahead in the first place? Somehow this thing we call ‘the economy’ has become detached from the people who comprise it. It’s a little as though someone said: ‘I’m doing fine but my life is going to hell.’ That’s the gap between ‘the economy’ and the economy. And we’ve got to try to understand it.

Grasping the problem
The term ‘economic expansion’ suggests a horn of plenty that grows fuller by the minute. Yet strip away the gauzy abstraction and ‘expansion’ means simply spending more money. It makes no difference where that money goes or why. The experts never ask what gets destroyed in the process. When they see more money sloshing around, they say: ‘Wow! That’s good.’

It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to grasp the problem. (In fact it can help not to have one.) More spending doesn’t always mean that life is getting better. We all know that. We all know it often means the opposite – medical bills, addiction, family difficulties, crime. It can mean a toxic spill in the neighborhood, or kids with asthma because the air is so bad.

But the experts never seem to think about that and the media doesn’t either. So long as the money is flowing out of our bank accounts at a faster rate they shout, ‘hooray’. Are you beginning to suspect that this way of looking at the world was not devised with your well-being in mind?

Let’s take this a step further. You know that ‘New Economy’? Well, it’s really just the old economy on electronic steroids. It’s based upon the same old thing: not information, not intelligence, but on an ever-expanding sense of need.

That’s the truth. As John McKnight of Northwestern University has put it, America is a society ‘in need of need’. We don’t need the things the economy produces as much as it needs our sense of need for those things. To the economist need is the Everlasting Light, the miracle that keeps the engines of expansion churning. To the rest of us it can seem like the beast in Dante’s Inferno, the one that ‘when she has fed, she’s hungrier than ever’.

In economics there is no concept of enough: just a chronic yearning for more, a hunger that cannot be filled.

This requires that all life must be converted into a commodity for sale. The result is a relentless process of enclosure. It started centuries ago with land. Today it is encroaching upon every aspect of our individual and collective beings.

Think about the growth industries today. We buy looks from plastic surgeons, mental outlooks from pharmaceutical companies, the activity of our bodies from ‘health’ clubs, interaction with friends from telecommunications firms, and on and on. Security comes from police departments, insurance companies and privatized prisons. Transport comes from oil and automobile companies.

Virtually every life function and process is turning into something we have to buy. And lest anyone suspect a tired ideological shtick, let’s say right here that the government is a culprit too. It turns education into schooling and community into bureaucracy – much as the market turns childhood into a petri dish of nagging.

Either way, what the economists call growth becomes a process of cannibalization. The formal economy, private and public sectors alike, takes us apart piece by piece and then sells us back to ourselves.

We must become less so that the economy can become more. Little wonder we feel drained and stressed. We become the biological counterparts of the oil wells and toxic dumps, both the raw material of the economy and the receptacles of its waste. Meanwhile, millions don’t have enough to begin with.

Ecstasy of buying
[image, unknown] What about the computer, the supposed Merlin of the ‘New Economy’? It is the ultimate need machine. Buy one and you buy into a stream of need that never ceases. The peripherals and upgrades metastasize and the product cycle moves at warp speed. Then the thing turns every waking moment into a selling moment.

The school classroom and office used to be off-limits to ads. Now they are non-stop billboards and shopping malls too. Some 70 per cent of web shopping is done from the office. That’s the essence of the ‘New Economy’ right there.

On top of this, the computer achieves the marketer’s dream of reducing the gap between impulse and purchase practically to zero. With TV you had to wait until the weekend to buy the refrigerator. On the web you just click the mouse. Combine that with the credit card and you’ve got the economist’s version of the bliss of Revelations, an ecstasy of buying.

This might be fine if life were just an exercise in mathematics, the way it is in economics texts. But in real life actions have consequences. An economy based upon the creation of need is going to have consequences that are not entirely benign.

One of these might be called iatrogenic growth. This is the way a supposed solution ends up being a problem that can only be solved by more spending.

There are so many examples. Push a fat-heavy diet upon people and watch coronary problems and hence the need for medical treatment grow. Raise kids in a hyper-kinetic media environment and then push pills at them so that they can pay attention in school. Develop ‘terminator seeds’ that become sterile after one generation and sell new seeds year after year.

The sad nadir of this pathology is suggested by a pesticide plant in Richmond, California, which is owned by a transnational corporation that also makes the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. ‘It’s a pretty good deal,’ a local physician said. ‘First you cause the cancer, then you profit from curing it.’

That’s not all growth today, of course. Some is still useful, and some is fun. ‘Developing’ countries are at a different point on the curve. But the balance is tipping and this is something the conventional economic mind refuses to see.

This mind is almost comically linear; its motto is ‘Yesterday Forever’. If a process was generally useful two centuries ago, in a time of material scarcity, it must be equally so, and without qualification, in an era of hyper-abundance.

Yet we are all implicated to some degree. We all depend on the machine to spin off the money we need for our lives, even if we disagree with the premise.

How do we break the cycle? This is not a question of the old ideological divide: communism versus capitalism, Left versus Right. Those are just different versions of the old premise. Mussolini and Stalin believed in growth as much as Alan Greenspan and Tony Blair, perhaps even more.

We are in new territory here and it may well take water shortages, oil spills, the scriptural seven plagues, to rattle our collective cage. We change because of wisdom or suffering and usually it’s the latter. (This may be why some look almost hopefully for environmental disaster, as the external coercion that our weak collective heart requires.)

But then maybe not. Just maybe we can get going before our backs are to the wall. At the conceptual level we need to broaden the current myopic notions of what the economy is. We’ve got to start including the contributions of family, community and natural environment so that we can stop counting the destruction of these as economic growth and gain.

In economics there is no concept of enough, just a chronic yearning for more

When you foul a river and then build a swimming pool, when you destroy the natural self-replicating quality of seeds so you can sell more of them, that is not growth. It is cannibalization. An economics that values a bureaucracy but not a neighbor, an air conditioner but not a forest, is not an economics at all.

But concept changes from experience as much as vice versa. Adam Smith could develop the mental template of a market because that’s what was happening around him. Probably there won’t be a new economic concept until the reality starts to take shape.

There is no shortage of proposals. Most of us could make a long list. Alternative currencies to revive the non-market economy of neighborhood and community. A tax system that taxes waste instead of work. A materials economy based on carbohydrates rather than petrochemicals. Development based on the old village model so people don’t need cars all the time. For developing countries, economic models that learn from the mistakes of the West rather than seeking to replicate them.

The main problem is not knowing what to do, it is mustering the desire to do it. The evil genius of the consumption culture is the way it envelops us in a cognitive cocoon. Old people go into homes, young people to schools, the sick to hospitals, the mentally infirm to asylums, offenders to jail, trash to the dump, bodily wastes into the sewer.

We become oblivious to the impacts of our own behavior and to the unpleasantness of life itself. Life imitates television or a mall; nothing is permitted to enter that might disrupt the buying mood. We even shift the production of our food and products to far-away lands so we don’t have to see the toil and toxics that are implicated in our own consumption.

This may be the central evil of the global economy and a main reason that its supporters covet it so much.

There won’t be an urgency for change until we crack open the cocoon and expose ourselves to some psychological discomfort of a healthful kind. We could start with those ubiquitous indicators of progress – the GDP, the ‘productivity’ index and the like, which serve as statistical enablers and Quaaludes. If we started to factor the costs of growth into the GDP – the depletion of the natural environment and of the social infrastructure of family and community, for example – it would go a long way towards jarring the media out of its stupor.

The feedback loop has to be restored at the individual level too. There should be gauges on heavy appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators, ticking off the electricity consumed and the cost, as on a gas pump. Perhaps people should have to take their own trash to the dump, the way they do in rural areas.

We need to establish space for truth-telling in the cognitive environment – billboards, television and the rest. And let’s not forget us politicians. If we had to list all major contributors on our office stationery and campaign ads, it would have a sanitizing effect that few other steps could match.

Feedback loops can make a difference. When the engineers at Toyota built a fuel-economy display on to the dashboard of the hybrid Prius car, a writer for Business Week wrote: ‘I became fixated, like a kid staring at a video game, on the fuel-economy numbers.’ Crack the cocoon and good things start to happen.

Jonathan Rowe We don’t know where it’s all going to lead and we don’t have to. We make decisions and life starts taking shape around them. If we know exactly where we are going there’s not much point. We can take comfort in this. There’s nothing to lose except the problems we are creating for ourselves. That can’t be so bad.

Thank you and good evening.

Jonathan Rowe  ([email protected]) is a writer living in Washington DC
and a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly.

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