28 January 2009

Make more. Consume less.

Douglas Coupland has an op-ed in today's New York Times in which he asks the question,
"What if we actually do spend 10 percent less this year — and then decide to stay at that level? Is that healthy?"
The answer is actually quite simple: Yes.

The root source of the problems afflicting our world is too much consumption. The historian Andrew Bacevich has a rather clear-eyed perspective on the issue. From his interview with Bill Moyers:
"Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers."
Bacevich links the consumer issue to a host of troubles afflicting the United States, and he is arguably correct in his analysis. But, like the financial crisis, the malaise has spread to much of the developed world, and in the modern day, is infecting the developing world as well. On a planet with 6.7 billion humans (and counting), consumption at this level is unsustainable.

The dilemma that we face is how to unwind society to a lower consumption state. It seems that no one has a satisfactory answer. James Howard Kunstler tells us (again and again) that "the party is over". Andrew Bacevich thinks we should save money by drastically retrenching our military, turning it into a more modest defense force rather than an expensive and ungainly worldwide police force. And while our newly installed President Obama (how good it feels to say that!!) mentions that there will be communal sacrifice in the weeks and months ahead, the 'stimulus package' is designed to, well, stimulate us to spend. As a short term remedy, this might be a way to ease some of the pain, but as a long term solution, it solves nothing.

The challenge is that we are hooked on this drug called consumption. It is not so much that we want stuff, but rather that we want what others have. It is an old saw of behavioral economics that we measure our wealth not by what we have in absolute terms, but what we have relative to others. The theory is based mostly on making more money not less, but there are a raft of studies on the neurobiology of reward that suggest it should work in the other direction just as well. Once we adjust to the new reality, we should be as content tomorrow as we were yesterday. It is only the transition that is problematic.

Cross Posted at Open Salon

24 January 2009

A cup of tea

From Fiona Robyn's A Small Stone:

"Made-for-you tea always tastes much nicer."

Who could disagree?