Less consumerism, same consumption


I’ve been taking the “Transformation” EXCO class this semester. It has been a wonderful experience if for no other reason than it is, necessarily, forward looking. The transformation on our minds – and most other Mac minds, I wager, is: how do we transform our global economy? Economic collapse aside, the mandate of modern capitalism to consume, consume, consume just isn’t sustainable. 

I’m an economics major. I very much enjoy the subject and I think that modern economics – as opposed to modern capitalism (consumerism) – is still the best way to explain our economy and an important way to formulate direction for our future. 

An assumption: Economics assume that the goal of any rational actor is to maximize utility. Utility is most often defined as consumption. Hence, more consumption = more utility. (Note: many economists use utility, happiness and wellbeing interchangeably.) 

I’m not so sure about this assumption. It makes graphing and explaining and model-building really easy. And, to a large extent, it explains Western economic behavior. I’m really not sure about it. 

Here are some things I’m (almost) sure of:

·         The [free] market is the most efficient way to allocate resources (that is to say, the best way to use what’s available to us to make what we want/need)

·         Capitalism and free markets have pulled more people out of poverty than any other economic system

·         We simply cannot continue to consume blindly, especially carbon-intensive goods

·         We need somehow to harness the power of the free market to stimulate products, methods, assumptions and systems based on sustainability and renewability 

I’ve had some thoughts on this subject, which are by no means conclusive or inclusive. 

Assume we can use combinations of market structures (a cap and trade system, for example) and temporary government assistance to create a vibrant market for renewable energy. Then assume we use the products and technology to generate most, if not all, of our energy sustainably. 

That opens up a lot of possibilities. I was thinking recently about the things I like to consume. Aside from basics – food, clothing, and shelter – they involve little marginal cost. I spend much of my time reading news and blogs on the internet. Providing access to one blog or a hundred blogs involves little extra cost, assuming energy is renewable. I love riding my bike. Once I have a bike, riding it more involves no extra “consumption.” Once we’ve born the cost of my cell phone, I can use it as much as I want with virtually no internal or external cost. 

More than that, as our economy moves into the 21st century, more and more of our “production” doesn’t involve producing physical things. We produce services or virtual products. Again, assuming renewable energy, more does not mean much greater cost. 

To a large degree, it seems, we can continue to maximize our utility without robbing Mother Nature blind – the only thing we “give up” is mindless consumption of more things. Imagine if we continue to redefine utility – by the strength of our social capital, or the satisfaction we derive from academic or social activity. 

This is just a tiny fraction of all the re-envisioning we have ahead of us. But taking the time to imagine how we can use the tools we already have creatively can take us a long way. 

What do you think? How can we re-envision or redefine our assumptions and practices sustainably, but in a way that excites people, rather than putting them off? 

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