Politicians and the economists they hire to support their positions argue about what sector benefits the economy more. One side believes that money left with the wealthy trickles down to the rest of us. The other side claims that putting money in the hands of the poor and the middle class will stimulate consumption and result in more jobs and growth overall. Both theories are based on an economy of stuff and consumption. Producing stuff creates more jobs and more jobs creates demand for more stuff.
How can economists believe that an economic system based primarily on consumption can expand indefinitely? The earth is only so big. There are finite resources. There is a limited space to dump the discarded computers, plastic bags, disposable floor mops, ipods with dead batteries and used tires. Our economy is based on planned and perceived obsolescence. Your computer memory is full? Throw the whole thing out and get a new, slimmer, faster one. Your sofa is still French blue and mauve? Toss it in the dump and buy a new one. All the new things we buy use water, energy, raw materials, labor and transportation. The production of all our goods and our buying them creates jobs for designers, factory workers and clerks, income to the owners of mines and oil wells, and employment for the truck drivers who haul stuff to the store and take garbage away from the curb. What happens, however, when the growing middle classes around the world begin to consume stuff with the same hunger as we?
There is an interesting little film on the internet called “The Story of Stuff,” by Annie Leonard (www.storyofstuff.com). Leonard is an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues. Her thought-provoking 20 minute film makes connections between the stuff we buy, where it comes from, who pays for making it cheaply, and where it goes.
Leonard claims that 99 percent of everything we buy is thrown out within six months. According to her, Americans now consume twice as many goods as they did 50 years ago. Think about it: paper towels rather than rags, tissues rather than handkerchiefs, disposable mops, paper plates, disposable cups, appliances that cost more to repair than to replace, computers with built in obsolescence, fashions which make clothing out of style long before it is worn out.
I wonder if antique stores will exist in the future. None of our furniture is really meant to be passed on to the next generation. It is not even meant to last a single lifetime, much less be functional for our children.
It seems there is a confluence of change facing us. Our economic system of eternally expanding consumption is in trouble. Many experts worry that we have reached the point of peak oil and future petroleum use will come at an ever increasing cost. Our environment is in trouble and greenhouse gasses must be cut back drastically or our weather will be irreversibly altered. The world’s population is growing and moving to the city. Our discarded stuff is piling up, polluting our rivers, and filling up the holes we dig to hide it.
All of these things point to a future that is substantially different from today. While the transition may be difficult and even painful in many ways, there is also opportunity in change.
Cities faced with growing piles of garbage are finding more ways to recycle it. Companies are producing environmentally friendly product lines (I can’t help but wonder why they are, at this point, only a specialty line in their product list), alternative energy sources are being developed. Vacationers are looking for experiences rather than shopping centers. More people are looking for ways to simplify their lives. Researchers are looking for technologies which reclaim resources from trash.
Perhaps what we really need is a different kind of economic system, one that is not overwhelmingly dependent on the production and consumption of stuff.