Is Consumption Evil?

June 11, 2008 | Siddhartha Shome,

One major tendency among many environmentalists today is to valorize asceticism and to criticize consumerism. On this topic a lively debate has ensued over the last few days in response to Michael Shellenberger's blog post criticizing Gandhi for his advocacy of poverty and rejection of modernity.

Representing one side in this debate is "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan, who is on quest to to "reduce his impact" on the planet by giving up consumerism and eschewing many of the modern products and services that we take for granted in our daily lives.

I certainly admire the efforts of No Impact Man and others in the "personal sustainability" bandwagon. I am impressed by their earnestness and zeal to make the world a better place. However, I disagree substantially with their underlying ideology. The arguments they make are fallacious. Below are some of their arguments and my responses.

Argument no. 1. Consumption is evil because it uses up the earth's limited natural resources and causes global warming and other environmental problems.

No Impact Man and other anti-consumerist environmentalists look at products and services only from the point of view of the raw materials they consume. However, a product is much more than that. Consider the Apple iPhone, which was brought up in the debate cited above. Say someone buys a new iPhone for $199. How much of the $199 goes into the actual raw materials? I don't have the actual numbers, but I am willing to bet that if you try to sell the few ounces of sand (for the silicon chips), copper ore (for the internal wiring), crude oil (for the plastic, and for the transportation from factory to consumer), and other raw materials that go into making an iPhone, no one will be willing to pay you even $20 for it. So are people just plain stupid that they are willing to fork out $199 for an iPhone? Surely not. Then what is the extra $179 for? The answer has to be that people are paying not just for the raw materials, but for the human genius. Each iPhone consists of not just of a few ounces of sand and copper, but a huge dose of human ingenuity, human creativity and human toil. An iPhone is 90% human genius and 10% raw materials. Or, to put it another way, it is 90% human resources and 10% non-human natural resources.

If you throw away consumption because of the utilization of non-human natural resources, you also throw away the utilization of human resources that comes with it and actually forms the bulk of consumption. And without the utilization of human resources and human talent, these talents will go untapped, unrecognized and unrewarded. What does this do to the idea of development and civilization, whose ultimate aim is to provide as many people as possible opportunities to nurture and utilize their talents and abilities? If we were to stop consumption just because of problems with 10% of it, it would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Buying and selling being two sides of the same coin, if you refuse to buy other people's talents, the day cannot be far off when you will not be able to sell your own talents - your ideas, your abilities, your labor.

This is not to say that we need not worry about the 10% of consumption that involves natural material resources. I admit that there are problems - global warming being the biggest one. However, the answer cannot be to stop or drastically reduce consumption altogether. The answer must lie in using human ingenuity to develop new technologies to ensure that the 10% of consumption that involves non-human resources is environmentally sustainable. New technologies have to be found. New forms of energy have to be developed. New hi-tech recyclable materials have to be invented. New efficiencies have to be found.

Argument no. 2. Consumption is evil because it snatches natural resources away from those in the developing world who are less fortunate than we are.

According to this argument, the problem of poverty in the developing world is caused by people in the developed world using up more than "their share" of natural resources. There is a grain of truth in this argument, at least for a handful of globally traded commodities, like oil. If tomorrow Americans were to cut gasoline consumption drastically, worldwide demand would fall and more people in the developing world would be able to afford it. But this is hardly likely to make a serious dent in poverty in India and Africa. The reason for poverty in the developing world is not the lack of natural resources, but rather the lack of demand for those these peoples' talents and labor. In other words, the primary cause of poverty is non-utilization or under-utilization of human resources. The key to fighting poverty therefore lies in making more opportunities available to more people in the developing world so as to enable them nurture and "sell" their talents and labor. This means that what the poor in India, Africa, etc., need most are education, health care, functioning infrastructure, and access to markets.

Consider the poor living in inner-city neighborhoods in the U.S. Can their poverty be eliminated simply by reducing consumption elsewhere in the country? I don't think so. Rather the answer to poverty surely lies in providing better schools, better health care, and better job opportunities.

American consumption, by increasing the overall demand for human labor, can actually help reduce worldwide poverty, as it has already done in China.

Argument no. 3. The problem is not with consumption per-se, but that consumption in the U.S. has crossed all limits. It is excessive consumption that is evil.

I am not a believer in unrestrained or rampant consumerism. I believe in moderation in everything. I believe in the golden mean. However, I believe it is up to individuals and families to decide the extent and form of consumption they are comfortable with. It is up to each individual to decide what to consume and to define what is "excess" and what is "moderate". Some may like to buy books, some may like gadgets like the iPhone, some may like shoes, some may like to travel, and some may scrimp on everything else but splurge on their children's education. Who is to say what is excessive and what is moderate? One individual can choose to reduce all consumption to a bare minimum and shout from the rooftop how happy that makes her, just as another person can splurge on gadgets, or shoes, or whatever, and proclaim how happy that makes him. That is perfectly fine. All that I object to is the implication some people convey (perhaps unintentionally) that their particular consumption pattern is somehow morally superior to others, and the corresponding tendency to look down scornfully on the consumption patterns of others.


Comments

Hi Sid,

Consumerism and non-consumerism are two extremes ideologies. Both are based on good intentions. Consumerism, if taken to the extreme, will result in Earth irreversible damage. Non-consumerism, if taken to the extreme, will be applicable to very few people and therefore be ineffective.

However, my observation is that the developed world is going in the path of extreme consumerism. The life cycle of most "non-perishable" products become shorter every year. Product warranties become shorter, consumers are encouraged to replace perfectly functional products with newer ones. The older ones are usually dumped. How many people replace their functioning cell phones with a "free" new one? How many people buy a new printer just because it costs less than replacing the ink cartridge kit or the toner kit?

What message do we send to the manufactureres when we replace their products every year? Make a shiny product, use inferior materials, go through less quality inspections, and give a short warranty. No one cares about the long time usage as long as he gets an extra gigabyte, an extra mega pixel, or an extra mile per gallon.

Old products become undesirable, which means it is more difficult to sell used stuff, which means many people prefer to dump them rather than to go through the effort of selling their old products for a small fraction of what they paid for them, just short time ago.

Many products cannot be fixed, once they break down. Either they do not have spare parts in the market or their repair will cost more than a new product. In this way many products end up in a landfill just because a little piece of plastic was broken or for a short circuit.

Now what about replacing products for energy conservation reasons? Is buying a new energy efficient car or appliance, while your current one is perfectly functional, good for the environment? How much natural resources and energy is required to manufacture, transport, market, advertise, sell, and deliver a new car? How much damage to the environment is caused by getting rid or recycle your old car? Cars and appliances are a more realistic examples for the percentage of natural resources vs. human ingenuity. The iPhone example is an extreme one.

One bad aspect of consumerism are the packages of perishable food. Our grand parents used to go to the grocery store with their own bags (neither plastic nor paper) their eggs box, their milk bottles and fill them. The products that had their own packaging had a much larger actual product per package ratio, like sacks of rice and flour. These sacks were then recycled for other home usage. They did not have recycling bins in their yards. Today the ratio between the actual product and its package became much smaller. Tea bags are now coming in an individual plastic bag to preserve "freshness" - I cannot tell the difference between a fresh and an old tea. The same with one-tea-spoon size sugar or instant coffee, or artificial sweetener bags. They used to be found only in restaurants. Now everyone buys them. Go to Costco and see how they package these small gadgets, like bluetooth headsets and memory cards, in huge transparent plastic cases.

Why not channel human ingenuity into developing products with long term vision, with fixable parts, with green thinking. Why not enhancing the 'cap and trade' system from the Kyoto Protocol beyond energy consumption. Companies and individual should pay the realistic price to erase their foot print on the environment. If you manufacture a printer you should pay NOW the price it takes to get rid of it at the end of its life cycle without hurting the environment. Maybe then replacing the ink cartridge kit will be the more economic solution and it will be recycled efficiently.

I think that we need to formulate 'wise consumerism'. It is our children and grand children that will have to pay the price for our reckless consumerism.

Regards,
Danny

By Daniel on 2009 06 23


Hi Ben,

1. I don't agree with your point on consumption. Your analogy with slavery is flawed. Slavery ended in the 1800's in the U.S., because of various reasons. But consumers refusing to buy cotton from slave owners is not one of them. Instead, one reason (among others) that slavery ended when it did in the U.S. was the spread of industry. Technological progress and the growth of the industrial economy in the north (providing a better alternative to the feudal plantation economy of the south) played a much larger role in ending slavery. It is important to note that prior to advent of the industrial economy, almost all societies everywhere practiced slavery (though the exact forms may have differed from place to place). Even today in pre-industrial feudal economies, slavery is common. In India, though banned by law, a form of slavery known as "bonded labor" is still common in places where pre-modern feudal economic structures are prevalent (see this). In Saudi Arabia, slavery was open, legal, and widespread till as recently as 1962, when it was banned by royal decree. Even today, near-slavery working conditions are common for many foreign workers in the Arab world because these workers do not have any better alternatives. Also partly true for many illegal immigrants in the U.S. The bottom line is that if you want to do away with some existing mode of operation, a viable technological and economical alternatives must be developed.

2. You say that "if I buy a commodity crop from the developing world, I am encouraging that crop to be grown at the expense of other crops for local consumption" and presumably you believe that this is what causes poverty. Indeed this can happen in some rare situations. For example, in North Korea today, or in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the authoritarian govt. may force farmers to grow something for export instead of food for local consumption, leading to famines. However, for most of the world this is not the case. Though various govt. regulations and trade restrictions play a role, most farmers in the world today are reasonably free to produce what they judge to be the best return for their labor. If a Kenyan farmer decides to grow flowers for sale in Europe instead of food for local consumption, he does so because that gives him the best return for his labor. It is good thing that the economic and technical infrastructure exists for him to sell his flowers in Europe, because it increases the demand for his labor, which in turn enables him to improve his quality of like, send his kids to school, etc. The reason for poverty in the developing world is not lack of natural (non-human) resources, but rather the lack of demand for human talent and labor. Most would agree that Americans are better off today than they were 100 years ago. This is not primarily because vast amounts of natural resources have been discovered over the last 100 years, but rather it is because the much greater demand for their talent and labor supported by improvements in technology, economic systems, education, etc. Yes, this process does utilize natural resources, and unfortunately it has been accompanied by greenhouse gas emissions, loss of pristine natural areas, and other negative side effects. But the centrality of the human effort must be recognized. The question is: how to preserve and extend the gains of development while reducing the negative side effects.

3. I am sure that you sincerely believe that your decisions are more moral than others. As a moral belief, that is perfectly fine. Everybody is entitled to his/her own moral belief, just as everybody is entitled to his/her personal spiritual beliefs. As long as you present non-consumerism as a moral belief and not as a rational hypothesis claiming that "non-consumerism helps save the World", that is perfectly fine. My own reasoned position is that non-consumerism is neigther necessary nor sufficient to solve massive environmental problems like global warming.

By Sid Shome on 2008 06 28


Sid,
A number of points.
1. As far as I can tell, those of us who are trying to reduce consumption agree that sustainable consumption is the solution. I support sustainable consumption as it exists - I try to buy free trade and organic goods, and allow my interaction with "human ingenuity" to come from things like music and literature, which are available online or from the library at the cost of almost no natural resources. And, like Arduous, I buy used. But right now the vast majority of consumption is not sustainable and has clearly negative ecological and (thus) social consequences, so I try to limit my contribution to those consequences by limiting consumption. Continuing to consume as normal now because consumption can be sustainable in the future would be like buying cotton from a slave plantation in the 1800's because slavery would be abolished in the future.
You write that "Energy consumption does not cause global warming, emissions do." True in theory, but until we develop other sources of energy, energy consumption causes emissions and thus does cause global warming. While I certainly support investment in alternative energies, until they are implemented energy consumption carries moral costs that I cannot deny.

2. I think you tend to simplify your characterization of global poverty. Consumption can also increase poverty in that it increases the power of international corporations and the corrupt governments they support, who encourage poverty-increasing things like debt and the destruction of local economies. For example, if I buy a commodity crop from the developing world, I am encouraging that crop to be grown at the expense of other crops for local consumption. I know that this is not the source of all poverty and that things have gotten better in places like China. But there are enough problems with regular products to make me question how much good my consumption will actually do for the developing world. When more fairly traded and sustainable products are available, I'll change that attitude.

3. About judgment: I trust that you care for the planet and its inhabitants, Sid. But I do think that the decisions I am making are the most moral ones, and that other decisions would be less moral (though not evil). Thus I respect your position but I would like you to accept that we have an ethical disagreement; my decisions are more than simply a "lifestyle choice." On the road to sustainability, there are a lot of vexing issues to confront. It is important that when we disagree, we respect each other while also accepting the ethical quality of our disagreements.
Ben

By Ben Bokser on 2008 06 24


Hi Asa,

Well, I did mention crude oil for transportation in my post. Anyway I am pretty sure that even if you include the energy used to manufacture and transport the iPhone and add it to the other non-human resources used, it will still not be more than 10% of the total cost. In any case, the 10% is not an accurate number from some technical paper. Maybe the non-human resources will cost 12%; maybe 8%; maybe 5%. The point I'm trying to make is that human resources constitute the bulk of an iPhone, rather than non-human resources such as oil, sand, etc. Suppose someone were to offer to sell the raw materials and also the gasoline that goes into manufacturing and transporting an iPhone, how much would people be willing to pay for thay? I bet it would be less then 10% of what they would be willing to pay for a fully functioning iPhone.

True, oil today is at a point where most of the cost is simple raw material cost. There are many other items in this category as well. Gold or diamonds, for example. When you buy a diamond ring, you pay more for the raw materials than for the skill of the artisans, the services of the retailer, etc. But the vast majority of consumption in today's modern world is not in the diamond-ring category of natural-resource-heavy consumption but rather in the "iPhone" category of human-resource-heavy consumption. I argue that human-resource-heavy consumption is actually a good thing because it creates demand for human talent and labor, which is something desirable. It is precisely the lack of demand for human talent and labor that causes poverty.

I think the key to solving global warming does not necessarily lie in reducing energy consumption but in reducing emissions. Energy consumption does not cause global warming, emissions do. The key is to develop new ways of generating energy that produce much less emissions than is the case today. For this massive investments in energy technology and energy infrastructure are required.

By Sid Shome on 2008 06 16


A minor quibble: the consumption I have the most problem with is energy consumption. Sid, you completely neglect the energy built in to consumer items, even services. 10% of the iPhone may be raw materials, but the rest isn't all human resources: a good chunk is energy+transportation. A customized Mac laptop is finalized in China and then _flown_ to the US.

And the biggest of all is oil (gasoline). We're at the point where well over half the cost of a gallon of gas is simple raw material cost. And there's very little human resources and innovation going into that gallon of gas.

You'd think a blog focusing on global warming wouldn't completely forget energy.

By Asa on 2008 06 16


Hi Arduous,

You justify non-consumerists getting judgemental on the grounds that since it goes against the grain of society they need to be ultra-defensive about their personal choices. Put it that way - that non-consumerists' judgemental-ism is nothing more than a defense mechanism - I see our point. However, I do have a minor quibble here. Do non-consumerists really need to use unjustified claims like "I'm saving the planet" or "I'm helping the poor" as crutches when just saying "I do this to save money" or "I do this in order to have more time for family", etc., would suffice.

Anyway, seen purely as a defense mechanism rather than as a claim based on fact and reason, I see no problems in non-consumerists making whatever claims they want.

I am glad that you care about improving the quality of life for people in the developing world while still being environmentally sensitive. I agree completely. In fact I will go even further and say that without improving the quality of life for the bulk of the world's population, environmental sustainability is simply impossible. So if one is really interested in long-term environmental sustainability, one needs to also focus serious attention on how to improve the quality of life for people in the developing world.

Thanks a lot for sharing the links about some of your and Colin's reservations regarding non-consumerism. In fact Colin makes a point in his post that is very close to a point that I was myself trying to make in my post.

BTW, I didn't get your point about the $10 CD player. If you want to pay more, surely you could buy a $15 CD player. Or a $50 one. If you are willing to pay sufficiently high prices, the manufacturer will gladly make the CD player in the U.S. complying with all U.S. regulations on working conditions.

By Sid Shome on 2008 06 14


Sid, I think when you see non-consumerists getting judgemental, it's pushing back at consumerists who can also be incredibly judgemental. Let's be honest here. Your post was written with a tinge of judgement in it. That's fine, I get it, and I don't really mind. It's human nature to judge others. But non-consumerists are going against the grain of society, so I think they tend to get a lot more judgement. How many times in a given day are you forced to defend your non-non-consumerism? Not very often, I'd guess. Whereas I have to defend my personal decisions on a very regular basis.

Non-consumerists, as well as regular consumers who sometimes buy used, do have an important function in our society. To a certain extent, we're sort of like the scavengers in the eco-system. By living off of used items, we ensure another use for an item, we stall items from arriving at a landfill, and we slow the use of valuable resources. In essence, we're buying time until new technologies can be made.

And because I buy less, it means that when my year ends and I start buying new again, I can afford to spend more on what I do buy. Again, going back to the $10 CD player, I believe that that CD player is worth more than $10 when you factor in the human labor that went into it. I would rather pay more money for a CD player that will last longer, and that I know was made in conditions where workers were paid fairly and treated properly.

I understand your reservations about non-consumerism as well, and I share them. In fact, I've written about some of my reservations with non-consumerism here.

And Colin has written about his issues here.

We're not mindless to the problems. You don't undertake a year long experiment of non-consumerism without contemplating the ramifications. And especially as an Indian-American, I know that even the underpriced $10 boombox is providing needed jobs to a Chinese person who might not otherwise have a job. That's why I don't support movements to only buy stuff made in America.

But after weighing things carefully, I believe that this is what is right for me. I take care when I talk about my experiment to speak in personal terms. I agree every person is different. But ultimately, if you feel judged, that's ... not really my problem. We all get judged. We all judge. You judge American environmentalists who you deem hypocritical. No big deal.

And for the record, I don't think you care less about humanity or the planet. Neither does Colin. But ... if you feel that is implied, again, not really my problem. What would you have us do? Quietly hide our way of life, never speak up, never write? That hardly seems fair.

That's why I kind of think this attacking of personal environmentalism at best doesn't make a ton of sense, and at worst risks alienating your allies. I told this to Michael, and I'll say it again to you, I'm your ally. Like you, I care about the people on the planet. I care about the poor in India. I care about increasing the quality of life for those living in the third-world, and I believe we CAN do it, AND we can do so in environmentally sensitive ways.

So don't try and force a wedge between us by arguing against points no one is even making. Don't assume there's judgement just because I choose to live a different lifestyle than you do. Dude, I want an iPhone too, okay? I get it. They're pretty. Calm down and stop seeing "implications" in our very existence as an alternative-lifestyle. Instead, let's focus our attention on where we do agree. Let's figure out ways to build a better life for everyone on the planet.

By arduous on 2008 06 13


Hi Arduous,

I'm glad that you see your turn towards non-consumerism of "stuff" mainly as a personal choice that makes you happy because it helps with your personal finances and allows you to redirect your consumerism towards concerts, restaurants, etc. I'm glad you are not judgemental towards people who have different consumption patterns from your own. I basically see non-consumerism as no better or no worse than consumerism of various sorts. I'm glad we agree on this. I have no problem whatsoever with people making personal choices on consumption or on any other issue. If people say "I'm doing this to save money" or "to spend more time with friends and family", or simply "because I enjoy it" or "I'm very good at this", that's perfectly fine with me.

Unfortunately, I sometimes get the feeling that non-consumerists tend to judgemental. I have a problem when a non-consumerist says "I'm doing this to save the planet" or worst of all "I'm doing this for poor people in Africa". Noble sentiments all. But how is non-consumerism going to save the planet, especially if by the term "planet" you include the human beings living on it? And by what stretch of imagination is non-consumerism going to help the poor people in Africa? Moreover, though it is not explicitly stated, the implication that such non-consumerist statements carry is that others (i.e., non-non-consumerists) are somehow less concerned about the planet, or about the poor in Africa, than they are.

By Sid Shome on 2008 06 13


I think you're misunderstanding non-consumerists. I don't think a single non-consumerist would claim that consumption was evil. Period.

Every non-consumerist has many varied reasons for becoming a non-consumerist. For me personally I stopped buying new stuff because I realized I had too much crap, that I wasn't good at personally recognizing what was I needed versus what I wanted. I also was spending too much and saving too little, and I was slowly realizing that while a CD player at Target may cost $10, that CD player was worth way more than $10 in terms of resources and human effort. And that iPhone you mention? I would bet it's also worth more than $199 in terms of human effort.

Plus, buying used (when I had to buy) made sense. Used stuff was cheaper, and readily available (thanks to garage sales, Craigslist, Ebay, Freecycle, etc.) I didn't have to deprive myself really if I bought used, because I could easily live off of buying stuff that other people had bought new. Also, by buying used, I am essentially helping to build a market for used goods. I am investing in the "reusables" market. Good for my pocketbook, good for the planet.

And frankly? My life is now better than it was 10 months ago. I have more money in the bank. I don't have to worry about paying off my credit card bill. I know what I need, I know what I want, and I know the difference. And because I haven't been buying so much stuff, I can afford to spend money on experiences, which I have found to offer more real pleasure than things. Instead of buying purses and dresses, I go to concerts and restaurants and spend more time with my friends. For me, it's a no brainer. Accumulating stuff didn't make me happier. But spending money on experiences does. I also found that I had more money to donate to non-profits or political causes. More money to ensure officials get elected who will push for alternative energy investment.

And no, I don't think we should go Judgey McJudgerson on other people who make different decisions, which by the way, goes for consumerists and non-consumerists alike, ahem Mr. Fallacious Argument. That's not my intent. I merely point out my life as an alternative path for people to follow if they choose to do so. But mostly, I live my life because it makes sense for me.

By arduous on 2008 06 13