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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Growth and Scarcity; Wisdom #12

Again, a response to a comment. After my first post about the Upo camp, Andy wrote the following:

"One thing you said really struck me, and probably is/could be the subject of books, "...and environmentalists need to protect the land and animals that can't protect themselves (and, because we depend on the ecosystem, this amounts to protecting us, too).[end of Andy quoting me]"

How absurd is it that the only people who care about whether or not we destroy the planet are labeled environmentalists, and often viewed as a little crazy? As you mentioned in your parenthetical comment, it is about much more than protecting plants and animals, it is protecting the way we have lived for thousands of years. How is it that the general population doesn't get it? Even more confounding is very smart people in politics actively campaigning against protecting the environment. WTF are they thinking?"

There are a few books that I know of that address this conundrum; some of them are explicitly about it. I've mentioned most of them before, but two are particularly relevant: Jensen's Endgame and Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness.

(Fortunately or unfortunately, the question seems to have everything to do with everything I've been reading and thinking about lately, and I'm not confident I can present my would-be-views coherently. Here's a shot:)

The absurdity Andy so rightly points out doesn't look so absurd if you buy into one thing that we all, at some level, buy into: growth is good. A tenet, an assumption, a piece of dogma, a pathology; call it what you will, it takes a brave and willing-to-be-ostracized soul to deny it. If you were to ask an alien watching us from above, an alien trying to divine our motives by analyzing our actions, "What is our society's primary goal?" it would be impossible for him/her/it to give any answer other than "to get bigger."* Presidents can weather the storms of infidelity discovered, lies exposed, debt expanded, soldiers lost; but can we doubt that if a president ever so much as whispered the phrase "GDP growth might not be an unmitigated good," (under his breath, to the First Lady, in the privacy of their own bedroom) we'd hear immediate calls for his impeachment? If there's one thing that the Blue States and Red States can all agree on, it's that a good year is a year in which the GDP grows, and a great year is a year in which it grows a lot.

GDP growth translates, on a personal level**, to an increase in the amount of money earned, and thus the amount of money available to spend. Thus, as crude as it may sound, a good year is a year in which we earned and spent more money than the last. Spent on what? On products that have themselves grown, if figuratively. As delightful, as expected, as natural as increases in the GDP are: increases in the size of our monitors, increases in the capacity and compactness of our iPods, increases in the speed of our processors, the length of our buffets, the horsepower of our engines, the range of exotic fruits available at the supermarket, the number of functions on our wristwatches, and the shininess of everything from refrigerators to pumpkins to BMWs.

To make more things available to more people - isn't this a noble goal? Isn't that the meaning of Democracy? Aren't we more free if there are more things that we're free to choose from? If you say yes (and we almost all do, implicitly), then of course you can't help but see people who want to slow, limit, or stop growth as ideological foes.
How can environmentalists claim to be defending people's well-being, when doing so depends on reducing the amount people consume and the amount people consume determines how well-off they feel?

I think most Americans are already aware, at some level, that their level of consumption is unsustainable. Even if you haven't seen the most powerful statistics - things like how it would take five earths for everyone to consumer like us, how we as five percent of the world's population use twenty-four percent of the world's resources***, how one American consumes as much as three hundred Ethiopians, how increased technological efficiency has historically led to more consumption of resources, not less, how getting calories from wheat is about 200 times more water-efficient than getting calories from beef, but how intensive wheat/rice/corn/soy production it itself a major cause of of our environmental crisis****, and the rest of the "dreary litany," as Gatto calls it - it's not too hard to figure out that fossil fuels are limited and depending on them for everything from necessities like food, heating, and transportation to luxuries like electronics and travel isn't a good idea.

So, the obvious question is, where does this "growth is good" mentality come from? Why is growth regarded as so good that we are willing to pursue it in the face of mounting evidence that it may just kill us all? It's too easy, too self-serving, to pin the blame on "human nature," theories of innate selfishness, or man-as-virus metaphors; such universal claims strike me as ways to dodge guilt, to avoid dealing with an issue which is, at bottom, a cultural one, one that we're responsible for. It's not true that all people, in all times, have been as ravenous, acquisitive, and growth-focused as we are. It's not true that our current dilemmas, however intractable they may appear, were predestined. Rather, they've come about as the result of certain decisions made and strategies pursued by political and business leaders in decades and centuries past.

Slater highlights one in particular: scarcity. In order to deal with an overabundance of goods and productive capacity, capitalists (I apologize for the vaguely, or, to be honest, overtly conspiratorial tone. I'm not well-versed enough in history to back up everything with names and dates, so if you want to know where I'm coming from, in addition to sources I've already mentioned, do check out footnote no.5
*****) had to turn people away from the easily-satisfied desires, towards more evasive ones:

"Hunger, thirst, and sexual desire in pure form can be slaked, but the desire for a body type that never existed but was invented by cartoonists cannot be slaked. Neither can the desire for fame, power, or wealth as such. These are inherently invidious needs; they are satisfied only in relation to the deprivation of others. Furthermore they are purely symbolic and hence have no logical consummation. A man hooked on fame or power will never stop striving because there is no way to gratify a desire with a symbol. One cannot eat, drink, or copulate with a Nobel Prize..."(100)

Desires for things like sustenance, community, friendship, sex, and love are relatively easily satisfied; all you need is another person, or a group of them. Furthermore, in contrast to the "invidious needs" above, these desires might be called "altruistic", since satisfaction of any one of them for one individual results in satisfaction for another as well. In this case, satisfaction of desire is free, complete, sustainable, and maybe even infinite. Now, though, in the interest of business, these desires have been largely - well, is there a word for "sublimated" but with the opposite connotation? "Displaced?" "Mediated?" "Alienated?" In any case, it is now products that promise us many of the satisfactions that, in reality, can only be granted to us by other humans - try to think of one product or one advertisement you've seen recently that doesn't play on the desire for sex, love, warmth, or pride, and how ridiculous the advertisements look when not done subtly enough.

Once we've fallen into the trap of identifying possession of and interaction with products as the source of satisfaction, we've implicitly accepted that, since the number of products isn't infinite, there's not enough happiness to go around. And, again, to quote Slater, "Once the concept exists that there is not enough, people will begin to deprive each other of what there is."(96) People are now willing to work - to do things that nobody in their right mind would ever do, if unconstrained - in order to get what satisfaction they can; and, even so, it isn't enough. Thus, we need Economic Growth, which provides a sort of temporary relief: insofar as we understand it as "lifting all boats," it allows us to believe that everybody must have become a little bit happier.

Of course, this is a farce, because we are trying to use symblols to satisfy real desires, we can't help but fail - the same desire we thought we had just satisfied will surface again next time we see another advertisement preying on the same perceived lack. And, because we perceive the amount of satisfaction to be limited, every winner generates a loser (my purchase of a 2011 Lexus decreases the value of all 2010 Lexuses, and I'll get my comeuppance in 2012). Lastly, even if our entire society wins by increasing GDP, this growth is only ever achieved by depleting natural resources, and generally by destroying the livelihoods of the people who live near them.

I don't believe that this kind of analysis is beyond most people. (Maybe I just don't want to believe it.) Even before I could articulate it, I remember feeling a vague, uneasy kind of emptiness when shopping for clothes in middle school; when fighting the hordes at Best Buy at Christmas; when thinking about what I wanted to buy with my money, and why I wanted it. We all recognize the shallowness, the silliness, the fruitlessness, and most of all, our own complicity. (I hope.)

So, to go back to Andy's question - why are environmentalists sometimes seen as a little crazy? If, as I just asserted, everybody has some inkling of it, why aren't those who articulate the problem and attempt to confront it hailed as speakers of truth rather than as wackos? Slater, one more time, writing about the 70s but strikingly relevant today:

"The same emphasis surrounds our fear of radicalism today. Draft resistance, peace demonstrations, black militance, hippie communes, and student protest are disturbing not because they provide a serious physical danger (equivalent to, say, driving a car) but because we fear having our secret doubts about the viability of our social system voiced aloud. It is not what happens abroad that generates hysteria, but rather what appears to be happening within ourselves....these considerations suggest that the fear of radical movements in America derives much of its intensity from the attraction that such movements have for their opponents - an attraction that must be stifled." (4,6)

If the environmentalists are right, if growth is wrong, then everything is wrong.
How you've been brought up has been wrong; the work you're doing now is wrong; the life you'll give your children will be wrong; and so on. Perhaps worse, if things are wrong, they need to change. Work needs to change. School needs to change. Food needs to change. Technology needs to change. Social arrangements need to change. If these are the real implications of environmentalism, the burden, in terms of cognitive dissonance, may just be too much to bear.

It's worth noting that this is not just an attack on conservatives or deniers; many environmentalists are caught up in this, too. In my opinion, anyone who thinks that sufficient change will be achieved by encouraging people to purchase new, "environmentally-friendly" or increasingly efficient products, is still failing to see the whole picture. A Prius is better than a Hummer, but a society in which people need, want, and expect Priuses is doomed just the same, if not quicker.

Does that bring us any closer to beginning to answer Andy's question? There're a lot of pretty brazen, controversial assertions in there, and perhaps even some leaps of logic. Call me out. I don't want to be right!
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*This reminds me of the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: After observing the Earth from a distance, an alien comes to the conclusion that the world is primarily inhabited by automobiles, and names himself "Ford."

**Almost. Actually, as I think just about everyone reading this blog knows, the benefits of increased GDP accrue primarily to the people who already have extremely high incomes. Nonetheless, if the passage doesn't reflect the truth of the lower- and middle-classes, it represents their aspirations.

***Kudos to you if you noticed, as I just did, that those are actually the same statistic.

****Please read Lierre Kieth's The Vegetarian Myth. Don't swallow everything she says, but do read it.

***** At the risk of recommending one (four?) too many references, I suggest Adam Curtis' documentary series "The Century of the Self," which covers the ways that Freud's theories of the unconscious, by way of his nephew Edward Bernays, became the underpinning of modern marketing.

3 comments:

AZ said...

Sadly, I think you are right.

SandfordWrites said...

On point.

Capitalists had to turn people away from simplicity towards complexity and from doing things themselves by being convinced that others can do it for them.

It's all very in line with Century of Self but before people had to be convinced of their poverty.

Before the 20th century most people lived on farms.

The idea of time saving devices and disposable goods which are sold as conveniences for people only makes them slaves to employment. These debts tie us to the system.

I thought about your post the steps I am taking to move beyond the tragedy of it all.

Andy said...

I think you're right, but there's probably more too it.

Quite frankly, I don't think most people are capable of the kind of thinking you are talking about.