Our Response to the Next Crisis Must Tackle Consumerism

Yves here. While one can applaud the sentiments in this post, status competition is a strong feature of most societies. Admittedly, some have revered accomplishment or sacrifice or exemplary behavior over having a lot of toys. But so much of our behavior revolves around consumerism that it affects how we tackle problems. For instance, one strong theme in Green New Deal programs is to build new energy efficient housing. Yet the energy cost of a new house is roughly 10 years of operating a not terribly energy efficient existing house of similar square footage.

Admittedly, this article focuses more on consumerism in terms of more mundane purchases like clothing and devices, but “household formation” and moving almost always involve a buying stuff. Even if your old goods work well in new digs, there’s still always something to buy…curtains, a new lamp….while in the old days, people would inherit houses, furnished, and not change them much (or if they did, gradually), or lived in rooming houses with very little.

By Rob Macquarie, a writer and researcher focusing on the financial system and its links to inequality, democracy, and sustainability. He tweets @RJMacquarie. Originally published at openDemocracy

This article is part of ourEconomy’s ‘Preparing for the next crisis’ series.

If there is one way the next economic crisis won’t be the same as the last, it will have to do with the state of our planet. In 2008, the Copenhagen Accord hadn’t been signed, let alone the Paris Agreement – or millions of schoolchildren missing Friday lessons to protest the terrifying future they will inherit.

Now, economic transformation is widely viewed as a prerequisite for halting ecological breakdown. Because of this, the next crisis is often presented by those who long for change as a golden opportunity, envisaged with massive investment in energy systems, transport, and clean industrial technology.

To be sure, these changes cannot come quickly enough. Yet they are not the only piece of the economic, nor ecological, puzzle. The ruling elites of wealthy countries have a poor record in undertaking ambitious public spending. Instead, they look to ordinary citizens – recast over decades as ‘consumers’ – to carry the load.

Household consumption on aggregate represents the largest chunk of economic activity in most countries. Though often characterised as ‘motor’ or ‘engine’ of growth, as things stand a liferaft would be a better metaphor. During recessions, household spending can remain relatively flat compared to investment and therefore GDP more broadly. In the US, consumption, though battered by the storm of the 2008 crisis, supported employment in the face of declining business prospects.

Our economic dependency on consumerism is linked to changes afoot at the global level, both secular and cyclical. On the one hand, the gradual march of (privatised) digital technology and financialisation have undermined and disrupted investment in the real economy as a source of stable prosperity. Listlesssproductivity in some G7 nations and a massive reduction in state spending under austerity regimes have placed much of the burden on households.

In Britain, this sterling effort from the ‘good old British consumer’ comes at a cost. Households have been taking on net debt – in other words, running down their wealth – since 2016. Financial pundits present debt-led increases in household spending as a natural source of GDP growth despite only having assumed such a prominent role following the 1980s’ neoliberal turn.

On the other hand, present conditions have also sharpened our reliance on the household consumer. This is by no means limited to the relatively financialised Anglophone economies. Germany’s mighty manufacturing sector, beset by difficulties from Brexit to global trade disputes, is behind recent gloom in the economic figures. Major infrastructure projects, if badly conceived, can lock in an unhealthy incentive to keep the population spending – see the hapless development of Berlin’s Brandenburg airport, dependent on retail for up to half of its profits. Meanwhile, the UK’s sickly retail sector, pressed on one side by trade uncertainty, strains under ever-larger piles of corporate debt.

All of this has disastrous ecological consequences. In 2009, in the wake of the global recession, Friends of the Earth Europe reported people in rich countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries. As development raises standards of living for vast numbers of people living in the Global South, especially in China and India, keeping material consumption and carbon emissions from spiralling upwards will require a change of gear in resource efficiency and, simply put, more frugal behaviour by Western consumers.

Last year an important paper in Nature found that ‘physical needs (that is, nutrition, sanitation, access to energy and elimination of poverty below the US$1.90 line) could likely be met for 7 billion people at a level of resource use that does not significantly transgress planetary boundaries’. Meeting ‘more qualitative goals (that is, life satisfaction, healthy life expectancy, secondary education, democratic quality, social support and equality)’ for people in all countries will require major changes in ‘provisioning systems’ – that is, an overhaul of economic institutions. In other words, unnecessary material goods valued by Western shoppers put at risk the attainment of even more fundamental social and human rights for the majority of the world’s population.

So the policy response to a fresh crisis must be viewed through an ecological lens. With interest rates still at rock-bottom and quantitative easing alive and kicking, the flow of easy money creates a powerful incentive to urge an anxious public to ‘keep calm and carry on spending’. The planet cannot afford such timidity, nor complacency over a spontaneous rise in so-called conscious consumerism.

Instead, as well as supply-side measures clustered under a Green New Deal or Green Industrial Revolution, the crisis toolkit must consider consumer demand. Policy can make a consumption surge conditional on sustainability with policies like fiscal incentives for retail companies to apply rigorous, sustainable standards. Electric vehicles already enjoy support from governments in many countries – notwithstanding some rowbacks. These schemes can be designed to contribute to the fiscal ‘automatic stabilisers’ that push back against a recession: for instance, by channeling money from penalties for emissions-intensive vehicles into subsidies for EVs.

Alongside a shake-up of the energy mix, governments must promote the circular economy. Investment can target projects aimed at reducing household and supply chain waste. Right-to-repair schemes being pioneered by civil society deserve tax incentives or other market-shaping assistance from the state. And across all industries, we must move away from early obsolescence of consumer goods. A report prepared for the European Commission in 2012 recommended a host of policies to target these issues, such as grants for industry to initiatives to improve product lifetime or reduced VAT for more efficient and durable products.

Thinkers pioneering a new economics are joining the dots between the demands of sound economic management during a downturn, social justice, and the ecological crisis. Vocal criticism of a decade of austerity laid the groundwork. Now progressives, eager to raise living standards, must watch their messaging to promote sustainable consumption. Those sounding the alarm about resource use are right that rich nations must not continue to overspend their ecological budget.

When the next crisis arrives, parties arguing for a green transformation will have to prove they understand that.

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  1. notabanktoadie

    Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a “mess of pottage” (Genesis 25:27-34).

    It’s no exaggeration that the birthrights of many, many people are gone.

    Were those birthrights sold for a mess of pottage (consumerism) or were they legally stolen by a unjust economic system with consumerism as pitiful compensation?

    1. Off The Street

      Mash up with Facebook and such where people and their data, now improved with the 23 new DNA features, are the product to see how birthrights get sold, seemingly voluntarily. Dark patterns are noticed popping up everywhere once they are pointed out. Neo-liberalism needs a new modern name and a better publicist.

    2. Susan the Other

      I’ve always suspected “Consumerism” to have been invented and used as a weapon against unions. We must supply the consumer with inexpensive products, etc. IIRC consumerism didn’t start to enter the dialog until the 80s in any significant way. And then it was everywhere all at once. Spontaneous realities like that are confusing. Just where did it come from? It happened in Germany about the same time. They didn’t crush their labor/unions like we did. We were absolutely ruthless. And it was all justified by claiming we had to make sure the consumer was well supplied. What a bunch of nonsense.

      1. notabanktoadie

        Labor cartels to counter a government privileged usury cartel were always doomed to fail because of automation alone if not also less expensive foreign goods and labor.

        So labor unions are not, and never have been, more than a temporary measure.

        One might argue about what ethical finance is and is not but the need for ethical finance should be completely non-controversial – but strangely isn’t.

  2. Ignacio

    I not only applaud the sentiments but the ideas, many of them otherwise played in many posts here such as the rigth to repair and a real turn to circular economies. Yet, i still miss something that being politically very difficult, it is IMO a must: puting legally binding limits to fossil fuel consumption.

    Regarding status competition: I personally have cut my consumption by much in the last decades although I was never a big spender. I don’t think my personal living standard has declined, on the contrary, I think my life is richer in many aspects. I don’t try to sound exemplary, I am not in many instances. I admit that a big reason for this Is that I have lost income but lately It has been more a voluntary thing. I am a disastrous manager of smartphones that too often are lost (I am famously lost-in-thougth in my environment), or take them to swim with me, or fall and break when I am in a hurry because I forgot something somewhere. For this reason I cannot afford too expensive smartphones though I don’t feel the need to have the latest. With more people like me, the rigth to repair and recycling of smartphones is a must. I still consume too much meat, partly cos I like it, and partly because members of my family with chronic iron defficiency ask for meat. Most importantly, I have no longer empathy for those that feel the status competition and the impulse to own the largest house, the fastest car, the latest tech thingy or having dinner in the most expensive restaurant. I don’t feel alone in my environment and a lot of people I know are on the same page on this. Status competition can die and good riddance should I say.

    1. Susan the Other

      about iron deficiency Ignacio, I read long ago and it proved true for me that if you take a good B-complex every day (no problem bec. B is water soluble) it solves iron deficiency.

          1. marieann

            Another note about B12. It is not well absorbed by those over 50 and so levels need to be checked periodically. One of the symptoms of a deficiency is confusion.

            1. Anarcissie

              Vitamin A can be toxic, even fatal, in overlarge doses. As for B12, I experimented with it several years ago because some test showed a deficiency, not because I was experiencing any symptoms. A very small amount knocked me on my butt for a couple of days. I don’t know what it does, but I recommend staying away from it.

              I figured out a long time ago that consumerism was slavery, at least if you have to work for the money to consume with, so that was that. I value my time. However, the ruling class of a capitalist society has to produce scarcity in order to maintain its importance, so to get rid of the surplus it’s going to be consumerism, imperialism plus war, or overt waste, it seems.

    2. Mel

      I wonder how we could manage to implement potlatch — where a person’s wealth is judged by what they can give away, rather than the amount that can’t be pried away from them by any possible means.

      1. jrs

        It may not be potlatch, but ANTI-status competition seems already to be catching on in places like Sweden, with flight shaming, shaming over owning more than one of the same thing, shaming over buying new stuff etc..

      2. Crazy Horse

        I’m a Potlatch Proponent
        However I believe the Potlatch system needs a boost if it is to evolve into a social norm.

        Waterboard the richest 500 individuals and their families until they agree to voluntarily surrender 50% of all their stocks and investments, mansions in the Hamptons, Ferraris and Bugattis, and spare mistresses. Then reward them with fame as if they were the next Kardasians.

  3. upstater

    Subsidies for electric vehicles are unicorn farming. The materials required for a transition to EVs simply don’t exist, the grid can’t support it and automobiles facilitate sprawl, which is at the heart of western consumerism.

    1. Oh

      Unless you charge your EV with power from your solar cell, EV’s are just transference; from gasoline to fossil fueled power from the power plant.

      In lieu of charging your EV with your own solar cell, the CO2 from the power plant needs to be reduced by emission control to achieve an overall reduction in CO2 to the atmosphere. I wonder if this will ever happen.

      1. Susan the Other

        The only advantage for EVs environmentally would be that although it is still a fossil fuel derivative, its emissions (at the power plant) could be captured and either reprocessed or sequestered. Also EVs are lighter cars and so require less heavy manufacturing. One solution no one ever mentions is logistical. Delivery trucks could deliver everything a neighborhood needed/ordered and leave it at a neighborhood depot. In the walk-to spirit of the old corner store. And everyone could walk or bike to pick up their orders.

        1. polecat

          Oh right .. I’m gonna lug that 200lb+ Ikea shelf (could be any large, unweldy item or items) package on my back !! 2-4 blocks from the ‘depot’ to my house ?? Even using a bike would be problematic .. even with the use of an E-bike .. on anything other than level terrain .. and that is assuming your purchases aren’t ‘lifted’ before you arrive to claim them !
          All this talk of walking or biking to achieve X doesn’t take into consideration the multitude of circumstances .. due to health or logistics, just to name a few .. among various individuals that preclude such easy and flippant response !
          If people were to resort to using draft animals, then perhaps that would work, but not without adding in other ‘externalities’ into the mix.

          1. Susan the Other

            I’m not that flippant. I sincerely like the idea of the corner store. For that bookshelf, I concede there needs to be some extra help. Not insurmountable, imo.

        2. Joe Well

          We already get our packages delivered to a depot: the lobby of our tall apartment building. We also by necessity “potlach” heat in winter, sharing it through our interior walls. And most residents don’t own cars, so there’s that.

          Any attempt to make detached single family houses sustainable risks being lipstick on a pig. They are the extreme of consumer gluttony.

          1. Susan the Other

            There is a new business here and in California, don’t know where else, in deconstruction and recycling. They estimate the cost of the deconstruction, you pay them, then they take down the house carefully and part it out like a junk dealer – a recycling operation. The materials are sold to be used again; much cheaper than new materials. And you get a tax write off for the whole thing. Beats just letting a house sit there and rot because nobody’s living in it. You know, like the banks’ specialty for maintenance – none. If housing as we have known it is now a thing of the past, this is a good solution.

      2. steven

        Even when the power is generated using fossil fuels, electric vehicles usually, compared to gasoline vehicles, show significant reductions in overall well-wheel global carbon emissions due to the highly carbon-intensive production in mining, pumping, refining, transportation and the efficiencies obtained with gasoline. This means that even if part of the energy used to run an electric car comes from fossil fuels, electric cars will still contribute to reduce CO
        2 emissions, which is important since most countries’ electricity is generated, at least in part, by burning fossil fuels.[

        Environmental aspects of the electric car That said, Yves has posted several articles suggesting it is physically impossible to convert the world’s fleet of POVs to EVs. If we are going to continue to pack the planet with people, electrified mass transit is the obvious choice. My question is what role do EVs play during the transition?

      3. jrs

        Electric vehicles are actually more efficient in their use of energy and so it’s NOT just transferring energy use from one place to another.

        “EVs convert about 59%–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17%–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels”


        Don’t take this is an argument that electric vehicles don’t have any problems, and these aren’t total lifecycle calculations, but thinking the energy use is merely transferred just seems to be a misconception of how electric vehicles work.

        1. inode_buddha

          When you charge an EV, where are you getting that electricity from? I think that is what is being argued. If you are getting that energy from a coal plant, you aren’t saving anything, and plastic requires oil to manufacture. For that matter, what about all the heat energy used to smelt the copper, etc?

        2. Oh

          The overall eficiency of a fossil fueled power plant using steam turbines to extract energy is about 33% on the average. Even if EV’s convert 60% of the electrical energy to power at the wheels, 70% of the enegy is already lost at the power plant.

        3. Synoia

          EVs convert about 59%–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels.

          There are two electrical energy transfers, one to the battery, and one to the wheels, and one thermodynamic transfer from the Power Station fuel to the rotating machinery.

          Each is less than 50% efficient. For the three transfer the maximum efficiency is 12.5%.

          the Maximum Power Theorem applies to the to battery, and to wheels conversions. The 2nd law of thermodynamics governs the power-station efficiency.

          If you want to cut a contribution to global warming, walk, or bike.

          If hot take off clothes, if cold, keep dry, exercise, and put on clothes.

          1. inode_buddha

            EV’s are a complete non-starter for me, for various reasons, and frankly I think they are just the wrong solution. — transferring costs.

            BUT, I would like to see where you get your numbers from, having spent my life as an engineering tech. (millwright/machinist/fabricator/EE tech)

            A lot of the “greenies” around here who are pushing EV’s and mass transit, don’t seem to realize that there is a physical world out there, and people who don’t live in a city center. I usually have a couple hundred pounds of tools to carry around at any given moment, and groceries a couple times a month.

            If I had to live in a city, or walk a couple blocks to my job, I would hang myself. Simply because I strongly believe that urban living is completely unsustainable. It always will be, regardless of transportation, because they can’t grow enough food to support themselves on the land they are living on.

  4. inode_buddha

    I think maybe insecurity and jealousy/narcissism are at the heart of consumerism. Fix that, and consumerism goes away.

    I do believe there is enough for all of us in the USA at least, but TPTB will never allow redistribution a’la Lech Walesa and the Polish land reform.

    For myself, the rules are simple, I buy everything used, and if it doesn’t get used at least once a year I don’t have it.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      aye. status symbols mean nothing to me…which is a big source of the “weird” label i so proudly wear.
      I’m usually rather filthy…dirt and paint stains, holes from barbed wire—i counter that it means i work for a living, dammit…haven’t cut my hair in 15 years(except for the occasional knot(whip out a pair of wire cutters at a wedding, and remove a knot,lol…I’m almost legendary)…and don’t even want, let alone need, a new used truck every other year(again, at a wedding, I come through the dancing people with old milk jugs to get water for the steaming radiator…others are mortified, for some reason…because we’re all supposed to pretend that we ain’t po folks)
      I’m locally notorious for coming out of the landfill complex with more than i go in with,lol…and my shamelessness is actually contributing to open discussion about such things.
      i do not hide my contempt for all that pretentious posturing…especially if it’s people who should know better….down nose looks at my clutter, when i’ve been to their house,lol, and know!
      emulating the rich is a cancer on our civilisation….”they’re food, people!”.

      however, i think that globe encircling supply lines and built-to-be-replaced (foreign) manufacturing are the bigger, if easily related, problem.
      doesn’t fit easily on a bumpersticker, but the local veggie grower can’t compete head to head with slave labor far away….and shouldn’t be expected to…global markets are not akin to gravity or a thunderstorm: they are the products of human minds and human choices(just not often our choices…i don’t decide how much plastic is in whatever necessary product i buy)
      at the root of all this consumerism is media…including the web.
      since i took a copywriting class(as in ad copy) in college, i’ve been immunised against advertising…it just doesn’t effect me.
      but it sure does effect everyone else.

      (i also realise that i am anomalous and unreplicatable in a lot of this…i’ve always been a weirdo outcast, and so never developed the clique-behaviour of my peers…i don’t have anything to prove, because i learned early on not to care what the people around me thought…since they were, apparently, shallow and ignorant, overly concerned with what other mean and shallow people thought. this might be a possible upside to being bullied/excluded—given the right circumstances, it builds independence of mind and a hard, spiny carapace. (this in no way implies a fondness for bullying and exclusion.))

      1. Dan

        “I’m usually rather filthy…dirt and paint stains, holes from barbed wire”

        Actually Amfortas, you are right in fashion.

        Saw a pair of distressed bluejeans with fake paint spatters on them for sale in a boutique. ONLY $120–and, that was in a size for an infant!

        In an emergency, you might be able to sell your pants for at least $900!


      2. inode_buddha

        very similar here. I think the problem is simple greed as a form of addiction. The people at the top want more. Therefore, sell more. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Older I get the more and more of my stuff is built in USA prior to 1950. The only people who know the value of a buck is the ones thats had to work for it.

        I got rid of all the crap over the years — and thats another thing, ever notice how much plastic crap there is? The car costs the same but its all plastic now and you can’t fix it. Thats another way they rip you off with crapification. Thats why I pulled out of that rat race. I’m keeping my 30-yr old jeep on buckboard wagon springs.

      3. polecat

        I bought a couple of cabinets last year, at a local ‘reuse’ non-profit business, and proceeded to repair, repaint, and refinish for use in our kitchen. Both were cheap to buy – $10 & $20 quatloos each. Took them home, using the ol’ buckboard (otherwise known as a pickup ..GASP!!) powered by those precious gasoline energy-slaves we know and love .. to hate ! .. then tricked them out with some new design elements .. along with recycled paint, hardware, ect. Good as new for generations, if properly cared for !
        I do try to walk my talk whenever possible, but I have yet to figure out how to walk (or float) on water …. unlike Greta and her acolytes.

    2. norm de plume

      ‘I think maybe insecurity and jealousy/narcissism are at the heart of consumerism. Fix that, and consumerism goes away’

      Rene Girard would have said that consumerism is driven by mimetic desire, and that this ‘basic instinct’ cannot be eliminated, only recognised and controlled by a conscious effort to channel it usefully rather than destructively. To him this was achieved best thru Christianity. I am an athiest, but even if you don’t care for the destination, the journey of Girard’s thought offers a penetrating sideways glance into human motivation.

  5. Susan C

    When I think back to how life was lived in the 1950s to today, the first thing that comes to mind is how much we as a society have moved away from real household goods of good materials and quality to a more cheapish plastic throwaway lifestyle via furnishings, appliances, clothing and plastic bags and bottles everywhere. Every time I see a Wayfair commercial chills go through me for all the plastic garbage crap that is out there. Isn’t this the crux of the problem, always believing new stuff no matter the quality as long as it is cheap is the way to life live in America? Get it and then throw it away. This is where the reversal should happen, getting consumers to buy well made household goods and pay for it so they can keep it for years and years. Buy quality. Believe in quality. A real wood table or a real marble one. People have wanted to buy cheap garbagey stuff for too long already, items no one wants so they get thrown away. I visit estate sales in the past couple years and some of the furniture the oldsters among us lived with is exquisite, extremely well made. Now compare to what is out there now. Or clothing, another category. If you buy real fabric like wool or cotton or silk, your items will last forever. Beverages should be sold in glass bottles again. Stop living a disposable lifestyle, How to drill that into people who don’t know any better is the trick. But this will be a way for people to stop some of their nonsensical consumerism. Also an option is to buy used things. In New York many of us found furniture on the street other people threw out to be great for furnishings. Recycling on a larger scale.

    1. Phacops

      One issue I have with this is that some elements of structures have improved significantly. Case in point are windows. Energy efficient windows and glazing are a vast improvement over that available in the 50s. That said, obtaining efficiency with retrofitting older structures takes the input of a lot of energy and cost.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        re: windows now better than windows 60 years ago.
        when we moved back out here, we learned that wife’s familia intended to demolish the 1950’s era house we were living in in town(it being an insulationless POS that drunk uncle had let go to hell was a major factor in building our current house).
        so i spent that winter removing all the old windows(and as much of the wood clapboard siding and cedar interior one by’s as i could)…and storing them.
        single pane…and fragile as hell.
        just look at them wrong and they break(better once installed).
        i used those for the greenhouse attached to the house(passive heating!) …but the difference between those ancient aluminum framed things and the new “e-rated” windows in most of the house is astounding. on a cold day, place a hand on them and the difference is apparent. those old ones are sufficient for the greenhouse, though.

        (i also used a bunch of even more ancient windows in parts of the house, that my family had saved…some from the teens. the glass is more robust and thicker than the 50’s plate,and the wood framing insulates a bit better than the aluminum…but i still went to the trouble to put shutters on them(some shutters still in progress))

      2. anon y'mouse

        i read a study just recently that said that older windows, repaired properly, are not less efficient than modern windows. they passed the variety of blower tests.

        now, as for e-coatings, triple panes and argon fillings i don’t know. but it did say that this was good news, because people can stop tossing out their historic windows in favor of the new just for energy savings. it goes without saying that if you live in a place of energy extremes, your windows shouldn’t be huge anyway. the r-value is, even in the most expensive window, only 1/3 that of the wall or less.

        the article i saw was in a trades’ journal, but here is a similar write-up.

        1. Oregoncharles

          Another option, much cheaper than new windows, are interior storm windows – essentially plastic film stretched over a frame, factory sized – require careful measurement. I recently ordered these for our rental, with old aluminum windows that were terrible; and for an old window in our house that we wanted to keep. Just a second while I look up the sources:

          More expensive, range of purposes: indowwindows.com/interior-storms
          Cheaper: http://www.WindowInserts.com/stormwindows

          Both are a bit fragile, easily scratched; but they work at least as well as exterior storms or new windows, and are easy to take out when you want to open the window. Plastic, of course, but they replace the considerable energy expense of new windows (glass making requires very high temperatures.) Handled with care, especially when cleaning, they should last a long time.

          Our tenants were appreciative, for about a fourth the cost of new. And they solve the problem of historic windows. Fairly inconspicuous.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Some solid points here about buying goods based on quality and stuff to last. Why eat off plastic plates when you can eat off plates made of porcelain? I still have plates given to me by a girl when she was moving house back in the late 1970s that I constantly use. You cannot say the same for a plastic plate. If we were forced to move back to a 1950s lifestyle but with high-tech bolt-ons I do not think that people would mind in the long run. Smaller homes versus McMansions? Yeah, I could buy into that.
      The second half of the equation is that manufactures will have to be forced to make goods that are built to last at a reasonable price and that are easily maintained & repaired. We have an antiques furniture store near hear and it can be highly interesting wandering around and looking at the common place items of past generations. The furniture is built well and is made of beautiful wood but that does suggest something. When you look at the crap furniture that is made these days, I seriously doubt that much of it will be found in antique stores by the next generation as it simply will not last.
      And that is the point. making things that last. As an example – light globes. They do not last that long and they dim but what would it be like if they were manufactured to last decades? There are currently light globes that were manufacture in the 1890s that are still burning today with Livermore’s Centennial Light Bulb being one example. Imagine if nearly everything was built to last for years if not a few decades. What is that? Corporations could not survive with that business model? You wonder then how they managed to make it work a century ago then.

      1. Susan the Other

        Planned obsolescence should have been our first clue. It had nothing to do with competition, or the latest fashion – those were just advertising ploys. Planned obsolescence was a necessity to keep capitalism going. Because, ironically, capitalism is a very good supplier. Until demand runs out. Then capitalism has no where to go. Except to dive deep into consumerism and denial. Which is one reason I keep hoping for an ingenious idea that puts capitalism to work repairing the environment. I don’t know why we can’t have reverse capitalism. It could be a great economic engine for centuries to come.

        1. marieann

          “Planned obsolescence should have been our first clue”

          Many of the people shopping today do not know that a kettle should last 20 years or blender should last 30. I have a 50 year old electric frypan for goodness sake and it still works fine.

          I know I clued in early and stopped buying from the stores, I look for old stuff at the thrift stores and if I can’t find it there I do without
          I don’t know if their are any companies around anymore who make quality .products…at any price

      2. Amfortas the hippie

        we still use by grandma’s art deco blender, from the 50’s(waring–replacement parts are still available for pretty cheap, too)
        heavy glass jar, steel housing. i replaced the cord(i have a pile of those,lol)
        ….and being a frequent landfill scavenger, it’s crazy what people throw away…even with the recent local wall to wall about permitting a new landfill. lumber to cinder blocks to actual bricks, boxes of natgeo and scifi mags going back to the 30’s…and of course, all the structural steel and slightly bent metal roofing and gutters galore.
        what’s depressing…like mentioned here, is the furniture and appliances…not even worth trying to repair or repurpose. particle board and staples for the former—melts in the rain…and the cheapest plastic and pseudometal for the latter—will never decompose.
        like with the plastic packaging(which i think is a plot to make us nuts…need tools to get into the damned things), a lot of the “choice” is somewhere upstream of us, but still.
        I’d never spend money on the “furniture” i see at the dump.

        1. polecat

          I’m looking to commission, or better yet make myself, a Bernays Vodo Doll .. complete with barbed pins, that I can shoot from a spring-loaded toy gun .. for those occasions when I need to give thoughts of pernicious consumerism a good jab !
          On that note, it’s about time I work to continue transforming a formerly funky chinese manufactured ‘mission-style’ accessory (acquired at the local Restore outlet) into a custom tea cabinet as a gift to my daughter .. another future polecat heirloom in the making .. to go with the soon-to-be-purchsed, and planted tea plants.
          Good day all

      3. a different chris

        Enjoy your rant so (of course) I have to nitpick one thing:

        >I still have plates given to me by a girl when she was moving house back in the late 1970s that I constantly use. You cannot say the same for a plastic plate.

        Actually, you can. Plastic wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if we had stuck to making things like plates out of it. If you don’t believe me, give me your china for a bit (no DON’T seriously!) and see how long it takes my family to break it. The plastic stuff can be dropped infinite times.

        1. The Rev Kev

          I used that example of the plates because last night I had to throw out a plastic plate as its surface was ‘bubbling’. By the same token, not all those china plates have lasted the past forty years but more so than if they had been plastic.

      4. MichaelSF


        Clifford Simak’s novel had Earth society disrupted by a few products that didn’t wear out, like light bulbs that didn’t burn out and razors that stayed sharp forever.

        When I left home in the mid 1970s my mother loaded me up with all the odds and ends of table implements/dishes to clear out her kitchen. My wife and I are still using those. When the set of Corelle my wife was given by her mother started to get low on pieces that had broken a quick trip to eBay stocked us up on “vintage” replacements for the set. Sure, we’ve bought some new things as needed, but the Wagner cast iron skillet I inherited from my grandmother is still in fine condition.

    3. anon y'mouse

      thank you for making this point.

      we could be satisfied with our material goods a bit more than we are, if those goods were made and designed properly.

      case in point: clothing. there is no actual way to make clothing that is not environmentally challenging. even back in the days when we did it for purely natural fibers, dyeworks and processing plants were noxious.

      but try to buy anything that isn’t some kind of odd blend of plastics and barely-there fiber now. try to buy something like a good linen shirt. for some of us, these things have been priced beyond our reach. and a good linen shirt would probably last 5 years or more.

      replicate that for every item of clothing you have (barring socks, underwear and shoes which have to be replaced more often). i don’t remember the last time i had something that i wore regularly which lasted 5 years, but believe it was sometime during the 90s. sometimes it doesn’t last beyond the first wash without snags and oddities appearing. and i am not that hard on anything, unlike a genuine “working man” who has a ton of muck that has to be washed out of the clothing every week.

      repeat for many household goods. in whose interests is it that we buy, and rebuy the same crap every single year?

      1. The Rev Kev

        We had a neighbour from the mill-towns of England that brought out a lot of material from where she worked. The stuff lasted for decades. Clothing was like that once and I have a copy of an 1805 will in which it mentions what would happen to the clothing as it was rugged enough that you could pass it along and so was worth mentioning in a will. I read too that in medieval time a air of shoes would be passed down a family and would last about a century. The manufacture of clothing that lasts a season is only a commercial decision which we are all paying for.

        1. Susan C

          I learned recently that my great great great grandfather came from Northhamptonshire England and left for America around 1810, perhaps to fight in the War of 1812. I learned that Northhamptonshire was/is the place to buy high quality leather shoes and boots and that Dr. Martens was there but there are still several shoemakers from this area. Had to respond when you mentioned England, the early 1800s and shoes.

      2. MichaelSF

        I’ve got a LOT of motorcycle club/event teeshirts that I’ve accumulated since the early 1970s. I’ve got some (without checking I think they are Fruit of the Loom) that have lasted for about 30 years of moderately frequent wear, they get thinner and thinner but haven’t developed any holes. The modern stuff worn with a similar frequency might be good for several years at most.

    4. Jeremy Grimm

      One big difference between the way life was lived in the 1950s and today is that in 1950 people could stay in one place and work at the same job and retire. Nowdays, at least in my line of work, it is difficult to find a job you can count on for more than a few years. People used to stay married and could remain in the same house for most or all of their life. I moved all over the country chasing work. I adopted a throwaway lifestyle for my furniture because if I couldn’t throw it away or take it apart somehow I couldn’t move it by myself. If I didn’t move myself — if I paid movers — it cost more to move most of my stuff than it cost to toss it — even ‘quality’ furnature — and replace it with more cheap junk I pick up from the curb or buy at Goodwill Stores, good enough to last until my next move. As for “buy quality” — I value the quality of well made furniture efficiently constructed using materials light in weight, comfortable, stable, and strong; furnature I can easily take apart and reassemble, and move myself. What I have isn’t exactly throwaway, nor is it the kind of quality you value.

      [Even friends have become throwaway in the same sense as my furniture. I write, and call, and sometimes drive long distances to visit but invariably my friends and I grow apart and they stop answering. The family I grew up with is scattered from coast-to-coast and much of it grown as remote as old friends. The family I started has broken up and it too has scattered in search of work and opportunity.]

      Returning to “buy quality” — where is that stuff sold? I can buy quality names at high price but the old slogan “quality goes in before the name goes on” is just empty words.

      1. anon y'mouse

        you wouldn’t have had to buy and replace or move furniture if we had high quality built-in, nearly fully furnished apartments.

        same goes for the much vaunted “smaller houses”. the reason, at least i believe, people started to go larger is because a smaller space has to be much more carefully designed and thought out in advance, and furnished with versatile pieces in order to suit the variety of living functions that the space will be used for. which is easier? getting a nearly-custom-designed home capable of being used for everything, or adding another/more room to the plan and putting in more furniture and appliances to suit the activity? most people have no means to afford architects or interior designers, so simply go with the extra rooms.

        this most readily shows up in the often-repeated fact that you can buy a smaller home, but finishing it to a decent level will cost you the same or more than a larger one. a lot can be hidden in big rooms and extra rooms. faulty design, for one.

      2. Janie

        Jeremy, your comment is very matter-of-fact and very touching, especially the next to last paragraph. That’s where so many of us are. Inode Buddha and Diphtherio stress community. It’s hard to find and hard to make.

      3. inode_buddha

        “Returning to “buy quality” — where is that stuff sold? I can buy quality names at high price but the old slogan “quality goes in before the name goes on” is just empty words.”

        Unfortunately, the Peoples Republik of NY does not allow trash picking from dumps, so I resort to Craiglist and eBay. Or simply thrift shops, family, and friends. Yard sales and estate sales are often gold mines. I *wish* we had boot sales in the USA.

        Clothing is all natural BTW: leather, cotton, wool.

      4. Susan C

        I hear you, having moved more than a few times across the country for jobs and opportunities, something employers used to pay for but no longer. I learned how to streamline my stuff which means I spend hours before a move to get rid of the nonsense. What does come to mind though is how much better the furniture and appliances were made back then compared to now, in other words the quality and workmanship is much higher. Used to buy from Ethan Allan where actual American people would sign the pieces they made. Sigh. There is something to be said about buying furniture from the actual person who makes the pieces. Natural materials and high quality. Just one example.
        As you indicated, lives are different now, without the security of family and life long friends and neighbors. And steady employment. As a way to defeat consumerism it may be worthwhile to really pay attention to what is being bought and to buy it with quality in mind so it will endure. Again I have noticed a lot of furniture and art pieces and decorations that are very high quality at estate sales where these types of items would never be made and sold anywhere now. Unique pieces, very well made. The way things used to be. We lost that sensitivity and now buy senselessly. Just to buy, just to fill a void. People don’t really need that many things.

      5. Oregoncharles

        Thrift stores and yard sales, primarily. The cheaper antique stores. Caveat: there’s a considerable “tax on time” involved. I think it’s fun, a treasure hunt – a chance to “go shopping” without spending much. Amazing what we’ve found; a few items were big returns on the time. But this is a difficult option if your time is tight, like, eg, Yves.

        But in general, buying used is one way to take advantage of “consumer culture” while not contributing to it. For us, it’s a survival skill.

  6. Joun

    I do not trust the current regime to manage this kind of change.

    We keep our jets, you eat your bugs (in a barren house) won’t do it for me.

    1. Summer

      And without trust, all grand plans are subject to being perceived as totalitarianism and fought against as such.

  7. Phacops

    I keep on thinking that economic incentives for refraining from having children would be nice in order to emphasize how destructive our population has become in creating anthropogenic global warming. However, it seems to me that it is hard to link social responsibility to positive economic benefits and far easier to impose financial burdens.

    Either way, though, population needs to be addresses or a “circular” economy will be impossible.

    1. marieann

      Just what I was going to say
      Consumerism goes hand in hand with the brainwashing that goes on.The reason we shop so much is because it feels bad when we don’t, I have actually had people ask me how I manage to not shop or not watch TV……I am now the “strange” old lady.

    2. Danny

      How about removing the ability of advertisers to deduct it from revenue?

      If I can’t write off my speculative gambling losses, why should a businesses be able to do so?

  8. Rod

    In my personal experience, I have seen how Poverty reframes and affects all personal consumption choices.
    Lots of compromises between what you would like to buy and what you can afford with the money you have.

    And of course there are strategies to offset that for the informed.

    Not an excuse and we all could do better driving our demand to a better outcome–but not to be ignored or underestimated–imo

  9. John Wright

    Light globes = bulbs, could last very long if they were run with the tungsten filaments at a lower voltage (cooler).

    The trade off is that running the filament cooler causes the light output to drop, so the electric bill is higher for the same light.

    The new LED lamps, assuming they have quality and well-rated electronic components should be able to last a long time and provide good light at a lower cost.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      LED light bulbs should last a very long time. I saved a few of the LED light bulbs after they failed and tore one apart. Inside there is tiny power supply board to convert the 120 V alternating current to a level to drive the LEDs on a puck connected to the power supply. I have a hunch that the LEDs are still working fine. I even wonder how many of the little power supplies are still working just fine after taking a look at the wire connection between the power supply and the base of the light bulb assembly. [I haven’t tested out my hunch yet — it’s one of many projects part-way along that clutter the folding tables that furnish my living room.]

      1. Danny

        “one of many projects part-way along that clutter the folding tables that furnish my living room.”

        Dude, your wife must love you.

  10. Synoia

    Ok, so we cannot manage our way out of the current “Consumerism” mess.

    Then we will get increasing failures leading to collapse, accompanies with at least 3 of the 4 horsemen.

    Famine, Pestilence and Death.

    1. rob

      The smart money is on catastrophe.
      good ideas fall upon deaf ears.
      And the choir who IS listening, is too small.
      The way it has always been.

  11. DHG

    Consumerism will be destroyed at the same time all nation/states are destroyed at Armageddon. Until then Satans system runs the way it is. Greed will not allow humans to get rid of it.

      1. TheCatSaid

        A book I read this year mentioned the way to tap into universal financial flow has to do with one’s understanding of one’s personal value, and each person’s road in this regard is different.

  12. nihil obstet

    The advertising industry created consumerism, as Edward Bernays showed how the advances in psychology could be used to control populations through the creation and management of desire. I loathe taking medicine, but, hey, I can watch people cavorting through magnificent landscapes with loving partners or children, and feel pulled towards whatever drug is promising to put me in that picture. I think any honest person will admit that a certain amount of advertising works on them to internalize consumer desire. We have to kill most of the advertising industry to move away from consumerism.

    A documentary series that I recommend to everyone: Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self.

  13. cnchal

    > . . . In other words, unnecessary material goods valued by Western shoppers put at risk the attainment of even more fundamental social and human rights for the majority of the world’s population.

    Where pray tell, are all those unnecessary material goods made? Mostly by poor exploited people in Asia and China in particular, am I right? Wasn’t stripping the jawbs from people here and sending them over there supposed to help the people over there, instead of cementing an all seeing tyrannical political party into permanent power? Human rights, my ass. Labor over there get’s shot for attempting to get what they deserve.

    Why are the people in those poor countries producing stuff for export instead of producing their own goods for their own needs? Wouldn’t those goods have a value of zero to Western shoppers? What is it about globalization and exploitation that the author of this post completely misses or ignores?

    Raw material is ripped out of the ground all over the world to be shipped to China and processed into those “valued” goods in the most polluting way possible and then shipped all over the world again to be distributed by Wally and Amazon to the Western shopper, the same ones that lost their jawbs making those “valued” goods locally a couple of decades ago. It’s all they can afford now, and have to go into debt to buy the crapola to boot.

    How long is this frigging supply chain anyhow? Amazon, all by itself is an ecological disaster, now with one day shipping to make supplying those “valued” goods even faster. Speed costs money and energy. How fast do you want to go?

    Then there is the latest in gratuitous gluttonous energy consumption, data centers, the ones that calculate with lightning speed exactly how much you are willing to pay for your “valued” goods that are made in China or Vietnam or any where else in the world, except locally. What kind of super computer is required to account for the millions of daily price changes and keep track of sales where everyone bought the same “valued” good, at a different price. The accounting must be hell cubed.

    Then there is your spy device in your pocket or purse, sending that precious data into some database you have no clue about that is massaged to deceive you, every couple of seconds now. It is power consumption for a net value of, you have no privacy.

    Because those data centers consume an ever increasing amount of energy, exponentially now, they get their power at a steep discount to what peasant customers pay, so this idiocy is directly subsidized by you and me. Never mind the direct subsidies corrupt politicians throw at “tech”.

    Don’t even get me started about the latest and greatest in cars. E-waste after five years and ready for the scrap heap.

    The fixation on water in plastic bottles misses the picture. When it is Coca Cola in those bottles it is presumably OK. Well I have news. That crap is a diabetes inducing low level poison being delivered in a plastic bottle, with all the implications of an impending personal health disaster to look forward to. Consume that crap and you will consume moar sick care.

    Wanna smash rice bowls? Smash Bezos’ Buffet’s and the Walton’s first.

    Or go on strike.

    1. inode_buddha

      “Wanna smash rice bowls? Smash Bezos’ Buffet’s and the Walton’s first.

      Or go on strike.”

      AMEN! Brother, can I get an AMEN! I’ve been doing exactly all these things for years, because of all the reasons you mention.

  14. Mattski

    I see the guaranteed income idea as a drive to guarantee the continued success of consumerism and the profits of corporations. Guaranteed JOBS, WITH guaranteed decent incomes, we can inflect in the direction of the change we need.

    1. notabanktoadie

      I see the guaranteed income idea as a drive to guarantee the continued success of consumerism and the profits of corporations. Mattski

      Perhaps so but can anyone argue against the proposition that all fiat creation should be for the general welfare and not for the private welfare of the banks and the rich?

      And against the proposition that all fiat creation beyond that created by deficit spending for the general welfare should be in the form of a Citizen’s Dividend?

  15. Anarcissie

    inode_buddha: ‘Unfortunately, the Peoples Republik of NY does not allow trash picking from dumps.’

    The fact that it is theoretically illegal adds to the joy and utility of doing it. I say ‘theoretically’ because I know some professional scavenger/scrounger types, and they do not report being interfered with by the authorities. They also do quite well. If you’re too delicate to dumpster-dive, outfits like Food Not Bombs, besides food, often give away free clothing, utensils, tools, books, toys, materials and so on from scrounging expeditions. The only thing I have against this project is that it’s ultimately dependent on waste. Right now, of course, there is no shortage of waste, but after the Collapse things might get a bit tighter. The Collapse will also take care of a good deal of the consumerism; it will probably again become fashionable to be frugal, efficient, and ‘simple’. Of course the elites will have a special, high-class version of this style for which you will need a glossy magazine and sententious, sanctimonious postcards, both available at Whole Foods.

    1. inode_buddha

      I don’t mean trash picking, I’ve done plenty of that. What I mean is the large, municipal and privately owned dumps and recycling yards — they have tall fences, guards, cameras, and dogs. They also have the cops on speed dial.

  16. Bert Schlitz

    My Uncle’s crude name for this is “booze and screw” society. It has been building that way since the late 1890’s. People just live for recreation and dopamine release. Heck, divorce rates begin their rise around 1900(though the initial reasons may have not been a bad thing.)

  17. Henry

    I think there are a lot of variables influencing consumerism, many already mentioned. From the consumers perspective there is trying to fill the void from lack of connection which is aggravated by our poor diet and environment: for example (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201908/gut-bacteria-can-influence-your-mood-thoughts-and-brain) & (https://www.washington.edu/news/2017/11/02/how-air-pollution-clouds-mental-health/) & (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicabaron/2019/02/19/bringing-attention-to-indoor-air-pollution)

    Then there is our mating rituals which for men tend involve power and to show the ability to provide (often in the form of wealth) such as big trucks, fancy cars, big ostentatious house and women ability to reproduce involving cosmetics and clothes. This also involves social ranking, who has the largest yacht etc. An oversimplification, but I think you can get the idea.

    Then there is the dopamine response from thinking about experiencing something new, which includes a new car, new phone, unfortunately that ends once we obtain the object or experience and its off to something else new.

    On the supply side since our economy is based on essentially what is a series of Ponzi schemes (Fractional reserve banking, debt with interest as our money, financialization of industries (must grow to maintain stock price and obtain new investments, network effect, monopoly advantage/efficiency of scale), increasing government promises (spending) along with the need for increased taxes to cover it all), thus the need for growth is integral to the way we interact resulting in the need to produce more stuff whether it is able to be consumed or not.

    To address the problem I believe requires rewriting the story we tell ourselves about who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. In particular transitioning from the story of individuals competing using our brains and tech to conquer the world (represented by the person who dies with the most stuff wins, often justified using an incorrect interpretation of Darwin’s survival of the fittest)
    to something more along the lines of we are all intimately connected to everything else on earth, and maybe beyond, working together to improve our lives and chances of survival. (Better represented by ideas like potlatch or the teaching of spiritual leaders such as Jesus or Buddah.)

    As a response to replacing windows or insulating walls, infrared laser thermometers are now ridiculously cheap and so it is pretty easy to test where you would best put your effort and if it is working.

    In response to electric cars. We’ve just about reached the tipping point were the next generation of electric cars will last on the order of a million miles (https://electrek.co/2019/04/23/tesla-battery-million-miles-elon-musk/). With all sorts of different chemistries being tested for example (https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/130380-future-batteries-coming-soon-charge-in-seconds-last-months-and-power-over-the-aira) there will be all sorts of potential trade offs, from charging in 8 minutes to going 1000 miles on a single charge. Eventually using cheap and readily available materials such as aluminum for their chemistry or even organics. Most automakers now see the end of the ICE in autos at least as a stand alone power supply. Though it will put most auto mechanics out of business.
    As far as coal as a source of generating electricity that is rapidly becoming economically obsolete also according to a study by RMI (https://www.virgin.com/virgin-unite/how-soon-can-we-expect-global-energy-transition-take-full-effect).
    The same is becoming true for oil when you full cycle analysis of the net energy gain and how much profit that remaining energy must make in order to sustain the whole chain from finding, drilling, transporting, refining, transporting again it is getting to be more than our society can afford at leas the way it is currently designed. (For example; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUSpsT6Oqrg)
    Of course as has been said before the greatest efficiency improvement is made by designing our society such that we rarely have to use a car, we can easily walk our bike, or for those unable to do either a small electric vehicle instead of hauling a few thousand extra pounds around with us everywhere we go. And using public transport of longer hauls.
    For now you can just about double the efficiency of your commute by adding another person and triple it by adding yet another and so on. I was always amazed here in the U.S. we have yet to adopt the private bus for long trips and passenger van taxis for shorter commutes here in the U.S. as I loved using them in Ecuador. Their private buses were amazing, well kept and run efficiently, though a bit scary for while they gave older women and children lots of time board and exit, as an able bodied man I was usually only allotted a few seconds so had to quickly learn to have my act together before the bus stopped. The van taxis were often packed full so not always comfortable, but still very cheap and efficient. I thought when Uber first came out that they would adopt this model since with routing tech like UPS uses you could the optimize the route to maximize the number of passengers to time and gas so drivers could actually make a profit. It might be hard to do on the fly, but certainly doable with a 24hr lead time. I don’t live in a city so maybe this is happening.

  18. drumlin woodchuckles

    When I was young, “consumerism” meant the “consumer rights movement” invented and led by famous people like Ralph Nader. To refer to steady and heavy consumption of energy and materials as “consumerism” causes some confusion to older people like me.

    Perhaps we could wait for me and all the other “mees” to die off and take our linguistico-definitional confusion with us. Or mayyy . . . be . . . we could invent a better and more precisely targeted word for what we mean here. A word like “consumptionism” or some other word for the use and use-up of matter and energy which the word “consumerism” is being used to apply to here.

    Or we could respell “consumer” and so forth in a way to convey the loathing and contempt for what we are discussing here. Perhaps spellings like “kunsoomur” and “kunsummshun” and so forth.
    ” Be a conserver, not a kunsoomur”.

  19. Mitch

    ‘Now, economic transformation is widely viewed as a prerequisite for halting ecological breakdown’

    I still haven’t seen any reason to think that it will be anything other than ecological breakdown (and attendant economic collapse) as the prerequisite for economic transformation.

    There is money to be made selling stuff to people that don’t need it! You think you can just tell us to stop??

  20. tongorad

    Considering how much income is being vacuumed up by mortgage companies, landlords, insurance companies, car payments and other scams, there’s precious little left for “unnecessary material goods valued by Western shoppers.” We (people who work for a living) are often scolded about how we need to radically cut back – well, we already are. And how.

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