Consumption is by many accounts the key to economic prosperity and general well-being. In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, for Americans it became our patriotic duty as well, as ‘W’ exhorted us to carry on with shopping as usual even as smoke was still rising from the ruins of the twin towers. But according to political scientist Peter Dauvergne, it’s the biggest threat to our and the planet’s long-term survival. More troubling in the short term, Dauvergne asserts, is that the worst effects of consumption as currently practiced are visited upon those people and those areas of the world that can least afford to bear the costs. Improved regulation, market incentives and innovation can help make the situation better, but vested interests too often stand in the way. Even with the many gains that are being made in terms of sustainability, the overall upward trend of global consumption is such that the negative consequences far outweigh the positive.
Dauvergne tells his story using five key examples that illustrate the threats of runaway consumption and the opportunities for and impediments to reining it in. The first example is the private automobile, which Dauvergne calls ‘arguably, the most harmful consumer product ever for people’s health and the stability of the earth’s environment.’ The next is the gasoline that propels those infernal machines, and in particular the political struggle in the second half of the 20th Century to replace noxious leaded fuel with the supposedly less-noxious unleaded version. The third example looks at the refrigerants we use to keep our food and ourselves cooled between weekly trips to the grocery store even as they contribute to global warming. The fourth is the example of beef, which has been treated elsewhere in books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, though Dauvergne brings a global perspective to bear on the subject. Finally, there’s the cautionary tale of the Canadian harp seal that illustrates the need for an ongoing, comprehensive approach to dealing with the ills of global consumption.
The book is titled The Shadows of Consumption, but it might be better to think in terms of the shadows of capitalism. Contemporary consumption properly understood stands in the shadows of capitalist production. Modern industry’s ability to spew out mountains of stuff spawns the need for ways to move the merchandise, hence advertising, promotional tie-ins, packaging, branding, credit and other nefarious practices of the dark art called marketing. It’s the way of the supersized American, from the leased gas-guzzling SUV sitting in the driveway of the suburban tract house with the upside down mortgage to the plethora of items inside, along with the various networks—roads, television, junk mail, strip malls, drive-through windows, the Internet, etc., etc.,—for moving it all from point of production to point of sale to various points of personal storage and disposal. This process is spreading worldwide under the guise of modernization, the idea of enabling more and more people to enjoy the benefits of the Western lifestyle through the wonders of globalization.
But Dauvergne acknowledges that globalization isn’t just about making life better; it’s about making boatloads of money. And in order to fully analyze the shadows of consumption, one must look directly into the source of light. This entails a more open discussion of capitalism than Dauvergne provides. (There are only two entries in the book’s index for that all-important term.) Classical economics holds that money functions to efficiently settle the hypothetically natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’. (It’s easier to break a $20-dollar bill than make change for the pig you brought to market if all you want is a quart of strawberries.) But other analyses of capital in its modern form note that money basically exists to beget more money and that exchange is simply the mechanism by which to rake in the profit. There’s no better example than the subprime mortgage precursor to our current economic meltdown—the need to find an ever-increasing supply of loans for bundling into securitized financial paper led to a no-holds-barred effort to flush out borrowers from every nook and cranny and get them to the closing table by any means necessary, creating the opportunity for various parties—bankers, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, etc.—to walk off with wads of cash while leaving some dupe to hold the bag.
Among the dupes are all of us who will likely now absorb the costs of the credit bubble’s ‘externalities’ (the theoretically unaccounted-for consequences, such as the social costs of home foreclosures, of ‘rational’ economic activity). Other externalities of global capital are the toxic waste, airborne particulates, species extinction, debt servitude, and diminished well-being that Dauvergne investigates in his book. More and more, these externalities are being outsourced to the developing world and onto populations who have less power to resist. There are still places that use leaded gasoline. Tobacco companies ship their products overseas as markets in the developed world become more restrictive. Production economies are realized by manufacturing in regions with lax environmental controls. Recording the details of these externalities, analyzing their origins and speculating on challenges and remedies is where Dauvergne really shines.
One of the major obstacles to reducing consumption is that we have long defined the good life by material abundance. From the beginning, modern capitalism promised to spread that abundance far and wide. And it has largely delivered. According to several studies, we are past the threshold of need—the planet produces enough total food calories to easily feed everyone alive. It’s the distribution system that’s become the problem. In the developing world we’re well on the way to the hovering lounge chair existence of the fatsos in WALL-E while others in less-fortunate regions are still starving.
Responding to these inequities are so-called ethical consumers, people mostly in the developed world who factor moral and political considerations into purchasing decisions. While better than nothing, this activity is swamped by the overall increases in global consumption. According to Anti-Slavery International, for example, fair trade cocoa accounts for less than 2 percent of total worldwide sales. The statistics for other categories of ethical consumption aren’t much better. And it’s to Dauvergne’s credit that he comes right out and says that without more international regulation and cooperation, the cause is probably lost. Even more to his credit are the case studies he provides, such as the recent African phasedown of leaded gasoline, that show how concerted effort by nation-states, nongovernmental organizations and even corporations can dramatically improve environmental conditions in relatively short order.
There are still massive barriers to change. The case of leaded gasoline demonstrates the ability of money power to actively oppose change and silence critics even though many in the industry knew pretty much from the start that their product was dangerous. The man who discovered the lead additive, Thomas Midgley, had to take a one-month Florida rest cure in 1923 to recover from lead poisoning shortly after the product was introduced to the market. Five workers died in a New Jersey lab just a year later. For years, scientific reports on lead-based air pollution were routinely suppressed and the responsible researchers ostracized. There are many examples of corporations influencing scientific research and using intellectual property law to hide the negative effects of their products under the veil of trade secrets. The global system as it currently evolving is being rigged in favor of corporate (read: capitalist) interests, though there are pockets of resistance, from the grassroots global justice movement to regional alliances such as Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), which place environmental concerns high on their agendas.
The Shadows of Consumption is chock full of statistics, names, dates, and examples, making it a highly useful reference tool if a sometimes less-than gripping read for the average person. There is one grimly amusing anecdote. Besides discovering leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley in 1928 brought us chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), marketed under the trade name Freon. It seemed like a good idea at the time and when Midgley died in 1944 at age 55 he was hailed as a genius for having developed it. It would be decades before it was recognized that this newer invention helped put a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer the size of North America. The cause of Midgely’s death: he was strangled by a contraption he’d devised to lift himself out of bed after being partially paralyzed by polio. Let’s hope we can figure out this environmental-crisis thing before we find ourselves in a similar situation.