The conserver society

[13 May 2008]

By Rob Horning

Yesterday in the New York Times, Paul Krugman opined that oil prices are high not because of speculation but dwindling supply: “A realistic view of what’s happened over the past few years suggests that we’re heading into an era of increasingly scarce, costly oil.” He’s not panicking about this, but seen in light of our looming problems with global warming, and reports of fertilizer shortages and the possibility we have maxed out our food production capacity, it makes one wonder if the developed world is ready to give some consideration to John Stuart Mill’s idea of the “stationary state,” an economy that dispenses with growth and works to achieves intensive rather than extensive gains for its populace.

It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would. extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population. I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity. that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

In his 1976 book The Limits to Satisfaction, environmental studies professor William Leiss updates that ideal and bills it as the “conserver society” that rejects the “doctrine of the insatiability of human material needs”—a postulate of neoclassical economics—and the idea that “nonhuman nature is ... nothing but a means for human satisfaction.” (This reminds me also of Michael Pollan’s argument from a few weeks ago that we should garden to lose out “cheap-energy mind” and dreams that someday “not having things might become cooler than having them”—I am not holding my breath for that.)

According to Leiss’s diagnosis, our wasteful society emerges from a process which has systematically confused people about the nature of their needs—not by implanting false needs (as it is so tempting to argue when we see what other people are buying, or we contemplate the goods in the average 99-cent store) but by making them ever divisible and ever more ambiguous. “Each aspect of a person’s needs tends to be broken down into progressively smaller component parts, and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to integrate the components into a coherent ensemble of needs and a coherent personality structure.” We lose our moorings as needs are refined by the persuasion industry, with the consequence that “personal identity becomes a supple mold reshaped daily by the message mix.” (Thus, I am a product of my RSS feeds.) Individualtion doesn’t guide us to our particualr preferences; rather, an awareness of our individuality is itself a product of our consumer practices. Leiss argues that “the integration of the components tends to become a property of the commodities themselves”—we become reliant on consumer goods to integrate our self-concept: “The fragmentation of needs requires on the individual’s part a steadily more intensive effort to hold together his identity and personal integrity. In concrete terms this amounts to spending more and more time in consumption activities.” 

Then the problems incipient in the “attention economy” come into play. It takes time to use the goods we are amassing, but time is limited. So we will be motivated to choose activities that allow us to use our goods over ones that don’t require things. We won’t want to walk in the park when we have a stack of DVDs to watch. Incidentally, This problem is exacerbated immeasurably by the ability to download massive amounts of media for “free.” Of course, it’s not free; we pay in time, which we seem ill-equippped to properly value in relation to consumption. That is economist Staffan Linder’s insight in The Harried Leisure Class, what Leiss calls a Gresham’s Law of consumption—“wants for ever greater numbers of commodities tend to depreciate all types of desires that are not dependent upon the consumption of things.” This erodes “craft knowledge” (in Leiss’s terminology) or what I think of as a kind of happiness biofeedback—we lose touch with how to use goods efficiently to satisfy ourselves and concentrate instead on simple maximization. Hence iTunes library with 10,000 songs, many unplayed. Nothing rings more true for me than this comment of Leiss’s: “The simple want for larger and larger numbers of things means that the individual must pay correspondingly less attention to the particular qualities of each want and ech thing itself. In other words, the individual must become increasingly indifferent to the fine shadings and nuances of both wants and the objects which he pursues in the search for satisfaction. (Explains a lot about pop culture, I think.) And this process of trying to achieve “increased goods intensity” (as Linder calls it) entices us to incorporate more and more gear into any activity, so that use of the gear preempts the activity itself—we go camping to make use of all our camping supplies, not because it’s fun to sleep in a tent.

Contemplating the situation we find ourselves in, Leiss sounds a lot like Al Gore before the fact: “There are some tolerance limits in the biosphere; the industrial production systems of the developed world are now testing those limits; we do not know what these limits are at present; it is unwise to continue along our present path until we reach or overshoot these limits, since by that time it may be impossible to mitigate the adverse effects or to do so only at the cost of catastrophic social disruptions.” He then suggests we might limit our economic development by extending legal rights to nonhuman life and considering the “needs of nonhuman nature,” to my mind a terrible way of putting the important concept of considering externalities and the mounting problem of environmental destruction. The phrase suggests I should care about environmentalism because the trees have feelings too, and despite what some believe about the secret life of plants, I remain skeptical. The reason it is imperative to reform our environmental practices—the only reason that can resonate universally—is the debt we owe to one another, to other humans who inevitably suffer from the damage we cause and to posterity. A tree can’t advocate for itself; only humans can do so on its behalf, and that’s when it becomes especially slippery, because who is to say that what the human advocate does is not simply on that specific human’s behalf, at the expense of other humans.

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