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Deep thought - May 10

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Interview with Mark Anielski: The Economics of Happiness

Hassan Masum, WorldChanging
We recently had a chance to talk with Mark Anielski, Albertan and author of The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth. Mark has been working for many years on better ways of measuring progress, and this conversation delves into the potential of moving beyond GNP. Whether in measuring a sense of community or valuing ecosystem goods and services, better measures of progress can align us on the targets that really matter.
(9 May 2008)

Return of the population timebomb

John Feeney, Guardian
It has become taboo over recent years, but population, not consumption, really is the key to managing our use of the world's resources
Only since 1800, in the last 0.01% of the history of Homo sapiens, has the human population shot into the billions. Now at nearly 6.7 billion, with 9 billion looming 40 years away, few environmentalists seem to care.

Yet the population-environment link is clear. Our environmental impact, as gauged by total resource consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size and the average person's consumption.

Today's crumbling environment, racked by climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, collapsing fisheries and more is evidence our total consumption has gone too far. We are destroying our life-support system. In ecological terms we are in "overshoot" of Earth's "carrying capacity" for humans, our demand exceeding the planet's absorptive and regenerative capacities.

To avert catastrophe, we need to reduce both factors in the equation: our numbers and per person consumption.

Or so it would seem. Ignoring that logic, most environmentalists today avoid half the equation. An emailer's assertion was typical: "John, if everyone on Earth just consumed less, as they do in Mexico, say, we wouldn't have exceeded carrying capacity."

It's a simple notion: reduce per person consumption and end our environmental problems. And it lets us sidestep the issue of population size and growth, a subject of much concern in the 1960s and 1970s but taboo today.

Why taboo? Much credit goes to pressure from social justice activists. They've insisted in recent decades that any focus on numbers inevitably violates the right of women to manage their own fertility.
(5 May 2008)
Also at People and Planet. The population issue is a powder keg unless it's dealt with properly. People in the rich industrial countries tend to have a deaf ear about how their population arguments sound in other countries. -BA

Consumerism: Curses and Causes

Rick Wolff, MR Zine (Monthly Review)
US consumerism -- citizens driven excessively to buy goods and services and accumulate consumable wealth -- is cursed almost everywhere. Many environmentalists blame it for global warming. Critics of the current economic disasters often point to home-buying gluttony as the cause. Many see consumerism behind the borrowing that makes the US the world's greatest debtor nation today. Moralists of otherwise diverse motivations agree on attacking consumerist materialism as against spiritual values. Educators blame it for distracting young people's interest from learning. Psychologists attribute mass loneliness and depression to unrealizable expectations of what commodities can deliver to consumers. Physicians decry the diseases, stress, and exhaustion linked to excessive work driven by desire for excessive consumption. Yet, for a long time, exhortations by all such folks have mostly failed to slow, let alone reverse, US consumerism.

The question is why? The answer is not advertising, since that begs the question of why that industry should have been so successful in the US and grown to such influence. Nor is it plausible to attribute some national personality flaw to our citizens.

A big part of the answer lies in the unique history of US capitalism. From 1820 to 1970, over every decade, average real wages rose enabling a rising standard of consumption. These 150 years rooted workers' beliefs that the USA was a "chosen" place where every generation would live better than its parents. This was "the good news" of US capitalism for the workers. The "bad news" was that the average worker's productivity -- the amount of output each worker produced for his/her employer to sell -- rose even faster. This was because workers were relentlessly driven by employers to work harder, faster, and with ever more (and more complicated) machinery. Thus, alongside rising workers' wages, faster rising productivity brought even bigger gains for employers.

... Consumerism's deep roots in the psyche of US workers explains their reactions when real wages stopped rising in the 1970s and since. They simply kept on buying more commodities. To pay for them, workers took on more hours of labor and borrowed vast sums. Worker exhaustion rose accordingly, likewise the number of family members sent out to work (straining "family values" to the breaking point). Anxiety intensified over frightening family debt levels. In this situation, the current scandal of sub-prime mortgages was a predictable disaster waiting to happen.

The 150 year deal has been broken.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
(30 April 2008)
Consumerism seems to perform a similar role throughout the world, not just in the USA. -BA

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