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'Mad Men', energy and the culture of want

The name of the popular American television series "Mad Men" comes from the nickname given to those who worked in New York City's advertising agencies in the 1950s. The nickname came from the advertising profession itself whose members felt that one had to be a little mad to work on Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising business.

But, there is nothing particularly mad about the role of advertising in society, and it should really be looked upon as the logical conclusion of the long process of rationalizing modern economic life--a type of economic life which arose simultaneously with the widespread use of fossil fuels.

Through burning fossil fuels we are unlocking extremely dense forms of accumulated ancient sunlight. It may not seem like we have an almost completely "solar-powered" society today; but, we do if you count the ancient solar power stored in oil, natural gas and coal. These fuels come from microscopic sea life and plants which were pressurized, heated, and then transformed underground or under the seabed over tens of millions of years very long ago during what is now referred to as the Carboniferous Period. We are quickly drawing down the Earth's stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels at a rate that is thought to be anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million times their rate of natural formation. For this reason fossil fuels are on any human time scale finite.

Returning to the mad men of advertising, we find that they are only the culmination of a process which evolved to deal with something rarely seen in human history--persistent and rapidly growing surpluses of basic resources such as food, fiber and minerals and the manufactured goods they make possible. These surpluses were in turn made possible by persistent and growing surpluses of energy, energy derived primarily from fossil fuels. After all, nothing gets done without energy, and growing energy supplies allow more and more to get done.

Historically, the process of handling these surpluses began with the rationalization of production, the organization of working men and women into large coordinated work groups in vast industrial complexes. A steel mill is a good example. This form of organization was a radical change from the decentralized craft shops which had dominated handicraft production for centuries.

The new form of production came from the necessity of matching human intelligence with new energy-hungry machines that performed repetitive tasks without the need for rest. The resulting production was prolific and allowed mass production of identical items for households and businesses--items that were increasingly affordable to an ever larger number of people. This was the rationalization of production.

Next followed the rationalization of distribution. Mass production in central locations necessitated an elaborate new system of distribution which the railroad made available. Only by the middle of the 20th century did the newly-built interstate highway system in America and other similar systems elsewhere enable truck freight to eclipse rail freight for long-distance transport. Such systems would not have been possible without cheap supplies of fossil fuels.

The rationalization of distribution also took the form of department store chains that standardized offerings from city to city. In addition, there were catalog sales, most aptly illustrated by the introduction of the Sears catalog, an innovation that allowed rural residents to purchase and have delivered to their homes many of the same kinds of merchandise which America's city dwellers could buy at department stores. The Internet has simply put the catalog online.

Finally, the persistent surpluses of the fossil fuel age necessitated the rationalization of consumption. So much could be produced by the industrial infrastructure and delivered by the modern rationalized distribution network that customers needed to be prompted to buy not just necessities, but also what were formerly considered luxuries. Beyond this, many new gadgets were becoming available as well. How could all this be sold?

Enter the rationalization of consumption. In its simplest terms, it meant getting people to buy things which they didn't need or, at least, which they didn't yet know they needed. An entire profession emerged to engender want--engender it in a society in which fewer and fewer people were experiencing anything which could be characterized as genuine want. The solution was to invent wants and communicate them through the mass media to the consuming public in an effort to stimulate consumption. Most of these wants were linked to various forms of status seeking. The excess production made available through the rationalization of production and distribution could now be sold to an increasingly insatiable consuming public.

The traditional farm economy lives on a yearly solar energy budget. The wants of inhabitants of such an economy are bounded by that budget in the form of the crops its produces, the wood it makes available, and animals it feeds. But the industrial economy knows no such bounds. Its inhabitants do not think in terms of limits but of limitlessness. The modern industrial economy trades on dreams of ever more.

Long ago Aristotle noted a similar difference in attitudes about commerce between farmers and merchants. Today that difference has been obliterated as farmers have been brought into the industrial economy through something which, not surprisingly, we call industrial farming. In a way we have all become merchants, selling our skills and what we produce to someone else rather than consuming what we make.

The puzzling thing about this process is that the resulting plenty does not seem to have increased human happiness commensurate with the increase in consumption. In fact, major measures of human well-being level off at about 100 gigajoules of energy consumption per person per year. For context, each American consumes about 330 gigajoules per year.

It turns out that human happiness is more elusive than merely meeting basic wants and then meeting them over and over again at higher levels. How much food can one person eat without becoming sick? How many cars can one human drive? How many homes can one person actually live in? An individual can own a lot more than he or she could ever actually use and enjoy and may do so for status reasons. But, the rush of displaying of one's superior status only lasts so long and must be renewed by additional purchases as others obtain goods that confer status equal to one's own.

Which brings me back to "Mad Men" the television series. This is a story about people who have everything materially, and yet they are miserable. And, these very same people peddle a story of satisfaction through accumulation even as they themselves seem to achieve very little lasting satisfaction.

The television series is a tragedy not only about American life--which has advertising at its very core--but also a tragedy about capitalism, a system that has created so much wealth, while proportionately creating so little happiness to go with it.

The work of the "mad men" of advertising is utterly rational in its purpose: Get consumers to soak up the excess production that capitalism inevitably creates. But, the work of these men (and women) may be mad in the sense that it contributes in a highly visible way to a system that is neither ecologically sustainable in the long run nor delivers the human happiness it promises in the short run.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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