Excerpt from Chapter 16 “The Ecology of Consumption” of the newly published book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth from Monthly Review Press.
Environmentalists, especially in wealthy countries, have often approached the question of environmental sustainability by stressing population and technology, while deemphasizing the middle term in the well-known IPAT (environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) formula. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. Within capitalist society, there has always been a tendency to blame anything but the economic system itself for ecological overshoot. Yet if the developing ecological crisis has taught us anything, it is that even though population growth and inappropriate technologies have played important roles in accelerating environmental degradation, the ecological rift we are now facing has its principal source in the economy.
… Consequently, there has been a gradual shift in environmentalism from “demographic Malthusianism” (a strict focus on the number of people) to a kind of “economic Malthusianism” (a focus on the number of consumers). In this new economic Malthusianism the emphasis is not so much on population control, but on consumption control.3 We are led to believe that if consumers—meaning the mass of the population— can be restrained or their appetites rechanneled all will be well. As Worldwatch’s State of the World, 2010 report asserted: “Like a tsunami, consumerism has engulfed human cultures and Earth’s ecosystems. Left unaddressed we risk global disaster. But if we channel this wave . . . we not only prevent catastrophe but may usher in a new era of sustainability.”4 Ironically, the new economic Malthusianism comes closer in some ways than demographic Malthusianism did to the intent of Thomas Robert Malthus in his classic Essay on Population. Malthus’s argument was principally a class one, designed to rationalize why the poor must remain poor, and why the class relations in nineteenth-century Britain should remain as they were. His greatest fear was that due to excessive population growth combined with egalitarian notions “the middle classes of society would . . . be blended with the poor.” Indeed, as Malthus acknowledged in An Essay on Population, “The principal argument of this Essay only goes to prove the necessity of a class of proprietors, and a class of labourers.”5 The workers and the poor through their excessive consumption, abetted by sheer numbers, would eat away the house and home (and the sumptuous dinner tables) of the middle and upper classes. He made it clear that the real issue was who was to be allowed to join the banquet at the top of society:
… Today’s economic Malthusianism within environmental discourse is similar in the unitary class perspective that it offers. It is all about making mass consumption and hence the ordinary consumer (not the wealthy few) the culprit. It insists that the average consumer be encouraged to restrain his/her consumption or else that it be rechanneled toward beneficial ends: green shopping. It is thus the masses of spendthrift consumers in the rich countries and the teeming masses of emerging consumers in China and India that are the source of environmental peril.8
… Much of what constitutes the [Worldwatch Institute’s report] State of the World, 2010 is of course unobjectionable from a radical environmental standpoint. Yet the overall thrust is to suggest that the principal environmental problem today can be traced to the economy via consumers. Indeed, the environmental impact of society is viewed as beginning and ending with “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures”—the title of the main thematic essay of State of the World, 2010, by Erik Assadourian, project director for the report. Assadourian sees consumption, even more than population and technology, as the driver of today’s planetary environmental crisis.9
It is this notion of consumer culture as the beginning-and-end-all of the environmental problem that we will question in the analysis that follows. A genuine ecological critique of the role of consumption in contemporary society, we will suggest, necessitates the transcendence of capitalist commodity production—as the main precondition for the emergence of a new system emphasizing human and ecological needs.
… Today’s dominant economic Malthusianism takes advantage of the semantic confusion generated by two different definitions of consumption. In environmental terms, consumption means the using up of natural and physical resources. It is sometimes referred to in terms of the throughput of energy and materials from natural resource tap to environmental sink (the eventual depositing of the waste in air, land, and sea). It thus stands for all economic activity.
… In economics, in contrast, consumption is only one part of aggregate economic demand—that part accounted for by the purchases of consumers. In a given national economy (abstracting from exports/imports) total demand consists of consumption plus investment plus government spending. Government spending can be seen as consisting of public consumption and public investment. In its simplest terms, then, income equals consumption plus investment. From an economic standpoint, therefore, consumption is merely consumer demand, in contradistinction to investor demand.
Looked at from the other side of the national accounts, that is, output or production, consumption equals the output of the consumer goods sector (Department 2 in Marx’s reproduction schemes) as opposed to the output of the investment goods sector (Department 1). Consumer goods thus represent only one part of total output or production.11
… By ignoring the difference between these two very different notions of consumption, it is easy to insinuate that the problem of the consumption of environmental resources is to be laid at the door of consumers alone. Yet to neglect in this way the impact of investors on the environment is to exclude the motor force of the capitalist economy. Spending by investors is logically just as much a part of overall environmental throughput as is the spending of consumers. To lose sight of investment in the environmental equation is to deemphasize the role of production, profits, and capital accumulation.
The confusion that the misuse of these two different definitions of consumption generates in the environmental discourse is evident in the common fallacy that by not consuming but rather saving income one can somehow protect the environment.13 Yet in a properly functioning capitalist economy savings are redirected into investment or new capital formation designed to expand the scale of the entire economy. And it is such expansion that is the chief enemy of the environment.
Another error arising from the blending of these two different concepts of consumption is to be seen in the frequent conflation of total environmental waste in society with waste related to direct household consumption, that is, taking the form of municipal solid waste (garbage). All too often garbage is treated as a problem mainly associated with the direct consumption of consumers. But municipal solid waste in U.S. society is estimated to be only some 2.5 percent of the total waste generated by the society, which also includes: (1) industrial waste, (2) construction and demolition waste, and (3) special waste (waste from mining, fuel production, and metals processing). This other 97.5 percent of solid waste disposal, outside of households, is invisible to most individuals who, in their role as consumers, have no direct part in either its generation or disposal.14
… The implications of today’s economic Malthusianism are nowhere more apparent than in its truncated treatment of class issues. This can be seen in Assadourian’s comparison of consumption in India and the United States. He takes the richest 1 percent of the population in India and compares their carbon dioxide emissions to that of the per capita emissions of all Americans, which are five times higher. This per capita level of emissions/consumption is referred to as “the American way of life.”35 Yet this ignores the existence of sharp class differences in wealth, income, consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (and other rich economies), since per capita figures are simply a statistical average of widely divergent class levels, and thus wildly distorting. A similar approach was presented in Durning’s earlier Worldwatch study. He divided the entire world into three broad classes (based on per capita income in different countries): the consumer class, the middleincome class, and the poor. For Durning all of the individuals in the rich countries (or at least those above the poverty line) belong equally to the “consumer class,” which is eating up the world’s resources. Although he briefly notes that the top fifth of income earners in the United States have more income than the bottom four-fifths combined, this is thereafter ignored, since the focus is on a common membership in the “consumer class.”36
The reality is the higher the class/income level the bigger the ecological footprint. In 2008, Americans in the highest income quintile spent three to four times as much on both housing and clothing, and five times as much on transportation, as those in the poorest quintile.37
In Canada where consumption data is available in deciles, ecological footprint analysts have found that the top income decile has a transportation footprint nine times that of the bottom decile, and a consumer goods footprint four times that of the bottom decile. (All such statistics are invariably distorted by the underrepresentation of the wealthy in the statistical samples.)
Indeed, the class reality in the United States and the discrepancies in environmental impact that result are far more startling than official consumption figures suggest. A relatively small portion of the population (around 10 percent) owns 90 percent of the financial and real estate assets (and thereby the productive assets) of the country, and the rest of society essentially rents itself out to the owners. The wealthiest 400 individuals (the so-called Forbes 400) in the United States have a combined level of wealth roughly equal to that of the bottom half of the population, or 150 million people.38 The top 1 percent of U.S. households in 2000 had roughly the same share (20 percent) of U.S. national income as the bottom 60 percent of the population. Such facts led a group of Citigroup researchers and investment counselors to characterize the United States as a “plutonomy,” a society driven in all aspects by the rich. In this view, the “average consumer” is a meaningless entity, since consumption is increasingly dominated by the luxury consumption of the rich, who also determine production and investment decisions.39
… What people are taught to value and consume in today’s acquisitive society are not use values, reflecting genuine needs that have limits, but symbolic values, which are by nature unlimited. Marketing has completely taken over production. Salesmanship, as Thorstein Veblen pointed out nearly a century ago, has so penetrated into the production process that most of the costs of production, associated with designing and producing a commodity, are concealed sales costs, aimed at marketing the product.
… The entire system of marketing, in which trillions of dollars are spent persuading individuals to buy commodities for which they have no need, and no initial desire, would have to be dismantled if the object were to generate a genuine ecology of consumption. Today’s gargantuan marketing system (which now includes detailed data on every U.S. household) is the most developed system of propaganda ever seen, a product of the growth in the twentieth century of monopoly capitalism. It is not a system for expanding choice but for controlling it in the interest of promoting ever-greater levels of sales at higher profits.
… A vision of sustainable development means focusing on human relationships, sensuous experience, and qualitative development. A genuine ecology of consumption—the creation of a new system of sustainable needs-generation and satisfaction—is only possible as part of a new ecology of production, which requires for its emergence the tearing asunder of the capitalist system, and its replacement with a new human whole. The goal would be a society that is mindful of natural limits in which production and consumption would be focused on collective needs and human development. Moreover, this could only be achieved in a context of community, that is, in a relation of reciprocity—and thus in metabolic relation with nature as a whole.55
… Juliet Schor has employed the concept of “plenitude” in describing a sustainable ecological future. Plenitude is meant to stand for the wealth and diversity of relationships, divorced from our usual way of looking at development in terms of GDP growth and the increase in financial assets. It recognizes that the social goal should be to gain greater distance from the current treadmill of accumulation. For Schor a social economy geared to plenitude is one that focuses on: (1) “diversify[ing] out of the market,” (2) “self-provision,” (3) “true materialism,” and (4) “investments in one another and our communities.” More specifically, her analysis emphasizes individuals voluntarily diversifying out of the corporate economy by concentrating on their “time wealth” rather than monetary wealth; choosing to self-provision (even homesteading) in basic areas such as food, housing, and clothing; focusing on true materialism by seeking useful, durable goods, and avoiding waste; and seeking voluntary, sustainable investments in one another and our communities.62
A socialist concept of ecological plenitude would embrace many of these same notions of a rich, diverse, and more qualitative existence, focusing on social needs satisfaction and human development, and at the same time abandoning the largely voluntaristic perspective, which is a hindrance to their achievement. Instead it would promote a genuine, mass-based structural transformation in the workings of modern society in the interest of human communities. Here it is not a question of individuals seeking simply to withdraw from the capitalist economy, but rather one of creating a new ecological hegemony within civil society aimed at transforming the entire structure of production and consumption in the context of capitalism’s accelerating structural crisis. In this context, it makes sense to discuss not just “diversifying out” of the dominant economy (a strategy aimed mainly at the middle class in Schor’s analysis, which fails to challenge the dominant relations of production and economic system and lends itself to co-optation) but the creation of new core of non-alienated productive relations within society as a whole. A modern, sustainable, steady-state economy is only possible through the transformation of the social formation itself with the rise of a new hegemonic ecology. …
Excerpt from Chapter 16 “The Ecology of Consumption” of the newly published book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth from Monthly Review Press.
“This book is desperately needed, because it ends any illusion that we can solve our pressing environmental crises within the same system that created them. With tweaking the system—using incremental market-based strategies—off the table, we can put our efforts into genuine, lasting solutions.”
author and host, The Story of Stuff
“Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift’ in the circulation of soil nutrients between countryside and town is generalized by Foster, Clark, and York to an insightful Marxist analysis of the current ecological rift between modern capitalism and the ecosystem. It is a scholarly, well-referenced, and important contribution.”
Herman E. Daly
Professor Emeritus, School of Public Policy
University of Maryland
author, Beyond Growth
“This important book treats industrial capitalism as the globally destructive force that it is, and powerfully points the way toward, as the authors put it, ‘universal revolts against imperialism, the destruction of the planet, and the treadmill of accumulation.’ We need these revolts if we are to survive. This book is a crucial part of that struggle.”
author, Endgame and The Culture of Make Believe
“This timely new work promises to become a basic resource in understanding the incompatibility between capitalism and ecology, and also in arguing for the ecological dimensions of any future socialism.”
Professor, Duke University
author, Valences of the Dialectic
Humanity in the twenty-first century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the earth are headed for a fateful collision—if we don’t alter course.
In The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, environmental sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York offer a radical assessment of both the problem and the solution. They argue that the source of our ecological crisis lies in the paradox of wealth in capitalist society, which expands individual riches at the expense of public wealth, including the wealth of nature. In the process, a huge ecological rift is driven between human beings and nature, undermining the conditions of sustainable existence: a rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature that is irreparable within capitalist society, since integral to its very laws of motion.
Critically examining the sanguine arguments of mainstream economists and technologists, Foster, Clark, and York insist instead that fundamental changes in social relations must occur if the ecological (and social) problems presently facing us are to be transcended. Their analysis relies on the development of a deep dialectical naturalism concerned with issues of ecology and evolution and their interaction with the economy. Importantly, they offer reasons for revolutionary hope in moving beyond the regime of capital and toward a society of sustainable human development.
John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review. He is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and author of The Ecological Revolution, The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff), Critique of Intelligent Design (with Brett Clark and Richard York), Ecology Against Capitalism, Marx’s Ecology, and The Vulnerable Planet.
Brett Clark is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He is coauthor (with John Bellamy Foster and Richard York) of Critique of Intelligent Design.
Richard York is associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is co-editor of the journal Organization & Environment and coauthor (with John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark) of Critique of Intelligent Design.