Katherine Manchester MPA
The psychoanalytic term “cathexis” refers to a process of attachment where we come to think of material goods as extensions of ourselves. Today’s American consumer culture – where even national parks are commodities for those vacationers who can afford them – might be described in this way. Starting in the 1950s, when wartime efficiency in manufacturing turned from supplying military needs to supplying civilian wants, government policies have intervened to make sure that demand keeps up with supply. Financial incentives subsidize the cost of housing, cars, and household appliances, recasting consumption as patriotic and necessary for economic growth, while allowing industrialists to engineer built-in obsolescence into their products.
With increased consumption and disposability comes increased pollution: the average American is now responsible for 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, five times the emissions of the average person on the planet. The impact of American consumption habits on the world is two-fold: (1) affecting the global environment through disproportionately heavy resource use, of which most of the resulting pollutants are externalized; and (2) modeling an affluent lifestyle that we admit is unsustainable on a global scale, yet while refusing to alter our own behavior.
On one hand, the nature of American production systems makes it all too easy for decision makers to ignore many of their environmentally harmful impacts.* On the domestic level, having power plants physically removed from urban areas, combined with utility subsidies and electricity’s “clean” appearance at the point of consumption, propagate misconceptions about the abundance and low price of using fossil fuels. On the international level, increasingly globalized production chains disguise the real costs of manufacturing these products.
On the other hand, even when we are aware of industry’s impacts, we are more than willing to defray those costs to the developing world. In a leaked memo in 1991, the ever-quotable Larry Summers, then chief economist for the World Bank, mused over the “impeccable economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country.” Why, he questioned, should toxic chemical waste not be disposed of in “under-polluted” regions such as Africa? Couldn’t that serve as their comparative advantage in global trade? Attitudes of this sort within the leadership hamper the realization that the United States exists within a closed system of finite resources, and that significant changes are needed to maintain a comfortable standard of living in the long term.
Inspired by our terrible example, many in the developing world are striving to reach such a quality of life. Over one billion people from developing countries, 41% of them in China and India, have recently joined the ranks of established OECD consumers. These new consumers own virtually all of their respective countries’ cars and are adopting resource-intensive preferences such as a meat-heavy diet and increased use of electricity. These preferences have already had global impacts, such as the recent increase in the price of grain due to pressure on international markets.
Granted, a major difference between consumption in the 1950s and today is the contribution of technological innovation for increased production efficiency. But even as energy intensity has fallen, consumption in absolute terms has soared, with worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide growing at an average of 3% annually since 2000. Yes, technological efficiency must continue to play a vital role in cutting down the rate of dangerous emissions, but a simultaneous, absolute reduction in resource consumption seems unavoidable. Agriculture land already takes up 40% of the earth’s ice-free lands; urban areas, roads, and airports take up another 2% of land area; forest coverage has decreased by 50 million square kilometers and deserts have expanded by almost 10 million square kilometers.
To achieve lower consumption patterns, the United States will have to invest in expensive structural and institutional changes, including revamping public transport systems and providing economic incentives for retrofitting housing, offices, and factories. Greater investment is needed for research into renewable energies, and for helping farmers convert to environmentally responsible crops. These are politically unpopular proposals to be sure, but the wave of consumerism that began in the 1950s – created by government policies, corporations, and individuals - could be similarly reversed if these same actors put their minds to it.
*This is not so true for low-income and minority communities which, despite great progress made by advocates for environmental justice, are disproportionately burdened with the likes of garbage incinerators, landfills, and power plants.
1. “Furor on Memo at World Bank,” The New York Times, February 7, 1992.
2. Ramachandra Guha, “How much should a person consume?” in How Much Should a Person Consume? Berkley: University of California Press, 2006.
3. John Holdren, “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well Being,” Science 319:5862, January 2008.
4. Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, “New consumers: The influence of affluence on the environment,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100:8, 2003.
5. Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, New York: New Press, 2005.