Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Confronting Consumption

Just started what looks to be a challenging and important book, Confronting Consumption (2002), edited by Princen, Maniates and Conca.  Its key insight is the need to challenge the productivist model of the economy--the idea that, because goods are good, more are better.  Questioning the assumption that we can "produce" our way out of environmental degradation--by finding newer, cleaner technologies--the authors develop what they call the "consumption angle:

"When production creates problems such as pollution, the productive answer is to produce correctives such as scrubbers, filters and detoxifiers.  So goes the logic of production, productiveness, productivity, and products--construing all things economic as producing, as adding value, as, indeed, progress.  The consumption angle turns this around to self-consciously construe economic activity as consuming, as depleting value, as risking ecological overshoot, as stressing social capacity. (17)"
The aim here is to open up the "black box" of consumption and what economics brackets off as the "demand function," to pose the question--more pressing now than ever--whether the global North (more pointedly: the US) consumes too much.  Can we start to dismantle the consumer economy?

There are risks, of course: notably the potentially heavy hand of moral prescriptivism, the politics of asceticism and renunciation (think Scrooge).  These spring to mind, defensively, when the question of consumption is personalized too quickly, narrowed into the problem of individual responsibility: in fact, one of the key essays in the book, Michael Maniates' "Individualization: Plant a tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?" takes on precisely this impetus (the Lorax syndrome, he calls, after Dr. Seuss), the drive to simplify or "pastoralize" the question of consumption.  What's at issue is not personal decisions, but analytical biases with political consequences: the fetish of "growth."

Princen's other book, which I haven't started yet, is called The Logic of Sufficiency (2005), and it echoes Bill McKibben's Enough.  It's an effort to re-conceptualize economics around questions of satisfaction, rather than demand and desire. Can't wait. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello Rick -- Glad to see that you're diving into Confronting Consumption. Thank you for bringing the book to the attention of your readers. Best wishes, Michael Maniates (co-editor and contributor, Confronting Consumption).