The excellent blog Climate and Capitalism recently reprinted a 1989 essay from the late Murray Bookchin.
I’m sorry I missed this piece back in 1989. Seeing it would have saved me a fair amount of mental labor in trying to come up with a careful yet powerful way to penetrate the veil of “consumer” talk that prevails to this day not just in mainstream commercial communications, but also in purportedly social-scientific and radical analyses.
In any event, if you change the word “market” to “capitalist” and change “advertising” to “marketing” (and realize that that the latter is not just a matter of spin doctors in post-production agencies but of thoroughgoing corporate management), then Bookchin, contrary to flubby, obscurantist, privatizing flatulence like the Worldwatch Institute’s latest “State of the World,” hits this nail squarely on the head:
In this hidden world of cause-and-effect, the environmental movement and the public stand at a crossroads. Is growth a product of “consumerism” — the most socially acceptable and socially neutral explanation that we usually encounter in discussions of environmental deterioration? Or does growth occur because of the nature of production for a market economy? To a certain extent, we can say: both. But the overall reality of a market economy is that consumer demand for a new product rarely occurs spontaneously, nor is its consumption guided purely by personal considerations.
Today, demand is created not by consumers but by producers — specifically, by enterprises called advertising agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public taste. American washing and drying machines, for example, are all but constructed to be used communally-and they are communally used in many apartment buildings. Their privatization in homes, where they stand idle most of the time[*], is a result of advertising ingenuity.
To take growth out of its proper social context is to distort and privatize the problem. It is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological dangers because they consume too much or proliferate too readily.
This privatization of the environmental crisis, like New Age cults that focus on personal problems rather than on social dislocations, has reduced many environmental movements to utter ineffectiveness and threatens to diminish their credibility with the public. If “simple living” and militant recycling are the main solutions to the environmental casts, the crisis will certainly continue and intensify.
Ironically, many ordinary people and their families cannot afford to live “simply.” It is a demanding enterprise when one considers the costliness of “simple” hand-crafted artifacts and the exorbitant price of organic and “recycled” goods. Moreover, what the “production end” of the environmental crisis cannot sell to the “consumption end,” it will certainly sell to the military. General Electric enjoys considerable eminence not only for its refrigerators but also for its Gatling guns. This shadowy side of the environmental problem — military production — can only be ignored by attaining an ecological airheadedness so vacuous as to defy description.
Public concern for the environment cannot be addressed by placing the blame on growth without spelling out the causes of growth. Nor can an explanation be exhausted by citing “consumerism” while ignoring the sinister role played by rival producers in shaping public taste and guiding public purchasing power.
The social roots of our environmental problems cannot remain hidden without trivializing the crisis itself and thwarting its resolution.
* Getting people to buy products that remain mostly unused has been a key to perpetuating corporate capitalism. In the case of the automobile, UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup reports that, in the United States, one of the system’s two anchor commodities, the private automobile, is, on average, sitting parked and unused 95 percent of the time.