A Consumer Economy?

Richard Heinberg is a very important scholar and an apparently lovely human being. His books are always penetrating, and both his contribution to and his review of Michael Moore’s corporate-green-censored movie, Planet of the Humans, demonstrate his continuing efforts to speak crucially unheard truths.

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So, here at TCT, we have to ask: Mr. Heinberg, what’s up with this?:

We have built our national and global economic systems on the expectation of always using more. A successful energy transition will necessarily entail moving away from a growth-based consumer economy to an entirely different way of organizing investment, production, consumption, and employment.

A “consumer economy”? Really? Your analysis is that “consumers,” the aggregated acquirers and users of goods and services, are in charge of “our” economy?

This, of course, is a hypothesis, not an indisputable fact. Its natural and obvious rival is the assertion that we actually live in a “capitalist economy,” i.e., a productive-and-distributional order in which money-investors, not product-users, tend to dominate the course of events.

It remains fascinating (and disheartening) to see even courageous and insightful figures like Richard Heinberg continue to opt for the “consumer economy” framing of reality.

Anybody who does this does, ipso facto, two rather remarkable things:

  1. They radically de-emphasize capitalists and capitalism as causal factors. Indeed, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that “consumer culture/economy/society” theorists more or less adopt the quasi-official capitalist view of reality. Capitalists, after all, have always claimed that, notwithstanding both their own command of strategic assets and their multi-trillion-dollar-a-year marketing endeavors, they are mere servants of pre-existing, independently-arising “consumer demand.” Talking about a “consumer culture/economy/society” all but concedes this extremely self-serving and debatable claim.
  2. They ignore the long, if not very well-known, body of thought on the various ways in which “our” capitalist economy does not, in fact, embody and serve the basic interests of product users. Names like Thorstein Veblen (whose most-read [only-read?] work is his first and by far worst one), Vance Packard, Baran and Sweezy, Marvin Harris, and Giles Slade? In the “consumer culture/economy/society” frame, such seminal iconoclastic thinkers are all flushed away, as is the crucial question of how their works might be extended and refined.

My own guess is that, by choosing “consumer” over “capitalist,” well-meaning and important thinkers like Richard Heinberg somehow imagine they are making their ideas more palatable to a wider audience, on the thesis that talking about capitalism is just too radical.

But reality is reality, no matter how fearful of describing it we’ve all been trained to be. And we aren’t likely to sweet-talk our way around human history’s richest and most deniable power structure. Either we start talking about the Emperor and His Old/New Clothes, or we don’t.

“Consumer economy” is a way of doing the latter.

“Our Crisis of Consumerism”

The New York Times will sometimes let writers come pretty close to realism, but only to a certain depth. When it comes to talking about causes, the paper’s standards of coherence and apt evidence disappear. The job, after all, is to make nonsense out of what might otherwise make deep and dangerous sense.

To wit, consider the wildly irrational op-ed by Bianca Vivion Brooks on “the cycle of waste and consumerism” in today’s paper-of-record.

According to Ms. Brooks, the world is in deep trouble from booming material waste because of defects in “our collective desire for goods and services.” And these defects, Ms. Brooks asserts, arise from us ourselves:

[T]he accumulation of things is still at the essence of what it means to be American. Ownership of property and the gospel of prosperity are so deeply tied to our ideas of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that few seem willing to renounce the materialism that lies at the core of our national identity.

That, of course, is at least highly debatable.

Brooks certainly provides no reference(s) to support the claim, nor does the NYT require such things, apparently.

Meanwhile, Brooks, who says she’s still in her twenties, seems unacqainted with any careful, classic criticisms of capitalism, so perhaps we can excuse her sloppy speculation. But, as her piece shows, this “consumer culture” stuff is damned toxic to realistic thought.

Brooks concludes that it is high time for us to “reassess our relationship to things.” The problem, of course, is our relationship to one another.

At this late date, in our corporate media ecology, it remains all but forbidden to describe these pertinent relationships.

Evidence That “Consumerism” Is Not Our Problem

Richard Eckersley is a very skilled and important researcher into the details of how our world actually works.

Among the topics Eckersley investigates is the question of what the mass of people actually like, want, prefer, and worry about, and whether (or not) and how (or how not) our dominant institutions care about and encasulate those actual desires.

Here is what Eckersley reports about the increasing advocacy of well-being indexes as a replacement for, or accompaniment to, GDP statistics. Such nice ideas, Eckersley suggests, do not go far enough:

Public perceptions of the future have been another dimension of my research. And I am not aware of any progress indicators that reflect the depth of people’s concern (which existed well before climate change gave it a tangible focus).

Richard Eckersley

Ordinary people, in other words, are far more worried about the future and desirous of macro-alternatives than any “happiness indicator” scales show. If, of course, one bothers to actually look.

That, alas, remains something very few thinkers, including the purported mavens of green consciousness, do.

Instead, among such would-be leaders, the phantasm of “consumerism” continues to trample this whole field of reality into a plane of hopeless hallucinatory mush.

TCT will say it again: “Consumer” analysis is barking up the wrong tree. The masses are already way more complex and thoughtful and open to hearing the news than their would-be saviors bother to know.

It is beyond high time for the arrival of an empirical perspective on off-the-job life in the modern world.


If you were trying to explain slavery, how much emphasis would you put on “slavism” or “slavishness” as one of its causes? Not much, right?

Why, then, does virtually every person trying to explain the market-totalitarian corporate capitalist promotion of unsustainable material waste in the spheres of product design and product usage attribute that reality to “consumerism”?

It is pathetic, and carries the whiff of liberal practicality, too.

Deep or Shallow?

The Post Carbon Institute fancies itself a bearer of the last word on eco-social thought and organizing. Under its banner, it charges money for online courses that promise to “[d]eepen your understanding of the interactions between human and Earth systems” and to thereby teach you what it is that is to be done.

Alas, here is how the course frames the human core of the problem we face:

Society’s goals and mindsets could be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves.

Consumerism is a modern version of our biological drives for status-seeking and novelty-seeking, and makes use of how our brain chemistry develops addictions.

Stories? Stories we tell ourselves? Because of our biological drives?

In reality, “consumerism” is probably not a thing at all, certainly not a well-defined or seriously documented thing, and is also definitely not reducible to individual addiction.

Meanwhile, where are the institutions in all this? “Stories we tell ourselves?” Really?