Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why Does Waste Equal Wealth?

Andrew Sullivan wrote something the other day that lodged itself in the back of my mind:

It occurs to me that the global warming debate is not unlike the WMD-terrorist debate, except the sides are reversed. Accrding to Ron Suskind, Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine" means that if there's a one percent chance that a terrorist could have access to a WMD, we must act as if it were a certainty - because the outcome, however unlikely, would be too disastrous to risk. On global warming, Gore expresses a not-too-dissimilar equation: if there's a small chance that human behavior could lead to environmental catastrophe, we should act as if it were a certainty - because waiting too long is too big a risk to take.
Like George Will and other "true" conservatives (gotta love the current cleavage of the GOP, no?), Andrew appears to advocate the position that there's no need for any unprudent response to global warming (the joke comes to mind of the man who drowns in a flood because he told all the rescuers that came along to help him that he'd put his faith in God, only to have God ask him up in heaven why he had turned away the rescuers He had sent). By "unprudent," of course, they mean any regulations or measures that might slow down the neckbreak gluttonous accumulation of wealth that rampant consummerism has spawned. The underlying assumption being that a healthy economy will resolve any potential catastrophe better than, well, common sense is how it seems to me, but...anything that might impact the gathering of wealth.

But Andrew's comparison of Gore's mission to Cheney's gnawed away at some deeply held, but not quite conscious, concept in my worldview. At first I thought it was the obvious moral problem with war (i.e., that what Cheney advocates leads directly to the brutal murdering and mutilation of innocents, whereas what Gore advocates may [only may, mind you] curb economic growth, but if implemented carefully won't equal, what it is, 30-50 horrendous deaths a day now?), but the more I thought about it I realized that it's more a position on the moral issues surrounding consumerism.

I grew up rather poor in a large family. I recall in the early 80's being truly appalled to hear that some people considered shopping a "hobby." Shopping in our family was hard work (coupons and buying in bulk, etc.). It wasn't the notion that folks had disposable income that offended me (I'm not anti-capitalism, and disposable income is how charites are funded and art is purchased); I could see rich people all around. Rather, it was the notion that some people would set out to spend that money just to spend it, capriciously. That concept is still obscene to me. It's wasteful.

But in many ways that concept fuels our current economy. In a nutshell, consumerist capitalism operates on the premise that waste equals wealth. This seems counterintuitive to me. Wealth is the accumulation of material possessions or resources. Spending money just to spend it should equal the opposite of wealth (how good a shopper would one have to be such that a majority of impulse purchases would appreciate?). It's like getting high. If your buzz is the economy, and your substance of choice is the consumption of materials for its own sake, it's moronic to think your buzz can grow and grow without you eventually crashing. It can't grow indefinitely without causing serious harm. You will hit a wall.

I've had debates about this with pro-unchecked-consumerists before. They hide behind a disingenuous taking of offense that I would suggest where to draw a line (despite my not actually having done that) and immediately jump to point out the obvious---that my business relies on disposable income (although I shudder to think it relies on impulse purchasing). They seem to imply that the truly important line will be obvious when we arrive at it and that until then unchecked consuming should be encouraged (the eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow your home might float off to the next county argument?).

To be fair, Andrew has suggested modest adjustments:
A prudent attempt to rein in carbon dioxide emissions seems a no-brainer to me. A dollar rise in the gas tax would be the most effective way to achieve this.
But then goes on to note that Americans are not likely to warm up to any idea that requires sacrifice. The obscene part of this being that many Americans feel curbing their unbridled buying of bigger and bigger and more and more actually equals sacrifice.

Now, clearly wealth is good. It provides security and a better standard of living. But buying unneeded throwable products just for the buzz it provides is an addiction that's out of control and culturally should be discouraged. A new model of wealth, with an emphasis on saving, is much more prudent and something one would assume "true" conservatives would advocate. With all the advantages we know would come from a lower dependence on foreign oil, for example, it is unconscionable that our leaders aren't preaching conservation.

Perhaps the powers that be and their defenders are misestimating due to the fog that their shopping buzz has created, more sure of their footing than they'd be were they sober. Perhaps they're deadly sober and actually grabbing up as much of what's left for themselves before the proverbial sh*t hits the fan and the rest of the nation wakes up from their own buzz. I don't know. I do know that conservation for its own sake is no sin and that exploiting our wildlife reserves (or other such responses to dwindling resources) with no joint emphasis on conservation first is the surest indication of an addiction out of control.


Blogger ondine-nyc said...

"it's moronic to think your buzz can grow and grow without you eventually crashing. It can't grow indefinitely without causing serious harm. You will hit a wall."

Which is why Cheney and Bushco are determined to create a permanent wealthy class, to insure that doesn't happen. On Friday the Republicans tacked on a rider to the minimum wage increase bill to do just that by cutting the Estate Tax that so few ever have to pay.

7/29/2006 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

They're narcissists, the world is not real for them. It will change to suit their whim. It is a very real psychological problem and probably at the root of all this.

I am sure you know people like that. It is an untreatable condition . . .

7/29/2006 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous R Houston said...

I read somewhere that Gillette (the founder of the razor company) was told that if he wanted to get rich he should invent something that people would use only once and then throw away. this was at the turn of the last century... our entire modern culture and econmy is based on throwing things away. With this premise in mind the wasteful rich become cultural heros as they are able to maximise the concept of disposibilty. This is continued right through to personal relationships, just look at celebrity marriages. Perhaps Edward as an artist this upsets you because art is often about permanance, I agree that waste is bad but we have all drunk the cool aid on this one. There is guy here in town who prides himself that he lives on only $2000 a year. He writes articles in the local paper about how wastefull the rest of are and how he can enjoy himself in the local park for free or take the bus instead of a car, but he doesn't seem to realize that these services exist for him due to all the waste and wastefull people around him. I am getting a little dark here and as a artist and a lover of beauty I would love nothing more than to see all this cahnge but I'm not holding my breath.

7/30/2006 12:42:00 AM  
Anonymous jec said...

I see the problem somewhat differently. Let's leave aside the issue of whether curbing carbon emissions would stifle the consumer's ability to consume (I'm convinced it won't). I think the problem Americans have is looking beyond today or next week. This is not a new condition--we're a very "head in the sand" kind of country. A Vietnamese friend of mine used to say that Americans have to be hit by a truck before they acknowledge that the truck exists. I tend to agree.

And our market-driven economy thrives on this mindset. You'll see business leaders often making decisions about their businesses based on making as much money as possible this quarter or next, neglecting the viability of the business plan into the next decade. American automobile manufacturers chose to make as much money as possible building monster SUV's and putting no money into developing high-gas-mileage and hybrid vehicles. Do you suppose no one there realized that there just might be oil issues somewhere down the line?

A long-term view of the global warming issue (and energy issues in general) would show that economic gains in the future might mean making some changes today. That doesn't necessarily mean sacrifice, but it does mean change. And it probably means that some businesses would have to invest now (is that sacrifice?) for future viability.

Unfortunately, we don't have strong enough leadership in government or the business community to take us where we need to go. We'll go there anyway, but too slowly and with potentially disastrous results.

7/30/2006 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Part of the problem is that so many people's incomes are funded by throw-away impulse purchases. Every "novelty" is produced by a company that hires dozens, or even hundreds or thousands, of workers. Franklin Mint supports an entire town. Overpriced designer handbags are a key part of the Italian economy. And so on.

If consumers stop wasteful spending, where do these workers go? You only need so many people to provide basic necessities. So while I agree with your sentiments, I'm not holding my breath for change.

7/30/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

the man who drowns in a flood because he told all the rescuers that came along to help him that he'd put his faith in God, only to have God ask him up in heaven why he had turned away the rescuers He had sent

According to my religious beliefs, people that stupid don't go to heaven. They go to the back of the class.

I agree with jec that part of the problem is our culture's inability to engage in longterm thinking. The furthest horizon is the next election or the next quarterly report. Seems like this is one area where artists can offer an alternate perspective, but of course they can also choose to just feed the status quo.

7/30/2006 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Anyone who's taken a basic accounting course should know that money now becomes essentially worthless after about seven years. So of course no business has any plans beyond that point.

Bucky Fuller had the idea of redefining "wealth." He said it should be defined as anything which improves life. The opposite of wealth, he said, would be illth, anything that harms life. I kind of like that idea. Balance is sort of automatically built into it.

I've been thinking lately about how a society based on consumption, like ours is, requires that everyone be dissatisfied all the time. As long as you're dissatisfied, you'll look to buy something to satisfy you. Advertising is all about keeping you dissatisfied.

I've tried to imagine what it would take to break myself out of that cycle of dissatisfaction. And, more importantly, to break my children out of it. They're really what makes me see the dissatisfaction machine in action, the way advertising creates perceived needs in them.

Being dissatisfied in this way makes you define wealth incorrectly. You start to think of wealth as an accumulation of things and experiences rather than as something which promotes life.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I must go spend some money.

7/30/2006 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Peter at Artists Unite said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I often ponder this topic. I think it's important to realize how much policy is made to benefit corporations, legal entities that exist without loyalty to nations or people. Most "conservative" policy is about maximizing corporations' ability to make profits. Look at the unlikely occurance of China gaining power to challenge Western policy in the past few years as corporations drool over its buying potential.
From this perspective, WMD and Global warming decisions make perfect sense. WMD was a ruse to create corporate profits for companies who profit from war (e.g., the VP's Halliburton) and to gain easier access to cheaper energy sources to allow the status quo among corpate giants; fighting global warming guards corporate profits by avoiding additional costs of environmental protection.
Wealth is the surest guarantee that you can survive in a world where corporations rule. So those who can maximize. From there, "frivolous" spending is a relative act. For me, spending $20 frivolously is possible but 2000 is not. A homeless person or a millionaire have different standards.
There's enough ideas here for a whole book, Edward!

7/30/2006 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger John M said...

There was a story along a similar line in the LA Times yesterday. It basically said that if you are being fiscally responsible (or god forbid, saving), rather that living beyond your means and accumulating debt, then you are at fault for hurting the economy.

Twisted indeed.

7/30/2006 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Nation Gone Bling

7/31/2006 08:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Not to sound (again) like the mouton noir replier of this blog but I do believe that economy must circulate to ensure wealth, and that it is when wealth is preserved that you are daring the risks of it being lost.

Economy is concerned by survival
of a nation (you need society first before gold takes any value)and the countries who are doing better in this are those where money circulate and don't stay in the same hands.

Instead of a dictator surrounded by wars you can actually get an evolving culture that has spare change to invest in arts.

Of course the problem is that economy have been way too much interested by the question "when" (when to sell, when to buy) than the questions "What", "Where" or "Who" ("How" I guess would involve politics).

Though sometimes I also wonder WHEN
electric cars are going to be sold over petrol cars, and if it is not too late. So the question WHEN in economy might as well be the only one that really mattered if only it took under consideration all sorts of ethics and contexts of survival.

Cedric Caspesyan

8/02/2006 02:12:00 AM  

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