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  • Part 4 of 5 (21/24)


    sysop - 01:31pm Jan 18, 1999 MST (#21 of 24)
    Rowland Network Communications
    A Seventh Test: A Successor to the Consumer Society

    One year ago, in my position as the CEO of one of the largest, fastest growing Silicon Valley Internet companies on Earth, I began to realize the extremely dangerous trends emerging in the world around me -- trends which indeed we all are unknowingly helping to perpetuate.

    I saw a Western economy blissfully ignorant of massive swings in the fortunes of nations. I saw us asleep as our primitive approach to medicine creates lethally resistant strains of microbes. I saw us painfully short-sighted in silently witnessing the flattening of vital preserves of ecology. I saw us unconscious of the frightful life to which we have condemned our brothers and sisters in inner cities.

    But most disturbingly, I saw that we in the United States have become the architects of the single greatest challenge to the survival of humanity: the consumer society.

    The consumer society has fueled the rise of a great and powerful nation, but it has done so by extracting fuel from the foundations upon which it rests within and around the world. Such fuel is quickly running dry.

    Once again, the extraordinary research of Eugene Linden in The Future in Plain Sight communicates the impending catastrophe best...

    "The genius of the consumer society is that it captures religious needs largely disenfranchised by modern Western life, and translates those spiritual longings into material appetites, the satisfaction of which through purchases further expands the consumer society's reach. In effect, the consumer society is a system that integrates both religion and economics into a culture in which material wealth is valued far more than spiritual wealth. Cultures can and do change, but the question is, Can the consumer society evolve into its successor without upheaval? I believe that it cannot.

    One of the perverse laws of the universe is that we least understand those phenomena that have the greatest bearing on our lives and future. So it is with consumer societies - along with population growth, one of the two great phenomena to emerge in this century. For all the scrutiny the consumer society has received over the decades, it is all too easy to focus on the materialistic aspects of consumer behavior, particularly the consumer society's surface manifestations of waste, greed, conspicuous display, and a host of other unattractive activities and values. This is what happened at the 1992 Earth Summit, which became a futile exercise in finger pointing as emerging nations argued that rich-nation consumption, not the exploding populations and rising aspirations of developing countries, were what had put the world in its current environmental pickle.

    The arguments are not trivial: the average American has roughly eighty times the impact on the global economy than the average person from India. Environmentalists fear that, as billions of peasants around the world adopt the consumer values of the West, the world's already overburdened ecosystems will collapse under the weight of expanding human numbers leveraged by ever-increasing material consumption. If China develops its vast coal reserves to meet its energy needs, that nation will soon be putting as much C02 into the atmosphere as the entire industrial world, nullifying whatever steps the rich nations take to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

    There is no question that rising consumption combined with rising human numbers poses a profound problem for the world, but upon examination, the spread of consumer behavior cannot be so neatly reduced to an indicator of increased consumption and waste. For one thing, as the world has seen in Eastern Europe in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the spread of consumer societies can have the effect of reducing waste and making a society more efficient. Communism in Russia and the Eastern bloc managed to produce all the ills of the consumer society, but almost none of the benefits. The Trabant, the people's car of now defunct East Germany, produced as much as thirty times the polluting emissions of the equivalent-sized cars sold in West Germany. In fact, by closing antiquated East German factories and converting other coal-fired plants to natural gas, Germany has been able to lower the nation's overall C02 emissions by 10 percent since 1990. The consumer society cannot be dismissed as wasteful.

    The consumer society is also something more than a society made up of people who want to buy consumer goods. Given the opportunity, nearly everybody on earth wants to buy goods that make life healthier, easier, and more convenient. Nowhere was this proposition more powerfully demonstrated than in New Guinea during World War II, where Stone Age indigenous peoples became so enamored of the bounty brought along by invading armies that many would build airstrips with the belief that such signs of devotion would prompt the gods to deliver more cargo. Noble as their efforts were, the Cargo Cultists failed to grasp one important aspect of consumer societies: true consumers not only buy goods, they also organize themselves to produce them. When Cargo Cults flourished, only a handful of industrial nations - the U.S., Canada, Australia, followed by Japan and most of Western Europe - had the necessary markets, political structures, and values to qualify as consumer societies. With the triumph of capitalism and democracy over communism, however, the entire world is busily trying to join the club.

    India is trying to free its markets and eliminate red tape so that it can hop on the global merry-go-round of buying and producing consumer goods. In such a religious and tradition-bound country, this process has been halting. The protesters who stoned Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in several cities did so in part because they felt that the Western enterprise would induce the poor to abandon their healthy and inexpensive vegetarian diet for fast food that would put a strain on peasant pocketbooks and health, and would place additional burdens on Indian food production, which even today must strain to feed nine hundred million mouths. At the same time, video vans that roll through rural villages urging the poor to buy Colgate toothpaste instead of using traditional cleaners such as charcoal and the bark of the neem tree have for the most part been greeted with enthusiasm. Are these transformations necessarily bad?

    Neo-Luddites, so-called deep ecologists, and a burgeoning crop of radical Christian thinkers led by Jesuit priest and writer Thomas Berry would emphatically argue yes. One attribute of a consumer society, goes this argument, is that it treats nature as raw material to be manipulated by technology for the short-term benefit of humanity, which believes itself to be separate from the rest of the natural order. With no appreciation of natural limits, the consumer society ultimately will destroy earth's life-support systems and itself in the process.

    Values, however, are a crucial component of the consumer society. Because consumer spending amounts to so much of the U.S. GDP, buyers can have an enormous effect on what gets produced. As the power of advertising makes clear, most of these purchases are profoundly influenced by the buyers' values and aspirations. Since the early 1970s, automobile buyers have shifted from purchasing ostentatious gas hogs to simple economy cars and then back to ostentatious, gas- hog sport-utility vehicles as the American self-image has interacted with notions of scarcity, confidence in the future, and considerations of comfort and safety in unpredictable ways.

    It is worth considering what would happen if people around the world suddenly awakened to threats to the biosphere and demanded that industries protect ecosystems and adopt clean technologies and sources of energies. What would happen if technological progress brought us abundant sources of clean, cheap energy? Could the consumer society become sustainable, to use the word that has become the mantra of the eco-conscious community?

    This future is unlikely. It is in the nature of businesses to optimize efficiency, and the consumer society is supremely adaptable to buyer tastes, but the consumer society is unsustainable. At its core, the consumer society functions more as a religion than as an economic system.

    A look deep into the workings of the consumer society reveals a startling paradox, involving the relationship between reason, the irrational, and religion in a consumer society. Antireligious in its nature, and ostensibly built upon reason and technology, the consumer society actually draws upon both religion and irrational forces. This paradox is what makes the consumer society Such a formidable presence in the late twentieth century, even if many of its converts find its fruits empty and unrewarding.

    One of the broad trends of Western history has been the gradual diminution of religion as an influence on behavior. In the so-called primitive religions, gods and the spirits of the ancestors encoded in ritual and taboo influence every aspect of life, ensuring that people follow the lessons of survival worked out over millennia by trial and error. The ancient Greeks exiled the gods to Olympus, allowing themselves a much freer hand to do business. Monotheism and then Christianity went the Greeks one better, pushing God off the planet altogether and up into the heavens. With the gods and God out of our hair, all of creation was at man's disposal. When the religious codes of the Roman Church still proved an impediment to business (prohibiting interest, for instance, which put Christian diamond merchants in medieval times at a competitive disadvantage to Jews in the Antwerp marketplace), the Reformation solved the problem by equating worldly success with godliness. Add the factors of progress and willingness to break with tradition and the elements were in place for the emergence of the consumer society, the most supremely adaptable culture the world has yet encountered.

    What vast purpose has been served by the inexorable diminution of religion as a force in daily life? Clearly one result has been to allow humans greater latitude to intervene in nature and otherwise take control of the way we conduct our affairs. As humanity has turned away from religion for guidance, it has turned to reason and science, attempting to impose rational management on aspects of life formerly determined by tradition, taboo, or some other expression of cultural authority.

    If reason has sapped the passion from modern religion, it has also channeled that power in surprising directions. One signal artifact of consumer societies is that more and more people define themselves either through purchases, through their role in producing goods, or through their role in persuading other people to make purchases. Each of these activities has become invested with aspects of devotional duty, completing the long slow trend toward sanctifying commerce that began with the dawn of monotheism. If the Reformation made it acceptable to strive for worldly success, the advent of the consumer society made holy the acquisition of worldly goods. The true heroes of the consumer society are not those who save but those who spend.

    Each consumer purchase - in the aggregate, $6.8 trillion yearly in the United States - helps expand the hegemony of the consumer society and, by extension, the hegemony of the rational management of human behavior and resources. This is what the consumer society is about; its accomplishment, if that is the appropriate term, is the increase in the power of reason as a force in life. The consumer society does this by capturing religious needs pertaining to such profound needs as the urge to understand one's place in the universe, and translating them into material appetites, the satisfaction of which further extends the hegemony of reason.

    Everybody knows that the promises of advertising are false and its logic is specious, but it still works, because advertising and marketing - the connective tissue between the productive side of the consumer society and the inchoate realm of needs and wants - tap into deep and powerful needs. A vast panoply of products are sold through the implicit promise that the purchase will connect the buyer to some desired community or attribute. Rather than actually test himself in combat or in the wild, the corporate bureaucrat can try to satisfy the inner warrior through the purchase of a Humvee or a luxury hunting package tour in Alaska. Even the intangible satisfactions of religion itself are up for sale. Faith becomes an image of faith, in the form of a crucifix worn as an accessory.

    And, of course, redemption can be purchased through philanthropy as well. In this transaction, a tycoon can in one gesture erase the sins of a lifetime of marauding and self-interest by making gifts in his declining years, and then find himself celebrated for his goodness far more than humble souls who limited their material ambitions and tried to honor their God in their actions on a day-to-day basis. The consumer society is thus built on a substrate far more complex than a simple desire for convenience and material wealth.

    But there is more. The true genius of the consumer society is in its relationship to discontent. As volumes of monographs, books, and articles on the alienation of modern life and the emptiness of materialism have told us, it is impossible to satisfy religious needs through material purchases. The attempt to do so only leads to discontent that manifests itself on the individual level through various forms of anomie, and on the societal level through recurring outlaw movements - protest movements, the counterculture of the late 1960s, New Age mysticism, etc. These periodic explosions of discontent are intrinsic to the consumer society, a product of the basic engine that makes the whole system go in the first place. Rather than suppress these inevitable eruptions, it harnesses them as new forms of consumer interest. Outlaw energy that would bring down the system becomes domesticated into purchasing decisions that help expand the system.

    This is the paradox alluded to earlier: the consumer society taps as a source of energy the discontent it helps create. This is what makes the system so supremely resilient and adaptable. Unfortunately, a system that transforms all attempts to change it into consumer interest loses the ability to recognize danger and adapt. If every public expression of fear, anger, or outrage is assimilated as a market opportunity, the system cannot change.

    Such a system is both stable and unstable. It is unstable because it produces turmoil and indeed requires it to function, but it is stable because, like the Greek demigod Proteus, it continually changes form without altering its basic substance. What does it mean for the world as the consumer society conquers new cultural frontiers and brings ever more people and ever-larger pieces of the world under its control?

    The consumer society is a pyramid sales scheme on a global scale. It is about growth and the exploitation of new markets. Its hallmark is its extreme adaptability. Over the decades, the managers and marketing geniuses who tend the consumer society have optimized corporate abilities to identify, target, and exploit eruptions of consumer interest wherever it surfaces. The result is the Orwellian situation in which one division of a corporation can respond to consumer concern about inner-city violence in its publications, while another division promotes recording artists who celebrate murder and call for killing cops.

    Like George Soros, conservative thinker William Bennett believes that the best way to restore some balance is to bring nonconsumer values back into the system. Soros is more concerned with emerging economies around the globe, whereas Bennett worries about the decline of the moral sense at home in America. Both firmly believe that it is possible to have commerce and values, and they are right, although some of the recent precedents, such as the awkward marriage of religion and markets in Iran, would hardly gladden the heart of a capitalist.

    Difficult as is the fit between Islamic fundamentalism and a market economy, it is much more difficult to imagine the merging of a consumer society and the values necessary to make peace with the biosphere. Try to imagine the consumer economy without growth. Even the President's Council on Sustainable Development cannot do that. In their wisdom, they define sustainable development as "Sustained economic growth." Try to imagine the impact on today's economy if consumers no longer defined themselves through material possessions, and instead returned to religion, nature, and other traditional nonmaterial sources of satisfaction.

    Since the system depends on spending and perpetual growth, it is difficult to imagine that the consumer society can ever become sustainable, perpetual growth being impossible on a finite planet. The consumer society can embrace an ethos that seeks efficiency, but any value change that fostered the simple life and a search for nonmaterial satisfactions would ultimately bring it down.

    The market system that underlies the consumer society is amoral. It is also blind, since there is no way of knowing what humanity will need in the future to survive. For decades, the market regarded the Pacific yew tree as nothing more than a nuisance. Rather than sell the yews felled during timber operations, companies would burn them. Then researchers discovered that the bark contained a compound called taxol that helps treat various types of cancer. Unfortunately, the market's recognition of the value of Pacific yews has not yet led to a resurgence of the tree. Now the scarce remaining trees are in danger from timber pirates lured by the high prices the tree's bark commands.

    There is no way the market can know what humans might need in the future, or what ecosystems might need right now. Economic activities convert natural systems into capital in almost complete ignorance of the real costs and benefits. Though nature is readily converted into capital, the reverse is not so easy to accomplish, even when the value of the natural resource finally becomes recognized.

    Around the world today, from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to other expressions of radical religious discontent, there are stirrings of a reaction to the consumer society and a search for something beyond material satisfactions. Do these stirrings represent a true threat to the consumer society, or are they just another manifestation of the discontents that the consumer society produces and then domesticates?

    Humanity will make the transitions to stable population growth, to an economic system that neither beggars the earth nor marginalizes the great bulk of humanity, and to a value system that recognizes the limits of materialism, but these transitions will not come about smoothly. One thing we can know about the future is that it will be less stable for more people than it is today.

    Paleontologist Richard Potts of the American Museum of Natural History argues that, since humanity is adapted to instability, as a species we are well prepared to deal with instability in the future. He also notes that we have become creators of the circumstances that created us: that our pollutants affect the climate the way volcanoes did in earlier times, and that human-induced global warming may bring about rapid shifts that humans have lived through many times during our evolutionary history. In effect, humanity has become a stimulant to the endocrine system of the planet.

    That humanity has survived, however, leaves the impression that humanity sat out the cataclysms of fire and ice that periodically devastated the planet suffering no more than inconveniences. in fact, the history of the human ancestral line has been for hominids to appear, flourish for a couple of million years, and then yield the stage to a more adaptable descendant. Even during the more recent past, there have likely been repeated population crashes within the histories of Homo erectus and sapiens as climates careened from wet and moist to dry and vice versa.

    A temporary 40-percent reduction in human numbers, which might have been the norm during periods of extreme instability in prehistoric times, might seem like a small blip on a long, successful evolutionary journey when viewed from the distant future; but our children may take a different view if they live through a period during which 2.2 billion people succumb to various calamities and plagues. I am not suggesting that this is going to happen, but only that we should not take comfort from the fact that, more than any other species save the insects, humans, as Potts put it, "are adapted to that aspect of nature that is most volatile."

    Humanity finds itself at a remarkable conjunction. Presentday humans have been the beneficiary of a rare syzygy: fifty years of political stability on top of 150 years of good weather that falls into an eight-thousand-year period of relative climate stability. It could be argued that civilized man has never really known true instability, and that the industrial and information ages have flowered in a period of almost uncanny tranquillity. Humanity has taken advantage of our long respite from climate instability. We have invented technologies and social systems to insulate us from the vicissitudes of nature. We have bet the world that our fortress will protect us when climate and the environment again become temperamental. We never imagined that our very success would hasten the return of bad times.

    What can be done? It is very late in the game. I chose the clues described in the first part of this book precisely because they represent long-wavelength, difficult-to-reverse phenomena. if a doubling of carbon dioxide carries with it climate chaos, we are likely stuck with these consequences, if only because, given the momentum of the global economy, there is very little time left to halt the increase in C02. The lifetime of these molecules in the atmosphere is roughly one hundred years, which means that once C02 finds its way into the atmosphere it tends to stay there for a very long time. Similarly, the destruction of the world's ancient forests and the fragmentation of its ecosystems cannot be reversed easily, and humanity will have to deal with whatever upheavals accompany this global ecological imbalance.

    Despite this, there is no cause for despair. The global climate is such a complex system that some unanticipated reaction of its many components may mute the predicted impact of ever increasing greenhouse gases. Even now, some as yet unidentified mechanism seems to be taking a small amount Of C02 out of the atmosphere, so that the buildup of greenhouse gases is occurring at a slightly slower rate than was predicted based upon known levels of global emissions.

    Moreover, there is much that people and nations can do. We may not be able to head off some measure of instability, but humanity has the power to moderate the impact of the coming upheavals. Nothing will happen, however, unless people around the world recognize the dangers lurking just beyond the turn of the millennium.

    We have seen in this century how bad ideas, turbocharged by the integrated global market and the heft of six billion people, can transform the planet. Something so seemingly innocent as a health- conscious interest in sushi has virtually stripped the North Atlantic of bluefin tuna. Asian folk beliefs in the aphrodisiac properties of tiger parts and rhino horn have driven both great animals to the verge of extinction in the wild. Misunderstandings about natural systems embedded in classical economics have encouraged nations to destroy most of the world's original forests and wetlands and view the results as a positive contribution to gross domestic product. We have reached a point in history where we can no longer afford the luxury of bad ideas. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, the character of our ideas is now the destiny of the planet.

    If bad ideas can transform the globe, so can good ideas. Even before Congress acted, public outcry over tuna fishing methods that inadvertently drowned thousands of dolphins forced the world's largest tuna canning companies to boycott fish caught by those methods. Even if Congress acts to end the boycott, it is likely that consumer pressure will continue to enforce the ban. Now a number of prestigious restaurants are employing a similar boycott to give some relief to beleaguered stocks of swordfish in the North Atlantic. More and more people seem to care about not only what they eat, but where it was raised and how it was caught. Consumers seem to be creating an ad hoc and ecological analog to kosher dietary restrictions.

    The extraordinary reversal in attitudes toward family size shows how attitudes can change rapidly in vastly different cultures at the same time. As indicators of environmental stress and climate chaos become more compelling, and as people wake up to the threat of an unstable world, it is possible that there will be a sudden shift in values.

    Even if the world enters a period of economic instability, the pain of straitened material circumstances might be muted if this rocky time strengthened family ties and renewed interest in things spiritual. To the degree that such an awakening translates into altered purchasing decisions and political action, the face of various societies might change very rapidly. Something as simple as renewed respect for the workings of natural systems, awareness that the weight of six billion people has made humanity the most consequential creature on the planet, would work wonders in tempering humanity's self-destructive tendencies.

    Throughout humanity's history, ecological lessons have been culturally encoded as taboos. Around the world, aboriginal peoples protected certain forests and creatures not so much because they had developed a sophisticated science of ecology, as because they felt that violations of taboos would produce empty harvests and barren wives. This fear of the consequences did more to protect natural systems than any biodiversity treaty, and today it is surfacing again in more modern form as more and more people around the world recognize that heedless tampering with earth's life-support systems is a very dangerous game. This represents a healthy reversal of the trend to view nature as an infinitely stocked refrigerator created solely for man's pleasure and needs.

    Over the millennia, humanity has proved to be an artful dodger of fate, a defier of limits, a surmounter of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a master escape artist from traps laid by nature. Only the very brave or foolhardy would assert flatly that our resourceful species has finally exhausted its bag of tricks.

    Still, it is very late in the game."

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