Production-Side Environmentalism: Can we produce less and consume more?

Introduction: In this important contribution to the ongoing debate over “individual” versus “social” solutions to global warming and ecological destruction, the editor of Synthesis/Regeneration directly and convincingly  challenges the mainstream  myth that the capitalist economy is based on “consumer sovereignty.

He poses a societal approach that is compatible with and expands on the ecosocialist perspective that Climate and Capitalism supports. We encourage readers to read it carefully and distribute it widely.

By Don Fitz

Corporate “environmentalism” is consumer-side environmentalism. “Make your dollars work for the Earth.” “Buy green!” “Purchase this green gewgaw instead of that ungreen gadget.” “Feel guilty about driving your car.”Consumer-side environmentalism is loath to discuss production. Consumer-side environmentalism does not challenge the manufacture of cars. Rather, it assumes that producing more and more cars is a sacred right never to be questioned.

Production-side environmentalism places blame on the criminal rather than the victim. It looks at the profits oil companies reap from urban sprawl rather than demeaning people who have no way to get to work other than driving a car. Production-side environmentalism looks at an agro-food industry which profits from transporting highly processed, over-packaged, nutrient-depleted junk thousands of miles rather than the parent giving in to a child bombarded with Saturday morning pop-tart-porn TV.

Production and consumption: A broken connection

Okay. Corporations are the root of environmental evil. What’s the point of differentiating between production and consumption? Aren’t they just two parts of the same process? Production goes up so consumption can go up — right? Since the United States is a “consumer society”, environmentalists typically assume that decreasing consumption would force a decrease in production and these two steps would merge into an integrated whole.

Through more than 99% of human history, this simple connection characterised economics. If people wanted more, they produced more, they had more, and they consumed more. During the last century, this connection has been increasingly broken. It has become possible to steadily increase the amount of production (about 2-3% annually) with little to no increase in meaningful consumption.

`Meaningful’ consumption

The word “meaningful” is key in understanding whether consumption goes up, goes down or stagnates. If a stove is manufactured to last 10 years instead of 50 years, a couple may purchase five stoves instead of one during a 50-year marriage. This is an increase in consumption in only the most frivolous, non-meaningful way. In the world of real people, as opposed to the fantasy world of economists, there has actually been a decrease in meaningful consumption. There were four times when the couple was without a stove.Since WWII, and especially since the 1960s, the United States has witnessed a massive overproduction of what is profitable and an obscene shrinking of what is needed. There has been a mushrooming growth of nuclear weapons and other war toys that nobody can eat, wear or live in. Being able to get from here to there has been replaced with traffic jams and commercials telling us how happy we are to consume individual automobiles. The construction industry has shot up as buildings last fewer years. Food epitomises simultaneous overproduction and underconsumption as Americans are increasingly obese and less nourished.

Clearly, production can go up while [meaningful] consumption goes down or stagnates. But, could the opposite be true?

Is it possible to decrease production while increasing consumption?

Yes. Society can reduce the total amount of time spent manufacturing objects at the same time individuals in that society have more to consume. While this was not true for our ancestors, it is the most important principle of environmental economics at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

This basic principle pervades all aspects of climate change, peak oil, toxins and species preservation. The reason why it is an economic rule now, but not previously, is simple. Some time after WWII there began to be sufficient production to meet the basics of food, clothing, shelter and medical care for every person on the planet. The only way the market has continued to expand during recent decades has been through the expansion of goods and services that do nothing to improve the quality of life, often worsen it, and always put profitability before human needs.

By reducing and fundamentally changing entire areas of production, it is possible to reduce the overall mass of stuff while having zero effect on meaningful consumption. Dramatically reducing production would profoundly reduce CO2 emissions, extend the use of available oil by centuries, and eliminate human expansion into species habitat. If people working at and living near manufacturing facilities were the ones making decisions about production, it would become possible to eliminate toxins that poison humans and other species.

Preaching to people that they “have to learn to do without” what a corporate society forces them to purchase will accomplish little more than antagonising them. In contrast, organising people to make corporations “learn to do without” the profits from destructive production is an essential for confronting ecological crises. Let’s look at a few economic sectors.

Militarism

The military is the only sector of the economy where emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) can be reduced by greater than 100%. This is because militarism is the only type of activity whose primary purpose is destruction.

When a road is bombed in Serbia, energy is used to rebuild it. Energy usage translates to the emission of GHG, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2). When a home is leveled in Afghanistan, reconstruction requires energy. Every hospital brought down and every person maimed in Iraq means CO2 emissions during the treatment of patients and construction of new treatment facilities.

Military production is unique. If it were halted, GHG emissions would be reduced by an amount equal to (a) GHG emitted from repairing what the military bombed, plus (b) GHG produced during its regular activities of building bases, using weapons and transporting troops and equipment.

Though the official figure for the US military budget is US$623 billion, the War Resistors League [1] calculates total military-related spending at $1118 billion by including NASA, Department of Energy nukes, vet benefits and interest on past military debts. Another $110 billion should be tacked on for extra spending on the war in Iraq.

The gross domestic product (GDP) is $13,246.6 billion. [2] Putting these together leads to an estimate that just under a tenth of the US economy is military-related spending: [$1188B + $110B] / $13,246.6B = 9.80%

This only accounts for military sales to the Pentagon. Since US arms manufacturers are major providers for regimes throughout the world, military spending actually accounts for considerably more than 10% of the GDP.

Militarism may contribute more than any other 10% of the economy to oil depletion, creation of toxins and habitat destruction. Yet, the one area of the economy where a greater than 100% reduction in greenhouse gases is possible is the area least likely to be discussed in connection with climate change.

Food

The most basic necessity is food. It illustrates what “decreasing production” of a commodity means. It does not mean decreasing the amount of the commodity produced. The “production of food” encompasses the labour and other inputs that go into what Americans eat, including:

  • huge agricultural equipment, its manufacture, and the oil to operate it;
  • chemical fertilisers and pesticides, research to create them, and everything to transport and store them;
  • genetically engineered seed, its research, and Monsanto’s legal team and seed police which perpetrate criminal trespass to steal plant samples;
  • the entire chain of food processing and packaging (up to 99% of the cost of some products);
  • transportation of 1400 miles from “farm to fork” for the average morsel of food;
  • manufacture of trucks, boats, planes, roads and docks to transport food; and,
  • growing eight to 10 times as much grain to produce a pound of beef protein as would be contained in the grain itself.

Adding everything together means that it could be possible to produce as much or more food than the United States currently consumes with less than 10% of the inputs that currently go into agro-industry. It would greatly increase the amount of “meaningful” food we eat.

Clothing

Until the last few decades consumer goods were designed to endure. Post-WWII corporations faced the dilemma that increasing the durability of products would mean that people would have what they needed with little reason to purchase more. By the 1960s planned obsolescence had slammed clothing, appliances and household items full force.

People of my generation and older can tell dozens of stories of things that “used to last” — shoes, dishes, coffee pots, desks, furniture, everything bought for the home or office. The most vile form of commoditisation is the disposable bag, bottle, cup, plate and camera, designed to be used a single time and then spend centuries contaminating groundwater or choking distant aquatic life.

Business is not immune to the ever-decreasing durability that plagues consumers. Computers and computer software suck capital from industry as they drain family budgets with their out-of-date-by-design formatting.

Take all the useless junk that people are persuaded that they need, add it to those useful goods with a premeditated plan to fall apart, and ask “How much manufacturing is truly needed for the consumer goods that make for a quality life?”. The answer has to be that production could decrease by at least 70% (maybe 90%) with zero decrease in the quality of life and the increase in mental health that would come from knowing that you probably don’t have to fix or buy something tomorrow.

Shelter

Current standards for urban planning anticipate that 2% of buildings in the US will be replaced every year. That means the average house is expected to last 50 years. Does that make a 50-year-old home an old building? Many European buildings went up 500 years ago. That proves, again beyond any doubt, that 500 years ago architects knew how to design buildings that would last for 500 years.

Unless lead poisoning has irretrievably damaged the brains of architects, they should be able to replicate that in the 21st century. Or maybe the problem isn’t individual architects, but a building sector pushing to have each generation of homes constructed to worse standards than the generation before.After I spoke about global warming at an area high school, the principal privately challenged my figure that US buildings are designed to last 50 years. “I went to a city council meeting last week”, he told me. “And they were approving construction of a new government building that the architect said would last 20 years.”

“And did the architect promise it would be covered with eco-gadgets?”, I wanted to know. “Solar panels. Double-flush toilets. It would have everything.”

The amount of energy saved with green gadgets is lost many times over by erecting new buildings when existing ones will do fine. What could be more absurd than building tens of thousands of new eco-homes at the height of the 2007-08 real estate collapse when more homes are clearly not needed?

Imagine a “green building” plan that said:

1. No building could go up unless there was an absence of unused comparable building space within 50 kiloemetres; and,

2. Any new building would have to be constructed to a 500-year standard.

It should be obvious that if buildings were constructed to last 10 times as long we would need one tenth as many new buildings. Intelligent planning should be able to ensure a home for every family (increase in consumption) at the same time there is much less construction (decrease in production).

Health care

The life expectancy in the US is 78 years. The life expectancy in Cuba is 78 years. The annual cost of health care in Cuba is $193 per person. The cost of health care in the US is over 20 times as much, more than $4500 per person per year. A reasonable American could conclude that when s/he spends $100 on health care, less than $5 goes to keeping her/him healthy and over $95 goes to the cancerous bloating of the sickness industry. [3]

This suggests that the US could decrease health care costs by 90% and still spend twice as much per person as does Cuba. Just how could the US make such incredibly deep cuts in the cost of “medical production” without damaging (and even improving) the quality of health care?

  • Eliminate health insurance companies. This parasitic growth diverts billions of dollars to enormous office buildings, their construction and maintenance, and labour wasted judging who gets treatment and who is left to die. The entire industry should be surgically removed.
  • Focus on community preventive care rather than hospital care. Hospitals are necessary for many emergency treatments. Childbirth and locked mental health wards are examples of what the industry has medicalised in pursuit of profit.
  • Eliminate most medications. Require physicians to document that available non-medication treatments have been exhausted prior to writing a scrip. I dumped my last primary care physician after he started yelling at me for refusing to take meds for blood pressure (which is now under control by changes in diet and exercise).
  • Replace most specialists with neighbourhood primary care physicians. Everyone living in a US city should be able to reach a primary care physician by walking or cycling for less than 15 minutes. The fact that the medical establishment cannot conceptualise this shows its contempt for preventive care.

Demanding that the government increase funds for a bad healthcare system will make insurance and drug companies richer but it will not make people healthier. That can only happen by totally redesigning health care into a much smaller system than it is now.

Transportation

The automobile industry would have us believe that improving transportation means increasing the number of cars on the road. Corporate environmentalists nod in agreement, accepting the car culture as an Act of God but wishing it would be based on hybrid, electric or hydrogen cars. Shallow green plans to cope with transportation are consistently devoid of any thought of reducing the production of cars.

A deep green approach to transportation would focus on eliminating [at least] 95% of cars in US cities. Such a plan might look something like this:

  • Redesign cities to rebirth local businesses so that people can make 80% of their trips by walking or cycling.
  • Ensure that frequent and cheap mass transit allows for people to use it for 80% of other trips.
  • Establish car sharing or ride sharing for the 4% of trips remaining.
  • Only after the above are adopted, eliminate parking spaces except for emergency, construction and car-shared vehicles.

Would this increase or decrease the “consumption” of a transportation system? Orthodox economists would insist that it would not be increasing consumption because people would not be driving in ever-increasing circles. This rigid mindset fails to realise that transportation means getting from point A to point B, or from all the points A to all the points B you need to get to. The more that destination points are spread apart by urban sprawl and the more that roads are choked with cars, even “green” cars, the longer and more miserable trips are. Despite what economists might tell you, this is increased consumption of agony, not increased consumption of transportation.

Try this way of thinking about it. On your lunch break, you want to run over and say “Hi!” to your mom and pick up your shoes from the repair shop. But each is 20 kilometres away from where you work, so you can only do one. In a deep green city redesigned so that everything is closer together, they are each 1 kilometre away and you can bicycle to do both. In the minds of corporate economists and shallow green environmentalists, you would be consuming more of the transportation system if you do one trip of 20 kilometres. In the minds of rational human beings you would be consuming more transportation if you met both goals in two short trips.

Not necessarily a good thing to do

Though I am one of many who have misdiagnosed environmental problems as being rooted in over-consumption, consumption is not the primary issue. The source of the disease is overproduction. Resolving environmental problems requires us to stop seeing them as the same.

Nevertheless, just because you have the ability to so something does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing to do. As a society, 21st century United States has the ability to simultaneously decrease production and increase consumption. But the fact that we can do it does not necessarily mean that consuming more or even the same amount is a good idea.

A quick glance at the designed waste and destructiveness of the US economy suggests that we can reduce production by 50-80% (perhaps by 90%) while the average person would have more consumer goods at any one time. If getting serious about addressing climate change and related catastrophes became the norm and if reducing production were to be seen as a virtue, people might think, “Now that shirts last four times as long and only cost a little more, I can afford to have 80 shirts instead of 30. But do I really need 80 shirts?” [4]

Once production for human need replaces production for corporate profit, it becomes possible to reconnect production and consumption. When people again produce what they need, reducing what they consume means less will be produced.

Multiply 80 shirts by 1000 commodities and hundreds of millions of consumers and we have Phase 2 of the reduction of production. Phase 1 was the reduction of production with an increase of consumption. Phase 2 is an intensified reduction of production based on a reduction of consumption and an improvement in the quality of life. How might it look?

Phase 2: Less production, less consumption and a better life

Militarism. With the US having a military budget greater than the rest of the world combined, 800 military bases on which the sun never sets, and enough nuclear weapons to disintegrate every person many times over, it could reduce its spending by over 90% with zero threat to national security. A Phase 1 reduction in military production by 90% would be accompanied by spending some of that money at home in useful areas of the economy and some abroad to repair the damage done. Phase 2 reduction would begin if people asked, “If we are already providing the basic necessities of life with other economic changes, instead of using military savings to produce additional goods, why don’t we produce nothing extra at all and use the savings to reduce the work week?” [5]

Food. There might be as much as a 90% drop in food inputs by reducing meat, transportation, pesticides, fertilisers, equipment, processing, packaging and genetic contamination. As people watch this happen with no decrease in the quantity but a huge increase in the quality of food, the stage will be set for Phase 2. Wes Jackson, Stan Cox and their colleagues at The Land Institute have provided brilliant guidelines for developing hybrid lines of perennial food plants that would reduce the amount of land tilled, leading to less erosion and less land being needed for food production. Add this to the expansion of numerous techniques of organic and indigenous farming throughout the world to yield continuous ways to reduce agricultural inputs. [6]

Consumer goods. Core to the concept of increasing consumption while decreasing production is requiring consumer goods to be manufactured to standards of life expectancy that are many times what they are now. During Phase 1, people could well see their work week getting shorter while they accumulate even more stuff than they have now. Railing against people for personal accumulation does little good for many reasons, one of which is if this person buys less, then that person (or that government, that business or that bank) buys or invests more. It is only when production as a whole drops that reductions in personal consumption can lead to further drops in production. In this context, people might well decide to share tools and washing machines and children might enjoy clothes passed down from older siblings, which, multiplied millions of times, intensifies the downward trend in production..

Construction. When we ask how many centuries instead of how many decades a new building should last, it is also time to start thinking about the second phase of decelerating construction. The question for that phase is: If we focus on retrofitting existing structures, how close to zero new construction can we get? How do we modify what we already have to create housing collectives, co-housing communities and urban ejidos [communal land]? In a post-market economy, new social relationships in living would become the dominant factor in architecture. More dense living and a smaller space per person would be the sine qua non of deep green urban redesign.

Transportation. The great transportation contradiction is that the more people who own cars, the longer it takes to get from point A to point B. As mentioned, increased car ownership increases the distance between destination points as well as obviously putting more cars on the road. The drive can take a dive only if people can get there without four wheels. Phase 1 of transportation reformulation means designing communities for walking and biking in order to reduce car ownership. Phase 2 begins when people collectively identify needs that can be met without their going anywhere. For example, imagine food warehouses replacing supermarkets. Households combine electronic grocery lists into a neighbourhood order that the warehouse delivers and is then disaggregated by neighbours. Instead of thousands of cars each filling a massive parking lot, a few dozen delivery trucks fill orders.

Health care. A big reason for bad health care is the industry organising itself separate and apart from communities. If neighbourhood health centres were to replace distant offices, insurance companies, quick fixes, drugs, hospitals and overpaid specialists, people could then ask how else they could chip away at the sickness business while improving the quality of their lives. Though redesigning neighbourhoods so people can walk to their doctor and kicking softdrink machines out of schools are part of this, changes can be much bigger. Communities could ask: How can a neighbourhood share the care of severely disabled people rather than constructing more nursing homes and treatment centres with three shifts per day and a management team that answers to insurance companies?

Democratic economy

The greatest barrier to coping with climate change, peak oil, toxins and habitat destruction is the total mass of production. This mass is increasing; its increase vastly outpaces any real or imagined increase in consumption; and its increase is made worse by peddling green gadgets as some sort of solution.

A deep green view understands that too much production is the core problem. Necessary changes do not require any reduction in “consumption”, at least in any meaningful sense of that word. If a corporate economy cannot allow production to decrease, it only makes sense that preserving the Earth requires replacing corporate power with a democratic economy.

A knife going into a person’s stomach can be the death blow of a thief or life-saving surgery. Which is to say: An action can have opposite effects, depending on its context. A plea to replace or reduce individual consumptive habits in a society where market forces dictate that every decrease in energy here is offset by an increase somewhere else is a plea falling on deaf bank statements. But if we could replace production for profit with production for what we need and want, people would have the power to alter society to change its wants and even redesign its needs. With the link between production and consumption restored, lowering consumption would indeed affect production — but only in a deep green society. This is production-side environmentalism.

[The article is based on a talk Don Fitz gave on June 29, 2008 at the Surviving Climate Change roundtable in St Louis, USA. It was published in Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought and is published here with the author’s permission. Thanks to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for drawing it to our attention.]

Notes

1. http://www.warresistors.org

2. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the US Department of Commerce,http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/national/gdp/gdpnewsrelease.htm (Table 3).

3. Dresang, L.T., Brebrick, L., Murray, D., Shallue, A., & Sullivan-Vedder, L., 2005. Family medicine in Cuba: Community-oriented primary care and complementary and alternative medicine. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 18 (4), 297-303.

4. While there could be a 90% or greater reduction in several economic sectors, economies of scale may mean that a much smaller drop in basic industry could be achieved, perhaps meaning that less than a 90% overall decrease would occur.

5. If militarism accounts for 11% of the GDP and it were reduced to 1% of the current GDP, that would be a reduction of the GDP by 10%. That could translate to 10% more goods being produced or it could translate to a reduction of the 40-hour work week to 36 hours, or it could translate to 5% more goods being produced and shipped abroad as reparations for US war crimes simultaneous with a 5% decrease in the work week to 38 hours.

6. Cox, S. Sick planet: Corporate food and medicine. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008. Glover, J.D., Cox, C.M., & Reganold, J.P., August, 2007. Future farming: A return to roots? Scientific American, 297 (2), 82-89.

Posted in Consumers, Ecosocialism
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Milton Takei
7 years 7 months ago

Since the problems of United States automakers have been in the news, I have been again wondering if the end of the automobile age will mean less jobs. Along with the jobs for auto workers, cars create jobs at filling stations, car washes, insurance companies, etc.
Fighting global warming will mean more people will have driving buses, repairing bicycles, making renewable energy equipment, etc. But I suspect that society as a whole will experience a net loss of jobs. Governments will need to adopt measures to help provide food and housing for the unemployed during the transition to a sustainable
society.
Organic farming would be one place for people to obtain a livelihood. Farmers might make less money than auto workers, but they have a chance to be their own boss. They can also grow a lot of their own food. But potential farmers might not have access to land. Governments should try to provide land for organic farmers; the richer countries also need land reform.
Milton Takei
Eugene, Oregon, USA

7 years 7 months ago

“Consumer-side environmentalism does not challenge the manufacture of cars. Rather, it assumes that producing more and more cars is a sacred right never to be questioned.”

This is ridiculous. EVERY environmentalist I know who takes a consumer oriented approach…and it IS correct to oppose this as the only solution…are NOT “live and let” live when it comes to auto production. All oppose continual “auto”-mobile vehicular transportation.

However, I will argue that if you think we can “ban” cars we are in for a HUGE revolution against us, at least in N. America. Do we need to offer huge increases in public transportation? Yes, but we have organized development for homes around, not in, cities and thus commuting by automobile is essential. What KIND of autos is the big question…emission free, of course. And I actually think this is MORE important than public transportation since it addresses what everyone actually uses…even to GET to public transportation: the car.

David Walters

Roger Brown
7 years 8 months ago

You will have to pardon me if I don’t buy your argument. I think a much clearer picture of economic reality is obtained if we talk about use value and resource consumption rather than about production and consumption. If I buy a stove that lasts five times longer than the stove that you buy, then, all other things being equal, I get the same use value out of a much smaller consumption of resources. In order to wring more use value out of such efficiency increases, we have to use the saved resources to produce some other kind of economic output. Once we get on the treadmill of trying to sell more effective use value this year than we sold last year, then increasing pressure on available resources follows as the night the day.

In order to get off the “sell more stuff” treadmill we have to develop a concept of “enough” in the realm of economic goods and services. If we have enough wealth then we can leverage efficiency increases to obtain more leisure time, less pollution etc. The idea that a holistic, sustainable concept of human welfare can be shoehorned into a univariate scale of monetary income or private net worth in dollar terms strikes me as being extremely unlikely. I am not opposed to markets for goods and services (capital markets are another sort of beast entirely), but we need to get to a point where earning our daily bread truly is about providing the basic goods and services we need for physical comfort and not about endlessly piling up wealth.

Paul York
7 years 8 months ago

Thanks Ian. I would like to read something on redefining “prosperity” as well. I know that many author have defined “economics” more sustainably, but how many have tackled “prosperity” to suggest that, for example, indigenous people living in what here would be called poverty, are in fact more prosperous than us because they have a healthy landbase to live from and a richer sensory and emotional life, closer to the natural world. This is where Marx’s materialism starts to lose it for me, insofar as it can only go so far in terms of describing human experience. But it’s social justice / ethical componenent is obviously a good tonic for a class-based unequal and essentially insance society.

Paul York
7 years 8 months ago

While I found the arguments alluring because they challenged overproduction, at the same time I could not grasp how that really would result in more consumption in real terms (i.e. more stuff bought).

Less production will necessarily mean less consumption and consumption of better quality good and recycled goods, right?

The the author appears to be re-defining consumption, not to mean usual consumption as we understand it, but really just a better way of life, called a “democratic economy”:

“Necessary changes do not require any reduction in “consumption”, at least in any meaningful sense of that word. If a corporate economy cannot allow production to decrease, it only makes sense that preserving the Earth requires replacing corporate power with a democratic economy.”

I still don’t see how this means more consumption, but it sounds good. Hope someone can clarify.

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