Eat, Sleep, Buy, Die
by Jonathan Rowe
New Internationalist magazine, November 2000
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk today about the economy.
Not 'the economy' we hear about in the news each day and in other
politicians' speeches. I want to talk about the real economy,
the one we live in every day.
There's a big difference. The official economy is in a record
expansion. How many times have we heard that? How many times have
we heard about the great abundance? And yes, a lot of money is
sloshing around. Some of it might even slosh towards us.
But when you look a little closer you start to see a different
picture. People feel drained and stressed. They say they have
no time and that the kids are always nagging them for things.
The traffic keeps getting worse, the beaches close because the
water is so bad and the visual space is full of ads.
There's something out of whack here. Prosperity is supposed
to mean well-being. It is supposed to mean more time for life
and thought, not less. If times are truly good then you'd think
we'd all feel good about the future. Yet a majority are deeply
worried. More than 90 per cent of us think we are too concerned
about ourselves and not concerned enough about future generations.
The problem here goes deeper than the growing income gap and
the way millions are being left behind. The question is: what
does it mean to be ahead in the first place? Somehow this thing
we call 'the economy' has become detached from the people who
comprise it. It's a little as though someone said: 'I'm doing
fine but my life is going to hell.' That's the gap between 'the
economy' and the economy. And we've got to try to understand it.
Grasping the problem The term 'economic expansion' suggests
a horn of plenty that grows fuller by the minute. Yet strip away
the gauzy abstraction and 'expansion' means simply spending more
money. It makes no difference where that money goes or why. The
experts never ask what gets destroyed in the process. When they
see more money sloshing around, they say: 'Wow! That's good.'
It doesn't take a PhD in economics to grasp the problem. (In
fact it can help not to have one.) More spending doesn't always
mean that life is getting better. We all know that. We all know
it often means the opposite - medical bills, addiction, family
difficulties, crime. It can mean a toxic spill in the neighborhood,
or kids with asthma because the air is so bad.
But the experts never seem to think about that and the media
doesn't either. So long as the money is flowing out of our bank
accounts at a faster rate they shout, 'hooray'. Are you beginning
to suspect that this way of looking at the world was not devised
with your well-being in mind?
Let's take this a step further. You know that 'New Economy'?
Well, it's really just the old economy on electronic steroids.
It's based upon the same old thing: not information, not intelligence,
but on an ever-expanding sense of need.
That's the truth. As John McKnight of Northwestern University
.. has put it, America is a society 'in need of need'. We don't
need the : things the economy produces as much as it needs our
sense of need for those things. To the economist need is the Everlasting
Light, the miracle that keeps the engines of expansion churning.
To the rest of us it can seem like the beast in Dante's Inferno,
the one that 'when she has fed, she's hungrier than ever'.
In economics there is no concept of enough: just a chronic
yearning for more, a hunger that cannot be filled.
This requires that all life must be converted into a commodity
for sale. The result is a relentless process of enclosure. It
started centuries ago with land. Today it is encroaching . upon
every aspect of our individual and collective beings.
Think about the growth industries today. We buy looks from
plastic surgeons, mental outlooks from pharmaceutical companies,
activity of our bodies from 'health' clubs, interaction with friends
from telecommunications firms, and on and on. Security comes from
police departments, insurance companies and privatized prisons.
Transport comes from oil and automobile companies. Virtually every
life function and process is turning into something we have to
buy. And lest anyone suspect a tired ideological shtick, let's
say right here that the government is a culprit too. It turns
education into schooling and community into bureaucracy - much
as the market turns childhood into a petri dish of nagging.
Either way, what the economists call growth becomes a process
of cannibalization. The formal economy, private and public sectors
alike, takes us apart piece by piece and then sells us back to
ourselves. We must become less so that the economy can become
more. Little wonder we feel drained and stressed. We become the
biological counterparts of the oil wells and toxic dumps, both
the raw material of the economy and the receptacles of its waste.
Meanwhile, millions don't have enough to begin with.
Ecstasy of buying What about the computer, the supposed Merlin
of the 'New Economy'? It is the ultimate need machine. Buy one
and you buy into a stream of need that never ceases. The peripherals
and upgrades metastasize and the product cycle moves at warp speed.
Then the thing turns every waking moment into a selling moment.
The school classroom and office used to be off-limits to ads.
Now they are non-stop billboards and shopping malls too. Some
70 per cent of web shopping is done from the office. That's the
essence of the 'New Economy' right there.
On top of this, the computer achieves the marketer's dream of
reducing the gap between impulse and purchase practically to zero.
With TV you had to wait until the weekend to buy the refrigerator.
On the web you just click the mouse. Combine that with the credit
card and you've got the economist's version of the bliss of Revelations,
an ecstasy of buying.
This might be fine if life were just an exercise in mathematics,
the way it is in economics texts. But in real life actions have
consequences. An economy based upon the creation of need is going
to have consequences that are not entirely benign.
One of these might be called iatrogenic growth. This is the
way a supposed solution ends up being a problem that can only
be solved by more spending.
There are so many examples. Push a fat-heavy diet upon people
and watch coronary problems and hence the need for medical treatment
grow. Raise kids in a hyper-kinetic media environment and then
push pills at them so that they can pay attention in school. Develop
'terminator seeds' that become sterile after one generation and
sell new seeds year after year.
The sad nadir of this pathology is suggested by a pesticide
plant in Richmond, California, which is owned by a transnational
corporation that also makes the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
'It's a pretty good deal,' a local physician said. 'First you
cause the cancer, then you profit from curing it.'
That's not all growth today, of course. Some is still useful,
and some is fun. 'Developing' countries are at a different point
on the curve. But the balance is tipping and this is something
the conventional economic mind refuses to see.
This mind is almost comically linear; its motto is 'Yesterday
Forever'. If a process was generally useful two centuries ago,
in a time of material scarcity, it must be equally so, and without
qualification, in an era of hyper-abundance.
Yet we are all implicated to some degree. We all depend on
the machine to spin off the money we need for our lives, even
if we disagree with the premise.
How do we break the cycle? This is not a question of the old
ideological divide: communism versus capitalism, Left versus Right.
Those are just different versions of the old premise. Mussolini
and Stalin believed in growth as much as Alan Greenspan and Tony
Blair, perhaps even more.
We are in new territory here and it may well take water shortages,
oil spills, the scriptural seven plagues, to rattle our collective
cage. We change because of wisdom or suffering and why some look
almost hopefully for environmental disaster, as the external coercion
that our weak collective heart requires.)
But then maybe not. Just maybe we can get going before our
backs are to the wall. At the conceptual level we need to broaden
the current myopic notions of what the economy is. We've got to
start including the contributions of family, community and natural
environment so that we can stop counting the destruction of these
as economic growth and gain.
When you foul a river and then build a swimming pool, when
you destroy the natural self-replicating quality of seeds so you
can sell more of them, that is not growth. It is cannibalization.
An economics that values a bureaucracy but not a neighbor, an
air conditioner but not a forest, is not an economics at all.
But concept changes from experience as much as vice versa.
Adam Smith could develop the mental template of a market because
that's what was happening around him. Probably there won't be
a new economic concept until the reality starts to take shape.
There is no shortage of proposals. Most of us could make a
long list. Alternative currencies to revive the non-market economy
of neighborhood and community. A tax system that taxes waste instead
of work. A materials economy based on carbohydrates rather than
petrochemicals. Development based on the old village model so
people don't need cars all the time. For developing countries,
economic models that learn from the mistakes of the West rather
than seeking to replicate them.
The main problem is not knowing what to do, it is mustering
the desire to do it. The evil genius of the consumption culture
is the way it envelops us in a cognitive cocoon. Old people go
into homes, young people to schools, the sick to hospitals, the
mentally infirm to asylums, offenders to jail, trash to the dump,
bodily wastes into the sewer.
We become oblivious to the impacts of our own behavior and
to the unpleasantness of life itself: Life imitates television
or a mall; nothing is permitted to enter that might disrupt the
buying mood. We even
shift the production of our food and products to far-away
lands so we don't have to see the toil and toxics that are implicated
in our own consumption.
This may be the central evil of the global economy and a main
reason that its supporters covet it so much.
There won't be an urgency for change until we crack open the
cocoon and expose ourselves to some psychological discomfort of
a healthful kind. We could start with those ubiquitous indicators
of progress - the GDP, the 'productivity' index and the like,
which serve as statistical enablers and Quaaludes. If we started
to factor the costs of growth into the GDP - the depletion of
the natural environment and of the social infrastructure of family
and community, for example - it would go a long way towards jarring
the media out of its stupor.
The feedback loop has to be restored at the individual level
too. There should be gauges on heavy appliances such as air conditioners
and refrigerators, ticking off the electricity consumed and the
cost, as on a gas pump. Perhaps people should have to take their
own trash to the dump, the way they do in rural areas.
We need to establish space for truth-telling in the cognitive
environment - billboards, television and the rest. And let's not
forget us politicians. If we had to list all major contributors
on our office stationery and campaign ads, it would have a sanitizing
effect that few other steps could match.
Feedback loops can make a difference. When the engineers at
Toyota built a fuel-economy display on to the dashboard of the
hybrid Prius car, a writer for Business Week wrote: 'I became
fixated, like a kid staring at a video game, on the fuel economy
numbers.' Crack the cocoon and good things start to happen.
We don't know where it's all going to lead and we don't have
to. We make decisions and life starts taking shape around them.
If we know exactly where we are going there's not much point.
We can take comfort in this. There's nothing to lose except the
problems we are creating for ourselves. That can't be so bad.
Thank you and good evening.
Jonathan Rowe (email@example.com) is a writer living in Washington
DC and a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly.