Get Invoved with WCTM:

It’s Waste, Not Consumption, Stupid

The premise of this blog from its beginning has been that collectively we consume too much, and that natural systems are damaged by our excessive consumption of energy, materials, land and so on. Frances Moore Lappe, the author of Diet for a Small Planet and seventeen other books disagrees. She says that the problem is that we waste too much in getting to what we do consume, not that we consume too much. She gives examples of wasteful methods of producing food, mobility, and other goods in her 2011 book, EcoMind, which argues that the American free market system is the driving cause of great waste.

In EcoMind, she states, “Markets have served humankind for millennia, but we’ve turned this useful tool into a formula for disaster – a market that ends up producing waste and destruction because it is largely driven by one-rule: Pursue what brings the most immediate and highest return to existing wealth holders.” Lappe says that is wrong for several reasons: “First, one-rule economics violates nature’s laws, disrupting its regenerative power. Focused only on financial return to a minority, our market isn’t designed to respond to other signals – nature’s signals that could avert, for example….” She notes that the American free market does not register what economists call “externalities,” costs to the public that are not costs to the business producing the goods and services.

One example is the damage that pollution from burning coal does to children’s lungs and to everyone’s air. Such damages to the environment and to people’s lives are, she says, “externalities” because under our market and political system “they’re external to the financial balance sheet of the corporation producing them.” The power plant owner does not pay for the damages caused by its burning many tons of coal every day; our markets don’t do business that way, and the pollution generators pay for their “externalities” only in rare cases where courts or government regulatory authorities force them to.

Lappe believes that our “one-rule” market system diminishes the sum total of human satisfaction in many ways. One is the many billions businesses spend each year on advertising, on making people discontent with what they have and who they are. It’s useful to look at advertising in years past where we can evaluate results. Some of us remember film stars John Wayne and Ronald Reagan pushing cigarettes in various advertising campaigns. Wayne died of lung cancer, and the medical evidence that smoking causes disease has become so strong that there are warnings on cigarette packages that smoking harms people. A more current example is Ronald McDonald’s enticing children into bad eating habits with toys and laughter. The costs of the high-fat diet Ronald McDonald pushes show up years later in obesity and other health problems, “externalities” that the clown will not cheerfully pay for.

Lappe argues that our one-rule market concentrates economic and political power into fewer and fewer hands and ends up with “privately held government,” meaning that political money and lobbying systematically distort public decision-making and work against the common good. Our market system, with its advertising strategy of creating wants and discontent, and our politics diminish us, but Lappe is quite certain that we have the power to change all that. She argues that we can find contentment by looking clearly and at a gut level at what makes us happy and then eliminating the “thought traps” that hold us down.

For years I’ve thought that measuring a society’s success by what we call “gross national product” was a terrible mistake, as was making heroes of whoever “created” jobs without looking at the benefits those jobs produced. To me, a job tearing mountains apart for coal to burn is lower on the overall benefit scale than a job teaching school, even though the coal miner  is paid more. Osama Ben Laden created a whole new industry, stringent airport security, with many thousands of jobs, but who would argue that we are better off than before he made us afraid?


No comments yet.

Add a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe to Newsletter