Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End of Plutopia?

I wrote about the United States as a "plutopia" back in 2008, and what follows is my latest take on the subject.

Recent political shenanigans regarding the debt ceiling have brought some interesting responses from thoughtful folks who have somehow risen above the snark and recognized a very painful but evident truth: We cannot go on as we are.

Last Sunday's Opinion section in the Daily Poop ran a reprint of David Leonhardt's New York Times article on consumer spending and its role in the current economic stagnation. In it he notes the chicken-or-egg dilemma: which comes first? Consumers spend less because the economy's bad, or the economy's bad because of consumers' new-found frugality?

This has been a burning question for many, and for some time. I know I'm not spending as much and am putting much more into savings, paying down remaining debt, and being much more mindful about what I buy. But for me it's not so much a cash issue as an environmental/philosophical one. I'm trying to practice what I preach, especially in my consumption choices: higher quality, more sustainably raised food; adhering to Morris's dictum about not having anything in my house I don't consider beautiful or useful; being miserly about utility use. I can't tell you when I last went shopping without a particular item in mind, and I've lost track of the number of things I haven't bought because I decided (after much contemplation) that I really didn't need it. That's, in fact, why I'm typing this post on my three-year-old Gateway PC notebook instead of a nice shiny new iMac.

I do still slip occasionally, but mostly it's small change: an app for the iPad (now over a year old), a new DVD (we tend to watch movies more than once, and don't go to the cineplex much because of the cheesy background music you have to listen to and ads you have to watch before the feature starts), a few books from Half Price. In Whole Foods the other day, I made my first impulse purchase in quite some time--three bars of lavender goat milk soap. I fell for the smell.

Even my support for the wine industry is dwindling, because I recently realized just how much we were spending, and just how much sleep I was losing (and weight I wasn't losing) thanks to an extra glass or two above my supposed limit of one glass per night. So now we're opting for fewer bottles per week, focusing on the highest quality we can afford.

But that's just it. Frugality on one end breeds job losses on the other. Mind you, I don't think my old friend Matt Lavelle is going to personally suffer if I cut back on the fermented grape juice (especially since I don't have easy access to his wines). But if everybody got this stingy (or perhaps this thoughtful?), it would make a huge difference. Which is why I wish people would start boycotting the crap loaded onto shelves in supermarkets and demanding better quality, more nutritious, less environmentally degrading stuff.

"Wait!" they say around here. "If we stop buying our high-fructose corn syrup beverage of choice (the one with no nutritional value at all, and enormous cost to the rest of us in terms of land-use and consequential medical costs), what happens to all those poor folks who work for Dr. Pepper (or Frito Lay, or whatever)? They'll lose their jobs!" Not to mention the fact that doing anything to deter folks from buying said liquid uselessness (like taxing it) means more nanny-statism, more big gummint interference in my god-given right to make stupid choices.

Well, maybe not. The other day, having not had time to drop by Starbucks for my weekly venti non-fat latte (major indulgence), I went to the school bistro for something with a tad of caffeine in it to get me through the afternoon. For a while they stocked HonesTea, but that was gone. Ultimately, the only thing I could find that wasn't simply vitamin-enhanced sugar water or HFCS laden anything (or ginseng-augmented "energy drink"), was "all-natural" Snapple Lemon Tea. A bit too sweet for me, but it only had water (filtered, of course), tea, lemon, and sugar. I'd have been happier with it unsweetened (having long ago weaned myself from sugary drinks), but at least this offered an alternative to the rest. Snapple, of course, is owned by Dr. Pepper. And get this; the company has a manifesto ("social responsibility report") that includes, among their five year goals, "Continue to provide a full range of products, with at least 50% of innovation projects in the pipeline focused on reducing calories, offering smaller sizes and improving nutrition."

I'm a bit suspicious of their motives for offering smaller sizes, for which they will probably ask current prices, but hey. It's a step.

Frito Lay, another big local employer, has already started marketing more healthful choices, although I've yet to take them up on any new, more nutritious offerings. I'll have to wait until I run out of Clif bars and have to run down to a machine for a snack. At any rate, Frito Lay, too, has a section on their website devoted to "Our Planet," and it includes 43 things they're doing or going to do to help save the earth (they apparently started recycling their packing materials back in 1939), including using renewable energy sources and other fairly expensive investments. There's also a "your health" section which is somewhat less convincing (potatoes and corn, although "all natural," are, after all, pretty low-quality carbs to load up on--especially since we all know that "you can't eat just one" chip). You can also pretty much bet that the farms that corn and those potatoes come from are laden with chemical fertilizers.

Given that we're not, as a still comparatively wealthy population, going to give up ours snacks, I guess all this represents a small step in the right direction. Especially when one considers the under-served poor in areas where few supermarkets exist and a cheap way to fill your stomach is to buy a bag of Fritos or down a slug of Snapple from the local ice house (Texan for convenience store).

When we look at what confronts a large part of the world, however, we're still an absurdly wealthy country. For example, we don't generally die of intestinal diseases because almost everybody has access to a toilet and we don't have raw sewage running through our neighborhoods. I actually attribute my iron gut and resistance to tummy upsets to my childhood in then-underdeveloped Asia, where I was exposed to all manner of bugs I'm now apparently immune to. But appallingly huge numbers of children and adults elsewhere die every year of diseases that could be eradicated with decent sanitation (and it doesn't have to be water-hungry flush-toilets, either).

What I do want to question here is the basic premise that in order to be a great nation, or even a fully-employed nation, we have to keep buying stuff. And we have to keep employing people to make stuff. And this stuff should be big and/or expensive: refrigerators, cars, washing machines, dishwashers, houses, computers. But in order to keep these folks in jobs, we have maintain the whole planned obsolescence ethos we bought into, probably as far back as when Henry Ford started turning people into automatons on assembly lines. None of this big stuff can last so long that we only buy it once, or twice, or even three times in our lives. We have to keep buying new ones, the more frequently, the better.

Now, I can see trading in the old energy-inefficient fridge for a shiny new one with LED lights and that uses far less electricity. I can even see trading in the ten-year-old Civic that gets 35-40 mpg (if you drive like an old lady) for a new hybrid that gets 50-55 (again, if you drive like an old lady). But there are people who buy or lease a new car every couple of years and actually go through dozens of automobiles in a lifetime. These folks are also more likely to buy bigger, more expensive vehicles that get much poorer mileage on a tank of gas. But that's what the Plutopian economy requires: buy more, more often.

But alternatives do exist, and before I go off on this any further, I'd like to recommend that folks take a look at Juliet Schor's web page on Plenitude. Her suggestions are rather radical--for example, perhaps we should work less rather than more to create a better economy--but I think truly promising. I've mentioned her before, but I'm in the process of re-reading her book (the first one I bought for the iPad) and she makes even more sense now than she did a year ago.

Your homework, Dear Reader, is to go to her blog and meander through it. That alone should give us more to talk about . . . And while you're at it, check out this week's Owls' Parliament for a related article, and a superb comment by one of my former students. It offers me hope for the future, because these folks are the ones who're going to have to live in it.

Image credit: A US Food & Drug Administration poster promoting corn, from 1918. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Kawks! said...

Two things I would like to expand on here.

Spending money excessively doesn’t have an instant effect on the economy. It is prolonged. Just like saving money has a prolonged effect as well. I predict we will save smarter over the next Century, and things will get harder. But ultimately that money will be spent. And when we reach that point where everyone has saved enough to start dipping into their own savings (instead of relying on social service) the economy will balance back out.


We tend to spend money without stopping to think what the effect it has on our emotions. I believe there are only 3 ultimate reasons to spend money.

Will this directly contribute to my survival or security in life?

Will this provide happiness over a LONG TERM PERIOD?

Will this help me better my skills or make money in the future?

If what you’re thinking of buying doesn’t fit into any of these categories, then it is worthless to you, if it fits in all three and you can afford it. GO FOR IT!

So if everyone saved money, would it hurt the economy? Everyone has different goals and needs in life. So what might not fit into these categories for you, might fit into all three for someone else. Someone will find a need for your product, not everyone. Unless your product sucks...

Owlfarmer said...

I like your categories, but I'd add another: will my buying this product have a negative impact on the environment and/or other people?

As much as I love my iPAD, there are problems associated with my owning it, especially in terms of environmental impact. I only decided it would be okay to buy if I were to drastically cut down on the number of paper books I bought. So far it's balancing out (it supposedly takes not buying 100 books a year to make up for the impact)--but these technologically intensive products have huge costs in terms of human labor (exploitative), chemicals, etc. I don't really like the idea of using some kind of calculus to figure out how much impact there is (I actually hate the idea of the cost benefit analysis), but being aware of consequences will, I hope, ultimately make us more responsible citizens.

Thanks for your input, Christian. I miss being able to discuss these things in person.