Production-side environmentalism.

Author:Fitz, Don
Position:Economics of Producing Less

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 America 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 characterized 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.

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 5 stoves instead of 1 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 slight decrease in meaningful consumption. There were four times when the couple was without a stove.

Since WWII, and especially since the 1960s, America 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 epitomizes 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 [CO.sub.2] 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 antagonizing them. In contrast, organizing 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.


The military is the only sector of the economy where emissions of green-house 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 ([CO.sub.2]). When a home is leveled in Afghanistan, reconstruction requires energy. Every hospital brought down and every person maimed in Iraq means [CO.sub.2] emissions during the treatment of patients and construction of...

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