The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.III. Economy (Part I)
It is not uncommon for the people of Western nations, particularly the United States, to be referred to as consumers. What is a consumer? Obviously, it is one who consumes. Typically, economists, in speaking of consumer tendency, consumer reports, and the consumers themselves, are focused solely on the aspect of purchasing and the life or “mileage” of a particular product; how much bang for the buck. A smart consumer is one who spends wisely, getting a lot of bang for relatively few bucks: cars that use little fuel for going great distances, food that is filling and wholesome and yet inexpensive, electronic devices that can withstand the average wear-and-tear of the bustling of everyday activity for years on end (how many times can an iPod be dropped?). The rabidly consumptive tendencies of contemporary Western civilization, however, entail much more than the purchasing and using of items and materials; a consumer not only takes things in, but because of the nature of the world, when consuming, produces waste; what is left over after the buck is exchanged for bang? The consumption of food produces excrement. The consumption of fossil fuel produces pollution. Almost all manner of diversions – televisions, computers, children’s toys, video games, popular novels, cell phones, magazines (the list goes on and on) – sooner or later become trash, whether they break, become tiresome to their owners, or become obsolete by some newer and more exciting product. Eventually, in any society, this becomes a problem; the faster the rate of consumption, the faster the problem mounts.
So how can this problem be solved? Lately, the talk, which has been heard by anyone who does not live under a rock, has been all about “green technology” and renewable energy sources. Such a solution is ultimately as viable as putting band-aids on a cancer patient. It is not as though band-aids are not helpful, particularly to a man who has cuts, which the cancer patient named Western civilization most certainly does; but no matter how many are used, the cancer will remain. The cause of the Western waste problem cannot be solved by simply creating some new products, regardless of how much they might clean up the mess: because the cause of the problem is not one of strictly material proportions, but an attitude of scurrilous irreverence for the things of the world. Aristotle, in attempting to explain the physical behavior of objects and their interactions, found his explanations requiring transcendence: hence, the Metaphysics. It seems a mite odd to try to do away with a definitively human problem in strictly materialist terms when the problems of inanimate nature cannot be even be explained fully without an appeal to the immaterial.
The problem with human waste is not the waste; it is the human. Looking angrily at a pile of dog poo on the carpet is not nearly so effective as looking angrily at the dog; and while a doggy-diaper could be strapped to the poor animal, or even some sort of high-tech doggy-excrement-disintegrator, neither would make the dog any better. Likewise, making mankind’s tools and technology better does not make the individual man any better, as a man; and that is ultimately the problem with consumer-driven mass-productivity. The focus is entirely on the product, and not on the man: the focus is on the consumptive-effective quality of the product, and not on who is consuming it or why. There should certainly be focus on a work’s quality, make no mistake: but the quality which should be central is that which is beneficial to man. A truly beautiful painting is a human product, not for consumption, not for decoration, but for transient admiration of the divine. A well-crafted beer is for consumption, but not merely for consumption; it is primarily for taste and for levity. A good novel is a prose story that instructs and delights the reader by the imaginative creation of character and action; it is not mere entertainment to be consumed.
Sadly, this attitude towards production is not found in the structures of Western consumer-driven society, regardless of the dominant economic system, of the prevailing theory of economic “science.” Indeed, as E.F. Schumacher and later Joseph Pierce remind the world, economics is not a science – at least, not in the sense of chemistry or physics – but that by treating it as one, by limiting its realm to the strictly material, the end of all work becomes the consumptive quality of the product. This end denigrates what ought to be man’s chief worldly ennoblement, his work, that which is meant to build up not only his product but also himself: “it is the essence of work to form rather than to consume a thing.”1
How often is the word “growth” used in economic contexts? It is a rhetorical question, but the answer is simple: all too often. Overused and under-thought, growth is really a rather ambiguous term. The average 6 year old child will grow about 2.5 inches and gain about 5-7 pounds per year until the age of 12. This is normal, natural, good growth; but the child could also gain 5-7 pounds per year without gaining any height at all, in which case the term growth still applies, but the modifier “good” does not. The truth is that nearly any economic system or structure, provided the right circumstances, can cause growth: the question is whether that is natural growth, the development of an economy that is like a person, that grows into itself as something whole and healthy, or whether it is mere bloating, like a kid who grows up on nothing but McDonalds?
1 Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1984: 13