A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Consumption Is The Engine [1]

The last essay made a rather strong indictment against corporatism, but it did not get to the root of the issue.  The key is in the nature of power and the incentive systems that underlie and form around power.  Think of these complexities in terms of a physical example as a useful metaphor:  an auto engine supplies the power to turn the drive wheels of a car; the potential power in the gasoline is released by the design of the engine, but is not, itself, what moves the car forward.  The car, by its motion, has its own power created by the power of the engine, but, once and while moving, a power independent of that engine.  And additionally (if not finally) there is the power to get me from point A to a point B where I can exert an influence not possible at point A.

A car is a relatively simple example; social, political and economic power are more complex.  But, as with the car, there is a nexus, a central organizing principle that must be returned to for basic understanding.  For the car it is the engine.  There are different designs that use different fuels, there are different ways of delivering the motive force to the mass of the car, finally though, an engine must convert potential energy to kinetic energy for any of the other expressions of power to manifest no matter how powerful such forces may seem once created.

There are a number of candidates for the role of engine in the human machine.  Greed or selfishness is often given as one, and grandly misused in economic theory.  Hierarchies of need such as Maslow’s seem to illuminate many darkish corners, but are only very weakly focused on political and economic realities.  Technology is often offered as a prime mover, yet it too is more product than essential force.

The consumption behavior of the Great Many has to be the primary engine.  It drives the greed of the sociopaths of corporatism; their power comes from the ‘motion of the moving car’ not the engine itself.  The engine has to have RPM, torque, horsepower (speed, volume, number).  The greedy try to speed it up as a way to have more power for themselves.  The wise try to slow it down, to save gas, to reduce wear and tear, to just give time to see the sights and to delay the inevitable clash and crash with the end of the high-speed road.  Politics and religions try to steer.

It is the movement of bodies and materials in the action of consumption that moves the human enterprise.  At one level it is simplicity itself: if many people want “it”, then behaviors form around “it.”  If none, or only a tiny few, want “it”, then “it” doesn’t form relationships with human action.  No one has yet been moved to corner the market on dragonflies since there is, as yet, no market, though a tiny few humans collect them, photograph them, benefit from them and in general admire them. 

There are, however, markets for food, space, shelter, transportation (from shoes to space shuttles), informing and empowering ideas, entertainment and distraction, medical interventions and drugs; the list has become quite long.  Once there is a great many who will consume a thing, then – like the car metaphor – whole systems of power relations form: a complex structure of incentives, each power relation spawning another and another.  And moving it all along is the consumption, not of just a few, but of the masses.

Corporations are just one of the spawnings, but one that has, in the manner of an effective parasite, found its way to the essential source of its own needs – not only does the corporate structure supply material for consumption, it also uses its power to increase consumption, thus further building its power; ‘the increasing speed of the car is converted into a more forceful push on the gas petal!’  A moment’s reflection will tell you that this is a bad idea whether for a car or a society.

Collectively, humans behave like that animal that we are.  Increase food supply and we increase in number.  Increase adaptive powers, we fill more environmental niches and dominate more territory.  What we cannot do is increase in number and domination of territory, and retain the modulating, integrating and inhibiting behaviors that integrate our existence into the complex sustaining design of the biosphere. And if I’ve been too opaque: our unreflective action on the world is screwing up the ability of the earth’s surface to support life.  But that is an end result, not the nuts and bolts of how we are doing the screwing up.

We are faced with some very simple equations:
Nh(Y1+ Y2)= Th ; Ec- Th= Bc.  
Total human population times required consumption plus discretionary consumption per capita equals total human consumption, and the earth’s capacity minus total human consumption equals the available balance of capacity.  Discretionary consumption and population are, at present, of such size that the balance of capacity is negative.  But even if this were not so, the dependence of social and economic functioning on growing the size of discretionary consumption is destructive of human relations.

One of the values of writing simple mathematic expressions is that the terms can be looked at unambiguously (this also one of the dangers of so writing).  Looking at the formulas above it quickly becomes clear that there are only two terms that are variable: Nh and Y2, population and per capita discretionary consumption.  The other terms are either fixed amounts or are in fixed relations based on those two values.  If we accept, even just for the sake of argument, that these formulae represent the situation, then we are freed from magical thinking, at least for a moment.

It is a clear conclusion that institutional designs requiring increases of either population or discretionary consumption are inherently destructive [2]; economic growth is, therefore, a primary force for driving the balance of the earth’s productive capacity into the negative; but is also strongly incentivized by the power needs of an economic elite.  In other words, it is in the short-term interests of the economic and power elites to destroy the world upon which they ultimately depend.  It is becoming clearer that to act in disregard of such an obvious reality is a form of insanity.

It should also be increasing clear, as with the metaphor of the car, that the momentum (greed for wealth and power) cannot be reduced without reducing the output of the engine: it is simple physics; the engine must slow down for the car to slow down.  Only then is the momentum reduced.  I would extend the metaphor to include other forms of transport and argue that car speeds should be reduced to no more than that of a running man except under the most extraordinary situations and possibly not even then.

Again for clarities sake: the basic engine of the human machine, consumption, must slow down from its present levels; the discretionary component must supply almost all of the reduction.  The reduction, unfortunately, cannot begin with the highest levels of discretionary consumption, but must begin with the Great Many since it is their consumption that is the motor moving the machine.  Only by decreasing speed can the momentum (the power of the insane elite) be reduced. 

There are no other options.  Totalitarian governments will not do it; they are always made of the elites.  Democratic governments will not do it; they will be taken over by elites using the arguments that increasing speed is good for all (your 10 year old Ford can draft their Aston Martin).  We must understand that when our human machine reaches a certain speed, the power of our momentum creates the insanity of power and economic elites, that they will always push for more speed and that they are always destructive.  The Great Many create the niches in which the elites thrive, and only by reducing our consumption, reducing the speed of the human machine, can the elites be brought back toward sanity; they will not, cannot, realize beyond the boundaries of their niche.

At the moment the Great Many are in thrall with the elites, are absorbed into the margins of elite insanities – and so don’t have easy access to the sanity that is possible.  But there are many of us who are beginning to understand that the choice is between the destruction of the planetary surface as living sanctuary and slowing down the human machine by consuming less both for our own personal good and to take away the momentum of greed and insanity that our pace of consumption creates.

This is an exceedingly difficult message, but it is a message and, I believe, the only one with a chance. Spread and refined it might begin to have an impact.  It is a message contained in all the world’s religions so it is not completely foreign to our thinking, and it is easily understood once the veil of elite insanity is lifted. 

[1] Thanks to ronfromdownunder for his comment on the previous essay.

[2] Discretionary consumption is undergoing a forced reduction in the USA (and some other places where it has been high), but only as a strategic move on the part of the economic elite.  As the elite self-perception and legal boundaries move beyond nation-states what matters becomes total consumption of an expanded vision of the Worldwide Great Many.  The economic elites recognize that greater total consumption can be made to happen by reducing consumption in the USA, which was maximizing in any case, and fueling worldwide consumption though at initially lower per capita levels. This will be very difficult to counter since the Worldwide Great Many are unlikely to feel any natural restraints to what is called ‘increased standards of living.’


Michael Dawson said...

But people do not have access to the decisions that set the context and infrastructures in which product-use takes place. Lecturing people to slow down as isolated individuals is not enough. We need to talk about the institutions that monopolize the political and economic options with which the possibilities are set.

DC Portland said...

I agree with Dawson. People think they are fundamentally rational and, therefore, are unaware of the control corporations have over them. Some policy level enforcement will likely be necessary. To continue the metaphor, we need some speed limits at the societal level.

Even so, we must take heed of the swirling whirlpool nexus of human psychological susceptibility to materialism and product development and promotion. If we could find out, for example, what Apple puts in its jet fuel to power the consumption engine, we might be able to develop some sort of cultural antedote. Presently, we seem to be highly vulnerable without suspicion, and the earth is paying the price.

James Keye said...


I agree. This is an exceedingly difficult situation. I am trying with this essay to get a sense of the terrain that the struggle is being played on. I don’t believe that it is generally appreciated that the Masses are the engine that must be slowed before the elites can be controlled – that the elites derive all of their energy (momentum) from the consumption behavior of the Masses. It is unreasonable (because it will not work) to try and rein in the excesses of the elites before reducing contributions that the Masses make to elite wealth.

There are some things that can, potentially, be done like changes in the tax code, but it may be that the economic elites have come to so thoroughly dominate the political and economic processes in place that the only answer will be to deny them (and in the process ourselves) the produce of our consumption by dramatically lowering discretionary consumption.

This doesn’t mean that every other possible effort should not be made, but ultimately trying for a world with about a 10 to 1 wealth ratio will require large reductions in consumption by all of the world’s “middle class” Masses. If this can be done by some form of mutual agreement the pain of it would be reduced, if not, the horrors will not be unprecedented.

Again, this is the most difficult problem that the species has ever confronted; I suspect that its “solution” will be unanticipated.