Consumption and Environment
I asked you all to read three pieces concerned with “consumption” and its relation to another concept “the environment.” This is to get you thinking away from individualistic notions of consumption – such as what you had for breakfast or how you’re consuming this post – to a broader and more collective focus that should get you thinking about how collectives of humans and non-humans form and are held together. In that sense, we really should be thinking more in the register of consuming rather than consumption as our world is made and remade through everyday practices of being in it and how the resultant environments or habitats enable and direct further consuming as a feature of life. All of our pieces, Brooks and Byrant in Death, Luke (1997) Chapter 6 and Luke (2019) Chapter 2, emphasize how “the environment” is an ensemble, or assemblage, of extractive and consumptive practices embodied through massive technical regimes run through individuals, and we should be careful in how we ascribe moral blame and praise based on these larger systems of global consumption.
We’ve seen that commodities and their circulation partially make-up the features of our everyday lives, and that environs can be constructed for the purposes of making and extracting more commodities. The process of making something from a mix of labor and stock parts with the aim of bringing that combination to market such that it can be exchanged for money or other goods and services we called commodification. Commodification and commodity development, we’ve seen, has gone beyond the simple truck and barter economies of exchange that characterized Adam Smith’s day and have become decoupled from the local contexts to enter into massive systems of commodity chains that span the globe. As you may recall, the commodity can hide its destructive origins through a distancing effect such that you may not be aware of the ecological damage, or human suffering that went into the production and delivery of that commodity. In this way, the commodity offers us a nexus into the history of its development and thus a history of relations that went into its production and circulation. This, however, must be investigated by looking behind it, per se, and is not information floating on its surface.
The commodity and commodification both hide and embed risk within their circulation and these risks are very rarely distributed evenly. A Chinese worker for Foxconn might be responsible for assembling your iPhone that you enjoy, but must assume the health risks of assembling that phone in exchange for some means of subsistence. You, sitting there looking at your iPhone, do not necessarily apprehend the conditions of the factory (some so miserable that massive nets have to be suspended between building to keep workers from killing themselves), and you probably aren’t wondering about the resources that make up its physicality or whether those resources were “ethically” sourced. I recap the above for two reasons: (1) is to display the uneven global distribution of risk through commodity development and circulation; and (2) because we’re going to update the above below through putting consumption in context.
Point one has been covered in the past two weeks. In particular, I’ll remind you that the commodity and commodification as a process offer windows into human-environmental relations. Further, since at least Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and governmentality, political theory and political ecology have recognized the circulation of commodities through environments as central to governing. Crisis can ensue when there is a slow-down in the circulation, and, indeed, I remember being told to go shop by the President of the United States after roughly 3000 people were murdered not much more than 50 miles from me one day in September, 2001.
The act of consuming is something we must do in order to survive. Consumption, therefore, is central to understanding the relations among things within ecosystems and “the environment,” generally construed. This is exhibited in how society organizes consumption on mass scale as a mode of being and how objects are coded through and within environs. If one wishes to think in terms of class stratification, one can do so based on who consumes what and how. We live in consumptive environs built through price and purchasing systems mediated through the social phenomenon of money. Who has money and in what quantities partially determines their relationships to consumable (purchasable) objects flowing through our inter-linked environs. This is usually cashed out in terms of choice and opportunity within our consumptive ecosystems, however there is a quietly asserted form of bounded rationality in which decision-making is constrained by relations from outside any one agent. If you have the choice between buying a Maserati or a Kia, then this assumes that you have the opportunity to buy either and this is typically understood through both the proximity to the object one wishes to consume, and the individual abilities of that agent to consume it. Say you don’t have the cash or credit to buy the Maserati; your “choice” is then between the Kia, or nothing. If you must have a car, then your choices and rationalities are bound by that necessity as well as the price system that passively determines the distribution of commodities throughout environs based in capitalist economics. The simple example above gets more complicated when one considers things such as the intransitivity of preferences but it’ll get the ball rolling for us in the direction of the environment and how consumption is articulated within it.
Brooks and Bryant do something rather interesting in the first few paragraphs that you should mind. They make a cut into consumption through a particular formulation of economics called ecological economics (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72). I want you to be mindful of a distinction I’ll make quickly below, but if you have an interest in these areas, it will serve you well to keep ecological economics as distinct from environmental economics. The two are often conflated, but they are not the same and how they articulate “environment” and what they measure are quite different. I can’t go too deep into the distinction for brevity’s sake, but here’s a rough and ready distinction: Ecological economics is concerned with how things flow through an environment and how human, or social systems, are integrated into the patterns of those flows. This means that the objects of analysis within ecological econ are not necessarily things like money, or capital in general, but flows of water, energy distributions based on food webs, or biotic communities of humans and non-humans.
Environmental economics is an attempt to incorporate what were considered “externalities” into mainstream economic analysis based on the exchange of money and fluctuations within price systems. It does not necessarily look at flows of water and solar energy as part of the bedrock of economic analysis and decision-making, but may try to attach a price to interrupting the flows of a stream, or the destruction of habitat across the Earth. In other words, environmental economics fails to take “Nature” as not only the very thing upon which the economies it examines are built, but as something external to human systems of consumption and flow that can be incorporated by giving them a price. Environmental econ, really, is concerned with the further production of commodities as part of an economic calculus rather than an actual attempt at understanding how things are distributed through organic economies of matter and energy that have formed life on Earth, including our species.
If we look at ourselves and our societies through the prism of ecological economics we can better understand how flows of matter and energy form the basis of our artificial ecosystems. As you’ll recall, the commodity is something that is eventually consumed by an agent who may have had no hand in producing that thing and their circulation partially conditions and physically makes “the environment.” Where the commodities go, and who consumes them, should, in principle give you part of the picture of relations within an ecosystem. We need the other side of the equation – the side that displays the energy and matter that went into making and circulating that thing – to get a picture more appropriately in line with ecological econ. This picture would give you a better idea of the infrastructures in place that enable consumption and thus the larger social machinery involved in social reproduction through circulation and creation of commodities (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72-73). Those commodities, thus, display relationships to the organic as they circulate through consumptive infrastructures, and those infrastructures create consumptive spaces and partially dictate who consumes what, when, and how as part of commodity circulation.
Think of it like this: There are lots of ways to organize the production and sale of beef, but you, as a consumer, are presented with a limited range of opportunities and outlets to buy and consume beef. Taking one step backwards, you, as a consumer, are presented with normalized routines, or practices that in some way delimit your range of options concerning what to consume and how. There are many fruits and vegetables to buy in the supermarket, but most times you, as a consumer, cannot dictate what Kroger buys directly. You might take your business elsewhere, but at each junction of decision-and-purchase, you are presented with a limited range of options concerning what you can and will consume. Delimited choice is merely a structural feature of opportunity but it is an environmental feature in that it is a limit placed on any one agent that occupies that space. Many of the choices you as a consumer are presented with at the store are the result of choices you did not make and are features of your operational context. Thus, these features in some way structure your behavior and limit your options just as a simple fact of being-in-an-environ. Moreover, how those options were produced is usually well away from your personal power and are typically historical manifestations of how some humans have related to the organic. One can consider massive feedlot operations or the genetic modification of the banana for more concrete examples of bounded rationality within consumptive environs. But, and in either case, you’ll find that the material history of our society is exhibited within and through the commodity of the cow and the banana as well as the decision-making regarding how those things are produced and brought to market.
I’ve been writing in a rather abstract way and this can give the illusion that this problem is, in fact, rather abstract. On the contrary, I think it is important to understand consumption as an historical phenomenon that is conditioned by the technical capabilities of some people over others and within the organic. This pattern of rule, that is, over the materials from which you build your identities and sustain the energy exchanges necessary for your cells to survive, gets to the depths of our everyday beings and displays how technological systems are integrated into your body as part of your daily activity that is mediated through those massive technological systems. I’ll put this a little more concretely: you didn’t build the concentrated feedlot operations that allow for the production and sale of beef globally. However, how you and millions of other people obtain beef is delimited by those systems that, at the very least, alters pricing for beef in its favor and aims at being the only game in town for obtaining beef. This system of beef distribution has real material components that must be regulated as technological systems to ensure business success necessary for reproductive viability within capitalist environs. These systems may grow in Texas, harvest and process in Omaha, distribute through Chicago, and turn up everywhere from Setauket, NY to Shanghai, China. These systems are managed, maintained and built through human and non-human labor reactive to effects both from within and outside of the commodity chain.
A simple thing to remember that any engineer will tell you is that the larger the system, and the more components necessary for its functioning, the more mistakes are built into it. A Marxian technophilosopher would add that those mistakes arise as a result of the instrumental logic used to create the system itself and that those mistakes materialize as contradictions within those systems. Your reading on risk touched on this but it deserves to be spelled out: the risks inherent within technological systems are the result of the contradictions within those systems and, as a matter of security, those risks must be distributed away from the larger machinery necessary for systemic reproduction. This technical handling of risk and ensuring the machines run properly is the job of the technocrat, as discussed in the last post. The technocrat is responsible for continuing system viability of whatever machine to which they are assigned.
Machines should not be thought of simply as mechanical things embodied in metal. Here, we can think of them as any organization of matter and energy purposefully constructed to automate the control and production of things. In this sense, the State appears as a machine for controlling the distribution of resources and power among a population as well as individuals within that population. We can think of algorithms, for example, as abstract calculational machines with an input-process-output schematic, or as logistical networks as being collections of machines and machinery for the distribution of things [think of how Amazon is a collection of algorithms connected to global logistical networks enabling remote consumption]. Each and every time you consume something within our society (more likely than not), you are connected, in some way, to a machine and thus the choices of a technocrat or collections of technocrats. Here, you’ll see that your choices within your environment concerning what to consume are technologically and economically bounded from the beginning simply based on the networks necessary for the production and distribution of things as a technological project, and conditioned by economic rules, formulated and advanced by only one way of understanding the economy, that partially produces your consumptive environs.
The Luke readings become a little more intuitive with the above in view. Puzzlingly, perhaps, Luke’s Chapter 6 in Ecocritique takes aim at the en vogue movement of Green consumerism. His critique can be paraphrased (faithfully enough I hope) as the hopeless naiveté of commodity fetishists and not a real solution to ecological degradation. Thus, green consumerism, as I’ll show below, is not an effective alternative to current socio-ecological despoilation of the Earth, but is, instead, just some nonsense hawked to people who can afford it. Those do-gooders, in other words, miss their target and do no good.
The do-gooders do no good because they rethread consumption and commodification back into their material practices (driving to the store, buying something, etc.,) as part of a strategy of resistance. Consumption and the modes of consumption including waste disposal and supply-chain practices are within the ambit of the green consumer’s critique. However, Luke’s critique is that the green consumer – as practiced and advised through the literature he reviews in Chapter 6 (1997) – fails to address the politics of production through a focus solely on the consumer. In other words, the green consumer has fallen prey to people who are more interested in selling lifestyles and books than actually helping to construct a more equitable and habitable Earth.
Politics and consumption get to the heart of who we are as people. What one adopts, consumes and repeats have real environmental effects as well as others exhibited through their subjectivities. Our environments are characterized by multiple lines of production stratified through prices for acquiring goods and services and these lines of production are the results of planning and production related to the material stuff that populates our environments. Who is producing what, for whom, is central within Luke’s critique, but you’ll notice that he isn’t telling anyone to go out and buy from some labels over another. He’s concerned with the labels themselves and what they denote, who consumes them and how they were produced. You’ll notice that he speaks of capital as an almost totalizing presence within environments to the point that escaping it might be impossible. This is because he’s articulating a theory of capitalist globalization couched in terms (though not in so many words) of monopoly capital.
I can’t go too deep into the theory of monopoly capital but I can give you a synopsis and help you understand why Luke might be concerned with agents operating in its environs. Essentially one can recognize that capital has developed to the point that most avenues for production and consumption are connected to massive concentrations of it conceived as machinery that produces it – the modern corporation, and that concentrations of it have arisen in the productive systems such that economic competition is actually oligopolistic. Corporations have not always been our main methods for procuring goods and services and their growth has a definite and material history connected to the establishment of them as the modes of global commercial organization. It’s Paul Sweezy and Paul Barran who are credited with giving the phenomenon of growing corporate influence and structure in everyday life and Luke is quietly working with the premise that almost all consumptive outlets available to the average city-dweller are built from and for the operations of the abstract machines of capital. On can think of this through the infographic below concerning oligopolistic production, and, indeed it seems like oligopoly might be a better term for our purposes.
Luke’s critique is that it is the demands and operations of capital run through that sort of abstract business machinery that is responsible for ecological despoliation. As green consumerism is concerned with a critique of ecological despoliation, their practices must be seen in the light of monopoly capital and the environments it creates. It is here that Luke nails the line item green consumer for looking to a solution to the global overconsumption of some against the impoverished many by further consumption. Not only does this seem self-contradictory, but Luke is also critiquing the practice of constructing those markets necessary to feed a growing green consumer audience that involves subtle adjustments to how things are perceived (think ‘fair trade’ labels, Save the Waves programs by cruise lines, designer, ethically sourced chocolate) and that this recasts the collective problems of global environmental degradation through an individualizing ethos and narrative pitched to the Earth’s richest.
Further, Luke is uncomfortable with how the blame and responsibility for ecological destruction is forked onto the people consuming products that they didn’t make, didn’t sell or advertise, and maybe didn’t ask for. The problem has to do with some historical shifts in US production after the Great Depression leading to the Washington Consensus that is largely regarded as a shift within economic policy-making from demand-side production and social support, to supply-side production and inflation controls through monetarism. Without dipping too deep into economic history, the Washington Consensus, as it was known shifted economic power and focus away from your usual supply and demand thinking where demand is the motive force in an economy, to the production of economic oversupply to maintain a mobilized economy based on the desires of employers and corporate producers. This means that in times of economic downturn, the economic and financial support from the state is concentrated (with shades and degrees) mostly on the side of corporations deemed vital to the functioning of the American economy cashed in terms of GDP, currency value, and GNP rather than the overall health of employment and employees.
The above economic shift solidly grounds a critique of consumption that shows you why “the law of supply and demand” has become perverted by a constant emphasis on corporate viability and not necessarily the demands of the populace. The supply-side economy I’m referring to (and idealizing) is one in which products are marketed before their markets are created. This is because responding to demand (as in the demand-side scheme mistaught in high schools) is not only difficult when consumers can only “vote with their dollars” but also because marketing research has evolved to the point of predictive analytics through massive information gathering. This means that a company can develop a product and then try to advertise it and still make money. Oftentimes this sort of marketing and advertising is for stuff you didn’t know you needed, probably don’t need, and might not solve the problem it creates. One can think of zit commercials and advertising that is meant to make you feel bad about something, and then, the product is presented as a miraculous solution! This is only one small example, but it is played across consumptive sectors within our broader global economy as products are made and marketed to everyone who could receive the advertising. This system, Luke says, is hugely wasteful and ecologically damaging (just think about how much food is thrown away at the grocery store) and that the sort of lifestyles that are being sold to green consumers do nothing to combat the wasteful system itself. It might make people feel better. It might even help some more than if the status quo were to continue, but ultimately it has a depoliticizing effect.
Green consumerism has a depoliticizing effect because it reduces the massively complicated problems of global environmental change to that of technical practices. If we can buy and eat, and travel in the right way, listening to the right people, then the consumer can grab the wheel on climate change, and the global top 20% of people in the richest countries will lead the way to a sparkling green future. This language totally ignores that there are many who cannot contribute to or buy into the green economy with its expensive products and wasteful practices. This means that within the subject herself, the problem has been defined as something to do individually and leaves the outrage at the interpersonal level for people to disagree over plastic straws. It fails to end, politically, the production of plastics, the extractive economies and practices of synthetic materials manufacturing, and fails, in the short, mid, and long-term to lay blame at the feet of the actual actors responsible.
Until we name names, organize, and force the despoilers to reckon with their actions, we are only shouting into the void. It might make you feel better, but this is just an effect of the commodity fetish as more brands, goods and consumptive communities are created for rich suburbanites who have failed to understand the foundations of their material cultures and their place in ‘the environment.’ If we allow “the environment” to be reduced to a merely technical problem, then we hand the keys back to those who have created the material conditions in which we find ourselves, and once more, we will have to fight for control against the logic of the machines themselves as they recreate the world in their image and usher new material organizations only responsive to environmental demands rather than produce a less demanding environment for all.