|The Myth Of Green Consumerism:
Consumption, Community And Free Markets
"The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client." (William Burroughs)
Over the quarter of a century that has passed since 1972's flawed "Limits to Growth" characterisation of the physical challenges facing the continued expansion of industrial societies (Meadows et. al. 1972), it has been recognised that the problem of achieving sustainable levels of consumption is one not only of prudent use of available reserves of raw materials, but also of operating within the "sink" capacities of the planetary environment. In the case of fossil fuels, for instance, we are now concerned not only with "how long it will be before the oil runs out" but also with the ability of the Earth to absorb the pollution, climate change and environmental destruction caused by their extraction and use, while still remaining an acceptable setting for human life. This acceptability consists partly in fundamental necessities such as non-toxic air and water and fertile land, but extends to the continued presence of other species, natural features and processes which are considered to be essential to our world, and on some accounts (e.g. Sylvan & Bennett 1994) to have value or "rights to existence" independent of human beings.
Almost any attempt to quantify these concerns is hotly contested: legal thresholds for pollutant limits in air or water, "safe" radiation levels, predictions of climate change, estimates of oil reserves, fish populations, deforestation or biodiversity loss, all are argued over by competing panels of scientific experts on behalf of their various paymasters. All but the most recalcitrant, however, concede that the present upward trajectory of resource consumption rates cannot continue indefinitely without, in the words of the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987, p.8) "compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Opinion diverges sharply, however, at the point of deciding how to calculate rates of consumption and what to do about reducing them.
At the 1992 UNCED "Earth Summit" in Rio, the strategy of governmental delegates from Northern industrialised countries was to present the achievement of sustainability as primarily a matter of global ecological management, technological improvements in efficiency, and demographic policy in "developing countries" with high population growth. (Chatterjee & Finger, 1994). Southern delegates, however, argued unsuccessfully for the adoption of per capita measures of consumption, arguing that such calculations are "central for assessing the sustainability of lifestyles and civilisations" (von Weizsäcker et al. 1997, p.219). Any such assessment clearly reverses the emphasis of global sustainability policy, suggesting an urgent focus on the unsustainable consumption patterns of Northern societies.
A wealth of statistics shows the massive and persistent inequalities between North and South. Per capita consumption rates in Germany, for example, are fifteen times those in India (ibid. p.218). Calculations of "ecological footprints" (the amount of land theoretically needed to produce the resources consumed and absorb the wastes produced by a single individual), while necessarily imprecise, consistently produce well-known results such as those quoted by von Weizsäcker (p. 220) showing that if all six billion humans on the planet consumed at the rate of Canadians or Netherlanders we would need three planets, not one, to satisfy our requirements.
Addressing these inequalities is of course a vital issue in its own right, as well as a mechanism for achieving sustainability and preserving the natural environment. But as the figures suggest, the answer can never be to bring present Northern consumption levels within the reach of all. Most people in the world probably do, on average, need more resources; but a significant minority, we in the rich industrialised North, on average need to consume much less. The "externalised" costs of massive production of goods and services for voracious and highly lucrative markets in regions such as Europe and North America are borne by societies and environments the world over. I shall therefore begin with the assumption that a very significant proportion of global environmental degradation is directly attributable to what may be legitimately called overconsumption in Northern countries.
Given this, a considerable overall reduction in per capita resource consumption in countries like Britain is here assumed to be desirable; I am concerned to examine the social and political climate in which this might be possible. I shall suggest that the ideology of the free market creates and maintains a climate in which it is not. Attempts to direct market forces towards the reduction of consumption through "green consumerism" vary from the hopelessly optimistic to the thoroughly disingenuous. Furthermore, both voluntary and coercive measures aimed at reducing consumption levels are undermined by forces intrinsic to the emerging globalised market economy.
Free markets and free people?
The resources we consume are traded in markets; these markets are a part of our societies. The relationship between society and market is properly determined by the political decision-making processes of that society, informed by practical considerations and also by moral and cultural values; for instance, most modern societies officially resist the development of markets in slaves, or in votes. We do not regard the organisation of every sphere of human activity as appropriately abdicated to amoral "market forces". However in recent years the ideal of the "free market" has permeated more and more areas of social organisation which had previously been considered to be best governed by more deliberate implementation of specific social priorities; privatisation and deregulation have become central to the dominant economic orthodoxy at all levels. Local authorities must put work out to competitive tender; national utilities and public services must be run as private corporations; companies must be hindered as little as possible in their wealth-creating activities; markets must be self-regulating wherever possible; and powerful new bodies and treaties enforce the "right" of companies from one part of the world to conduct business in another on the same terms as their local competitors.
The political arguments advanced to justify these developments (see O'Neill 1998 for a comprehensive study of the variations) sometimes rely on a pragmatic logic; the fierce "natural selection" process of the global marketplace is happening whether we like it or not, and woe betide any nation or region foolish enough not to recognise that it must "compete in order to survive". Often, however, there is a more ideological tone; the freedom of the market is presented as intimately connected with the freedom of the people.
A free market economy, it is claimed, makes people and enterprises more "efficient" at creating wealth, not least by allowing the powerful forces of self-interest to be directed into entrepreneurial activity. People so motivated are most likely to contribute to the competitiveness and efficiency which are seen as the engines of growth. Since growth, on this model, is the central aim of good economic management, government policy should allow markets to be as free as possible. Governments which do not do this are thus not doing the best for their people.
The implied, and often explicit, conclusion is that to restrict the freedom of the market is to restrict the freedom of people to live their lives as they please; indeed almost any "old-fashioned" centralised planning of a national economy is damned as authoritarian, even totalitarian, by association with the repressive regimes of the former Soviet bloc. This is the final triumphant chorus of old cold-war rhetoric: the "evil empire", it is suggested, was defeated not by military conflict but by economic collapse and domestic discontent, proving beyond doubt the superiority of capitalism over any alternative economic order. Of course this story is vastly more complex than Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis (Fukuyama 1992) would have us believe, if only because the gangster capitalism of the new Russia has yet to prove itself more ethical, durable, beneficial to the population at large or indeed "efficient" than the old order. This point is worth making, not to defend the patently undesirable Soviet system, but simply to question this "guilt by association".
It is far from clear that the lack of freedom to engage in unbridled capitalist enterprise was the decisive factor in causing the people of Eastern Europe to withdraw their support for their governments, ending their experiment with planned economies. There were and are other freedoms at stake which more accurately reflect the richness and fairness of a society. It is the restriction of important freedoms of the person, rather than of the market, which underpin legitimate normative judgements about the undesirability of the old Eastern Bloc regimes, such as that of John O'Neill:
"The rejection of the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe is often conceived of in terms of the "reinvention of civil society". However, the term "civil society" is employed in a number of different senses. Two are of significance here:
(a) civil society refers to the market and
(b) civil society refers to associations that are independent of the state.
(. . .)Where totalitarianism is concerned, it is civil society in the second sense that is of significance, not the first.(. . .) It [totalitarianism] is born of the disappearance not of the market, but of independent associations. The distinguishing feature of totalitarian movements is that they recognise no association or activity that is not subordinate to their own political ends- in Himmler's words "there is no task that exists for its own sake". The possibility of such movements is itself founded on the loosening of other loyalties and associations in modern society, of the creation of the isolated individual. The market economy itself has been a major source of the loosening of such ties." (O'Neill 1998, p.32)
O'Neill makes this point in the context of defending an Aristotelian "critique of the market on the basis of a householding conception of political economy"(ibid., p.33), to which theme I shall later return. I include the quote here to underline the weakness of simplistic historical (as opposed to purely economic) arguments in favour of free markets and against more interventionist planning, taxation and regulatory policies.
The long-running debate about markets and freedom is crucial to the development of environmental and sustainability policy frameworks in both Southern and Northern contexts; I shall be focussing here primarily on its relevance to the Northern component of the global sustainability conundrum, the need to escape the spiral of ever-increasing consumption. I intend to argue that this "loosening of ties and creation of isolated individuals" within the market economy gives rise to conditions conducive not only to repressive regimes but also to unsustainable, inequitable and environmentally damaging levels of consumption. A coherent but pluralist society, in which markets are clearly and effectively circumscribed and regulated, is necessary to escape these conditions. Such a society is characterised by strong communities, thriving voluntary associations of all kinds and, crucially, a high level of public trust and participation in the political process.
It is, in general, purely an article of faith that free markets make for free people. One major flaw (among others) in this easy soundbite logic is the fact that what the overwhelming majority of people have to "trade in the market" is their labour. Free market economics decrees that labour, like any other "commodity", should be bought and sold at prices determined solely by supply and demand. The desire of the employee to have some influence over wage levels is seen as a force to be resisted. People are urged not to "price themselves out of a job": unionisation and industrial action of any kind are discouraged, not only by legislation but often as in 1980's Britain by major mobilisations of physical force. This surely counts as a reduction in freedom. The old fundamental socialist objections to the commodification of labour (cf. Polanyi 1957 ch. 14) and the ensuing imbalance of power between employers and employees under capitalism have lost none of their force, despite becoming politically unmentionable. I do not intend, however, to restate this case here.
On a more abstract note, questions about freedom raise the issue of what it is to be free; more specifically, in a political context, about exactly what it is to be an autonomous individual. The absence of coercion is certainly a necessary condition for autonomy; but it is not sufficient. O'Neill argues (1998, p. 73 ff.) that autonomy also requires the possession of a personal identity, a "character" in the sense meant by Mill when he wrote: "One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character". Identity in this sense is composed not only of choices, factors within the control of the individual, but also of family, community and cultural connections and commitments. Thus
"The person who shifts his ties to projects, to a community, to ideas and values, with the ease with which an individual changes clothes with the changing fashions lacks an identity. They are in Mill's sense characterless." (ibid., p. 75)
"To have an identity involves moving in a mean between two conditions: on the one hand, allowing oneself to live a life for and defined by others, without reflection; on the other, of living a life as if it consisted of endless choices, in which one could in the post-modern jargon 'play' with different identities." (p. 76)
While market societies have historically been praised as bringing autonomy, due largely to their efficiency in breaking down rigid social roles such as existed under feudalism, their destructive effects on traditions and communities can equally erode individual identity to the point of rendering that autonomy useless or illusory. Contemporary consumerism takes this to new extremes, encouraging individuals to "play with different identities" through their lifestyle-defining purchases of goods and services, while undermining the social and ecological bases of their true identities as physical, social human beings. This fosters not autonomy but rootless amnesiac conformity.
Freedom is not just a matter of consumer choice; it requires the ability to know and express who we really are. In the real world this requires safeguarding identity, community and democracy against the corrosive, standardising commodification of unrestrained market forces. As our contemporary ecological crisis forces us to rediscover the emphatically physical roots of our identities as individual humans in the fragile natural world around us, the fundamental opposition between the freedom of the market and the freedom of the person is underlined more starkly than ever.
Efficiency, growth and the limits of "consumer power"
Since the advent of "sustainable development" politics, ushered in by the UN with the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987) and consolidated by the 1992 Rio summit, Northern governments and corporations, and Northern-dominated international bodies, have largely abandoned the previously widespread tactic of publicly dismissing concerns over environmental and resource depletion issues as exaggerated or unimportant. Broadly speaking, the problems have been acknowledged to exist, but reframed as external challenges to be met by fine-tuning the process of global "development", measured primarily by rates of economic growth, rather than as the direct consequences of that process. (Chatterjee & Finger 1994; Karliner 1997; Korten 1996). On this "new" model the economics of the free market assumes a central role in identifying and implementing solutions to environmental problems, which are essentially redefined as "efficiency problems" impeding growth.
Thus what is good for more efficient economic growth is good for sustainability; and what is best for efficient economic growth, according to modern orthodoxy, is a free market. Free markets in the South will lead to increased economic activity and increased wealth, allowing people to somehow buy their way out of their environmental and social problems.( Holland (1997) gives a concise account of the conceptual confusion inherent in this idea of "substitutability"). Historical parallels are cited to support the claim that increased GDP will also lead to falling birth rates. Free markets in the North, meanwhile, will enable people's "preferences for environmental benefits" to influence the trajectory of growth. In the context of consumption patterns, this translates as the claim that if people (or rather "consumers") want sustainability and environmental improvements, they will not want to buy unsustainable or environmentally damaging goods and services: it will therefore become unprofitable to produce them, and hence commercial competition will operate as a benign force, producing more acceptable "environmentally friendly" alternatives.
This "consumer power" argument raises the expectation that problems of inequitable and unsustainable consumption can be solved by the market mechanisms that arguably created them. This is not realistic; the prevailing free market neoliberalism of privatisation, deregulation and the "shrinking state" is irrevocably wedded to an ideology of growth, and thus to increasing production, trade, consumption and spending. (Jacobs 1991) "Green marketing" and corporate environmentalism may conspicuously aim at altering consumption patterns but will never encourage any overall reduction of consumer spending (Beder 1997 p. 176 ff.; Plant & Plant 1991); similarly the message from government tends to be that a growing economy is the central policy goal, and thus monthly "high street spending" figures are almost always presented in a simplistic context of "more is better". Every August in Britain, in between stories about urban smog and lost countryside, we are treated to the standard news item presenting the year's new car sales figures as a barometer of the country's economic health.
"Traditional" green politics, as represented in Britain by the would-be parliamentary Green Party, has been effectively outflanked; the potential constituency for a more radical platform has been narrowed by the superficial greening of the mainstream political parties and the associated "rehabilitation", since Rio, of certain large environmental NGOs (Porritt 1997). Alongside these developments we have also seen a frenzied "greenwashing" of business and industry, especially in the case of large transnational corporations who have correctly identified themselves as vulnerable to being identified as environmental villains. Government, NGOs and industry are presented as "partners" in high-profile initiatives to encourage "sustainable development" while maintaining steady overall economic growth.
We are all environmentalists together now. Nuclear power is "green", and therefore desirable, because it does not contribute to the greenhouse effect by releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Unleaded petrol, catalytic converters, lean-burn engines and "recyclable" body panels make cars "environmentally friendly", so we can buy and drive them guilt-free, like the smiling people in the adverts, as long as we can afford the latest models. Genetically engineered food, "engineered" for resistance to the proprietary herbicides and pesticides manufactured by the same companies that sell the seeds, allowing these toxic substances to be used in much greater quantities without killing the crop, is promoted as a means to make agriculture more efficient, and thus more environmentally responsible.
Technological progress, rolling smoothly across the level playing field of the global free market, will bring such gains in efficiency that all our environmental ills will be cured without having to swallow any nasty medicine of "reduced living standards". And of course, the environmental problems of the southern countries will be solved along with their poverty once free trade and "sustainable development" have raised their GDP to the levels which we enjoy in the north.
Where do these modern myths come from? Advertisements, PR campaigns and political propaganda continually reinforce the message that environmental and "sustainability" issues are no longer a fringe interest but a central concern of all the major public and private sector actors in our complex national and global economies. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, they imply; if we are worried about such issues, rather than criticise government or business we should look first to our own lifestyle choices, to our shopping baskets, to check that we are "doing our bit for the environment" by buying the right environmentally friendly products, by being responsible "green consumers" and thereby sending the right messages to producers by our virtuous purchasing.
Of course any substitution of goods or services by more efficient or sustainable alternatives is welcome, and both producers and consumers should be encouraged to make such substitutions wherever practicable. But market mechanisms can never replace proper regulatory and legislative measures designed to enforce "best practice" in a given industry, or indeed to prohibit those where "best" is deemed not to be good enough.
For example, an American company has recently patented a disposable drinks can containing refrigerant gases which instantly chill the contents on opening the can; they calculate that the powerful lure of cold beer on the beach will propel them toward a ten per cent share of the massive worldwide canned drinks market. No matter how "efficiently" this product is manufactured, its environmental impact at such levels of production would be potentially disastrous; yet its "desirability" may well be sufficiently great to overwhelm the "green" preferences of many consumers. Once such a seductive product becomes widely available, many people will buy it without a thought for the environmental consequences; and even of those who objected to its introduction, only the strongest will be prepared to be the only one on the beach drinking warm beer. (Mobile phones provide a good recent example of this "seduction of principles" phenomenon.) "Consumer power" will therefore be of little or no use in preventing this essentially superfluous product from having a significant impact on climate change by considerably increasing the amount of greenhouse-aggravating refrigerants in circulation, and on pollution, resource depletion and energy wastage through the increased amount of aluminium required to make the more complex cans. The only sensible course of action, say American environmentalists, is to ban the product.
(Unfortunately, even this might not be the end of the story. Perhaps they will succeed in getting its production prohibited in the US; but the company would have little difficulty finding a poorer country with lax environmental regulations prepared to host such a potentially profitable export-oriented industry. Once relocated, the company and its new host country might well be able to use the new "free trade" rules of the World Trade Organisation to make it difficult for other countries to resist the importation of its products. As I shall later show, a number of national environmental regulations have already been undermined by these means.)
This example highlights the inadequacy of simplistic "consumer power" arguments which fail to recognise that many other competing factors and preferences, as well as "greenness", also condition consumer behaviour; it can never be assumed that green preferences are more fundamental or dominant. It also, however, illustrates the naïveté of the unquestioning faith in technological advance to produce improvements in the efficiency and sustainability of goods and services. Technology certainly can and does do this; but it is also continually used to produce seductive new gadgetry and facilities which we never realised we needed or wanted until they came along.
The pace of technological advancement is closely connected with the deliberately short life span of modern consumer products of all kinds, which in turn is a decisive factor in their total environmental impact. The commercial imperative to maintain and increase sales often dictates planned obsolescence- tyres, batteries or cars that last too long are not good for business- and continual technological improvements can make this process publicly acceptable, as it does for instance in the field of consumer electronics. Even the benefits of technological improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency can be reduced, or even cancelled out, by the wasteful rush to buy the new model with all its attendant production costs rather than see out the life span of the old one.
The latest report to the Club of Rome listed fifty impressive examples of cutting-edge technological developments yielding fourfold improvements in efficiency, pointing out that this "efficiency revolution" if sufficiently widespread and well-funded could allow us to "double wealth while halving resource use" (von Weizsäcker et al. 1997). This, the authors suggest, is the way to reduce consumption without affecting our material standards of living. However even these optimistic writers calculate that a universal fourfold increase in resource productivity would be cancelled out in less than thirty years if present growth rates continue. (ibid., p.258) The point is not the exact figures but the fact that even the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates of efficiency cannot deny that continued growth will eventually catch up with any such gains. Indeed in specific industries, as well as overall, market mechanisms will eat away at the resource savings stemming from the "efficiency revolution", wherever they occur: quadrupling the amount of consumable goods a given industry can produce per unit of resource input is likely to be very good for profit margins in the industry in question. In the absence of strong regulatory restraint, this is likely to cause the industry to expand rapidly as investors see it as an increasingly attractive proposition.
Information, persuasion, and virtue
In some cases, comparatively greener products may even increase overall consumption levels; faced with products such as "environmentally friendly air fresheners" and "sustainable forestry" paper towels, conscientious people may buy things they might otherwise avoid. But a marginally "greener" version of a superfluous product is only marginally less destructive than its competitors; and if its success increases the total number of such products produced then its net effect can only be detrimental to the overall objectives of sustainable resource use. Activists (London Greenpeace 1998) point out for instance that the Body Shop, although undoubtedly considerably "greener" than its competitors, is still a major multinational cosmetics company, using vast amounts of industrial chemical ingredients as well as small quantities of highly-publicised botanicals. It is committed to creating and maintaining demand for a huge range of unnecessary luxury products, especially among those who might have principled objections to purchasing similar products from firms with less of a green image. It has even been argued that the success of the Body Shop and of the imitators of its strategies actually reversed a general decline in the cosmetics market (Beder 1997, p.179-80)
The early success of the Body Shop did undoubtedly hasten the reduction in animal testing of cosmetics and established green credentials and "natural ingredients" as a major advantage in the cosmetics market; this ensured that other players in this particular market became pioneers of the now widespread art of "greenwashing" their products.
In 1996, MORI categorised 36% of its British poll respondents as "green consumers" on the basis of their claim to have "selected one product over another because of its environmentally friendly packaging, formulation or advertising" (Worcester 1997, p.166). This compared with 19% in 1988, (although it continued the steady decline from a peak of 50% in 1990).
It is fair to assume that no-one watches these trends more closely than marketing and advertising professionals, and that given the emergence of an important new desirable attribute ("environmental friendliness") for products to possess, they would have worked hard to present their clients' products as possessing it. In some cases this will certainly have been achieved by genuine improvements to the products; but in many instances it will have been easier and cheaper to focus on changes in its presentation. In the absence of any coherent or respected "eco-labelling" scheme, shoppers are, as ever, entirely at the mercy of producers' and advertisers' cleverly-worded and often spurious or misleading claims. Nobody expects the average shopper to be able to perform a full life-cycle analysis and environmental impact assessment of their prospective purchase in the supermarket aisle: it is equally unrealistic to expect consumers to be as linguistically and psychologically sophisticated as the highly-paid professionals whose entire career is built on their ability to persuade others to buy things.
This problem of persuasion and misinformation goes to the heart of the question of "consumer power". The neo-classical economic theory behind the claim that consumers' choices will lead producers by the nose to produce greener products relies, among other conditions, on a free flow of information. The principle of informed rational choice is, as a general rule, essential to the "efficient" operation of markets.
Yet the flow of product information to the consumer in societies like modern Britain could hardly be said to be free. It is the most highly conditioned, mediated and psychologised stream of messages that our state-of-the-art "creative" industries can produce. Conditions of obsessive secrecy surround the precise ingredients and composition of many present products, and the design of future ones. Billions of pounds are spent on persuading people to see essentially identical products as different, and essentially different ones as identical. We are continually cajoled and exhorted all our lives to want more, newer, better, bigger, smaller, whiter, sweeter, faster...every human drive and desire is targeted by those who aim to turn it into a purchase. As we go about our daily life, we are continually and involuntarily exposed to an intense barrage of sophisticated commercial messages of all kinds. Every age, class, ethnic and socioeconomic group is analysed for its potential weaknesses and targeted accordingly. In this context, that 36% of the population that allegedly constitute "green consumers" represent a great marketing opportunity; an easily targeted group whose susceptibilities are unusually well-defined. Informed rational choice under these conditions is quite simply impossible.
Studies show that while almost everybody denies that their consumption choices are influenced by advertising, almost nobody is in fact immune to its blandishments. Advertisers manipulate and enlarge existing markets, and create others from scratch, by convincing us that their products are the answer to all our problems and needs, from those which dominate our lives to those which we didn't even know we had. To claim that producers simply respond to consumer power is to seriously distort the true picture.
This raises the deeper issue of the legitimacy of shifting responsibility for excessive production and consumption from producers to consumers. Once "green consumerism" is enshrined as the means to our ecological salvation, producers of less than green products can simply "throw up their hands and say 'the consumers made me do it!'"( Luke 1993). Industries are presented as simply responding to people's purchasing decisions. They just produce what people want; by exercising consumer choice, for good or bad, we as economically active individuals can gradually recreate the world according to our preferences. If you don't like something, don't buy it and it will go away. One of the holes in this argument is that we don't always have a choice- consider for instance agrochemical-contaminated food, nuclear power, or cars where public transport has disappeared.
More fundamentally, even where there is a choice it seems bizarre for the responsibility (and often moral censure) to fall on the purchasers of a superfluous or damaging product rather than on its producers and marketers. To take a contentious analogy, although we do prosecute those who knowingly purchase stolen goods, this is usually seen as a lesser crime than the original theft; but in the case of excessive or environmentally damaging consumption we tend to reverse this logic.
Suppose a man goes out and buys a big shiny new car to drive to work in, when a smaller one (or perhaps even a bicycle or a train season ticket) would have sufficed. Now suppose when he gets to work he meets an environmentally concerned colleague who is affronted by this extravagance. He will probably be exhorted to think of all the extra petrol he will be burning every day, all the extra pollution (and perhaps climate change) he will be causing by using the car, and perhaps the even greater amount of pollution and resource depletion caused by its manufacture. He may also be held responsible for traffic congestion, pedestrian fatalities, and the destruction of the countryside. His colleague may call him reckless, selfish and irresponsible; the basic message is that had he been virtuous, he would not have bought the car.
Now let us add a little background detail. Suppose our driver works long hours in a highly stressed job which he does not enjoy, to pay the high mortgage on the house he needs to be within reach of his work. Suppose his wife also works and is equally stressed; their teenage children see them as the enemy; their marriage is in serious difficulty. His half-hour drive to and from work is the only time he has to himself. For the past six months every evening on television he has been seduced by visions of gleaming metal and soft leather upholstery, coaxed into believing that this particular purring cocoon can turn that frustrating half-hour drive through the rush-hour traffic into the oasis of calm and tranquillity he so desperately wants in his life. Cleverly targeted and wooed by the advertisers, he finally succumbed and bought the car. Where is the real lack of virtue here?
Should the driver have been stronger? Should he, like Jesus in the desert, have had the supreme willpower to resist the temptations whispered in his ear by the forked tongue of General Motors? Isn't that asking rather a lot of him? To the charge of "ungreen consumption" he might well be advised to plead "guilty- but with extreme mitigating circumstances". (Perhaps a more adventurous lawyer might even attempt a plea of innocence on the grounds of diminished responsibility...)
If this "defence on the grounds of mitigating circumstances" is persuasive in the case of the purchase of a new car, perhaps the most environmentally damaging single item most of us will ever buy, then it is surely more so in the case of smaller purchases whose environmental impact is less obvious; and yet more so where the products have been advertised as vaguely "greener" than their competitors.
Certainly a significant minority does resist the diabolical temptations, either because their income simply does not allow for non-essential purchases or because they are lucky enough to have sufficient other sources of happiness and contentment in their lives to make them less susceptible. But the unfortunate truth is that in our fragmented and individualistic societies the offer of sensual gratification or social kudos in exchange for a little money is, for many, often sufficient to outweigh the urge to be a "green consumer".
Under existing social and commercial conditions, then, it is entirely unrealistic to expect consumers to be ecologically virtuous on behalf of the corporate forces of production and marketing. For this is what the ideal of change through consumer power demands; that people as consumers should act (i.e. consume) according to their beliefs about the rightness and desirability of sustainability and environmental responsibility, while accepting that other people, as businessmen and advertisers, should be guided only by the amoral profit-maximising rules of the market.
Even if they could be persuaded to shoulder this unequal burden, individuals will still never change the world significantly by going shopping. To have real and lasting effect, "green" principles (like any others) need to become widely-shared normative social values, which guide not only private individual behaviour but also the policy-making and daily practice of governmental, legislative and regulatory bodies. Just as the existence of consumer choice does not constitute freedom, so the exercise of consumer choice is no substitute for political engagement. For instance, isolated individuals are unlikely to be able or willing to resist the consumption-driving influence of advertising; but their communities and societies potentially can, both by cultural support for citizenship and responsible action, and where necessary by direct regulation and/or taxation of production, investment, and indeed advertising itself.
Consumption and "Quality of Life"
Where mainstream piety and more radical green thinking about consumption diverge is at the point of recognising/ countenancing the necessity for the dreaded "reduction in living standards"; a real net decrease in personal consumption in Northern countries, with significant changes in material prosperity as we presently measure it, and a renunciation at the personal as well as the institutional level of the goal of ever-increasing monetary wealth.
To advocate this is to deny the primacy of simple GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth as the objective of macro-economic management; a nation of people individually consuming less is unlikely to have a rising GDP for long, notwithstanding the optimistic claim that improved efficiency can achieve both simultaneously. As has often been shown (von Weizsäcker et al. 1997, pp. 271-274; Douthwaite 1992; Daly & Cobb 1989) there is no necessary connection between GDP, which measures capital turnover, and levels of human well-being. GDP figures are, to begin with, blind to inequitable wealth distribution patterns within societies. They also include as "positive" increases in economic activity the costs of accidents, injuries and environmental disasters while excluding the value of unpaid "informal" work such as childcare; and as economic statistics they obviously cannot reflect non-economic "goods" such as family and community cohesion, public safety, job satisfaction or environmental quality. Considerable work has been done in the field of developing more sophisticated indicators of "quality of life" to guide economic and development policy-making (e.g. Max-Neef 1991; Daly and Cobb 1989); but these have yet to supplant GDP in any significant national or international policy-making arena. Economic growth remains the fundamental goal of national and international economic policy; this translates into a perceived need to encourage continually increasing economic activity on the part of individual producers and consumers.
In this context, it is no surprise that governments join with business interests in implacable opposition to any "extremist" policy suggestions that threaten GDP growth. Although powerful corporate lobbying certainly encourages this opposition (Korten 1996), it also emerges as a consequence of quite legitimate concerns about the alleviation of the relative poverty and massive inequalities that exist within affluent industrialised countries. Those arguing for a bigger slice of the pie to go to the poor are often understandably wary of anything that might result in a smaller pie. This is also why environmentalists looking to make common cause with social justice groups tend to have to tone down or abandon their calls for reduced consumption. Describing the creation of the Real World coalition of NGOs formed in 1996 "to force sustainability issues onto the agenda of the  general election", Jonathan Porritt observes that:
"Many environmental organisations are uneasy that it has proved almost impossible, against a backdrop of widening disparities in income, to confront the whole issue of overconsumption in countries like the UK. Just so long as the discourse remains fixed in the reassuring domain of more ethically-responsible, environment-friendly consumption, it is all sweetness and light. Head off into the territory of less consumption and down come the shutters." (Porritt 1997, p. 72-3)
As Michael Jacobs points out, the objective of reducing overall consumption levels in Northern industrialised countries such as the UK could hardly be "further from the political mainstream";
"Personal consumption has become a dominant, even a defining feature of contemporary society, and its promotion probably the single most important objective of modern politics, more or less unquestioned right across the political spectrum." (Jacobs 1997a, p.47)
This does not of course make the message misguided, but it does tend to marginalise its appeal; and as an appeal to individuals to change their behaviour it will remain ineffective if it cannot influence the bulk of the population. There are however more fundamental problems with the strategy of appealing to individuals to be righteous, especially when the righteousness being urged is of a kind that is at odds with prevailing social practice. Any new moral injunction which conflicts with an existing framework may be quite properly weighed against other moral considerations (for instance, doing the best for one's children), and also against practical considerations.
If I have reason to doubt that my personal sacrifice will have any meaningful effect on the global problems whose solution I am being urged to share responsibility for, it is far from clear that I should make that sacrifice. I will need further convincing; and on the face of it this can take one (or both) of two forms. Either I must be persuaded that the apparent sacrifice is in fact illusory since I will actually feel better off, not worse, once it has been made; or I must be persuaded that such large numbers of others will be following a similar course of action that our apparently insignificant individual actions will after all add up to a meaningful total effect on the problem, bringing benefits which make our sacrifices worthwhile.
Jacobs argues convincingly that the first of these options will not work on its own. Firstly, to claim that people will feel individually better off if they consume less is "almost certainly not true", since it ignores the fact that for all but the highest income groups even relatively small increases in consumption ( for instance, spending a little extra disposable income on goods such as books, music or sports) can and do bring about a genuinely increased sense of individual wellbeing, through the personal development such goods can facilitate. Furthermore, even apparently superfluous goods acquired purely because of the "competitive consumption" phenomenon (ever-faster cars, or £100 trainers for teenagers) do undeniably contribute to their purchasers' sense of wellbeing, whether or not we think they should. Increased consumption leads to increased social status (or indeed simply to maintenance of one's existing status if others' consumption is equally increased) and thus to increased self-worth and increased wellbeing. In attempting to break this cycle
"...it is surely useless to ask individuals to reduce their consumption voluntarily or to see themselves as better off if they do not play the comparative game. This is to view people in isolation from the society to which they belong; or to ask them to break from this society to join another, minority one of low-consumers.
As studies of "downshifting" show, very few people are able to do this: the pressures of social conformity (indeed, of "belonging") are too great. The mistake here is to adopt the neo-liberal assumption that the consumer is a sovereign individual, making autonomous choices in free markets. In fact, contrary to appearances, consumption is not a purely individual form of behaviour. It is a social force in which individuals are bound up, and only those with strong will and alternative social networks are able to escape." (ibid., p.51)
(Green activists, theorists, and ideologues, of course, usually do have strong will and alternative social networks to support them in their low-consumption lifestyle choices. Their own well-being is also increased by the satisfaction of knowing that they are at least attempting to live according to their principles. This may explain why they have arguably over-estimated the appeal to the "unconverted" of the individual well-being argument for reducing personal consumption.)
Any convincing account of the benefits accruing to the individual through reduced consumption must recognise the social nature of the consumption behaviour at issue. It must address the question of what others in society do and why, not attempt to treat the individual as an isolated single agent. This is true not only for the practical reasons Jacobs gives but as an instance of a more general point.
Quality of Life and Community
To attempt to persuade an individual to act as a good citizen purely by appeal to their individual self-interest, with no mention of the virtues or benefits of citizenship or society as such, is sophistry; it lowers the standard of political argument and treats the individual as a malleable recipient of propaganda, or at best a potential ally in a strategic coalition, rather than as an enfranchised participant in a deliberative process. It is also hopeless as a means of building a coherent and resilient society; an association whose members are bound together not by any sense of community, fellowship or shared values but only by expediency may dissolve at any moment as either circumstances or members' individual interests change. Conversely a society knitted together by diverse threads of loyalties, commitments and associations, connecting each individual to many others in rewarding relationships based on values outside the sphere of the market, is both more resilient as a whole and more conducive to individual happiness. From an Aristotelian perspective such as that of Bronislaw Szerszynski, thriving voluntary associations not only serve to foster the non-materialist values essential to reducing consumption and creating a more sustainable society, they are:
"valued in their own right as forms of human flourishing; or, in language more familiar to sustainable development debates, as contributions to the 'quality of life'." ( Szerszynski 1997, p. 158)
It might seem then that exhortations to consume less might be rephrased to refer to the benefits to the individual of belonging to a society in which we all consumed less and yet our lives as a whole were better, not worse. This is to make a step beyond purely economic measurement of well-being and to introduce the wider concept of "quality of life". The concept includes both monetary and non-monetary components of well-being, such as physical and mental health, strength of family and community support, levels of both actual personal safety and of the fear of crime, and the availability of facilities for one's chosen pursuits. "Consumable" environmental goods such as clean air and water, green open spaces in cities and beautiful unspoilt places to go to on holiday are evidently an important part of the quality of life; but other less tangible benefits, such as an alleviation of the widespread sense of gloom and powerlessness about the state of the global environment, or a reduction of relentless competitive pressure at work, are arguably also among the improvements in the quality of life that could be claimed to result from a general reduction in consumption levels. To these may be added better personal health through improved diet and reduced stress, continued availability of many resources which are presently heading for exhaustion, and so forth.
Arguing in this way allows all the projected benefits of sustainability to "show up on the balance sheet" to counteract the loss individuals stand to feel from reducing their consumption, thus combining the two forms of argument originally suggested above; for instance, cleaner air and reduced traffic congestion due to a widespread reduction in car use may effectively compensate me for my sacrifice in reducing my own car use.
However this is still an asymmetrical appeal to individual interests; if we all use our cars less I stand to gain an increase in my quality of life. The most obvious problem with this is that I still stand to gain this benefit even if I do not reduce my own car use, as long as many others do. Indeed in this situation I can enjoy the benefits of my own car use as well as those accruing to me from others' non-use; if most people are taking the bus to work I can drive quickly and easily along the uncongested streets, then step out of my car and breathe the cleaner air. From a purely self-interested perspective this may in fact be a more attractive option; and I may not only be tempted to take it myself but also rationally expect others to come to the same conclusion. This expectation may well cause me to doubt the feasibility of the whole project and thus further reduce the likelihood of my complying with the appeal to use my car less.
This is hardly news; arguments of this form are routinely advanced in an attempt to make the point that such voluntary measures cannot work. But this is not the whole story. Although it may often be true in practice that such "free rider" problems are fatal to policies of voluntary restraint, the idea that there is some logical inevitability to this is clearly mistaken. The argument relies on strong assumptions about the social and political background to the individual's deliberations; specifically, it is assumed that there are no constraints or benefits of morality, community or citizenship strong enough to outweigh or even moderate the narrow self-interest served by disregarding a voluntary code of behaviour.
Garrett Hardin (1977) famously illustrated a similar argument by reference to a hypothetical piece of common land on which local herdsmen all keep their cattle. Recognising the possibility of overgrazing they agree a limit to the number of cows each may graze on the common. Each then calculates that they stand to gain by adding extra animals over and above their quota while others abide by the agreement; thus all (or at least many) of them will overgraze and the common will eventually be irretrievably degraded.
In fact, in contexts such as medieval Britain which approximate most closely to Hardin's fictional situation, the commons were usually well-managed over long periods. The commoners were often embedded in close communities with strong moral and religious traditions, and practical codes of acceptable behaviour stemming from generations of intimate local knowledge; if indeed they were tempted to act as Hardin suggests these social bonds restrained them from doing so. The historical evidence may be inconclusive; but even as a hypothesis, it is clear that such social factors can invalidate Hardin's claim that "the tragedy of the commons" is the inevitable outcome of such a situation.
In fact, despite the misleading title of Hardin's paper, the situation he describes is not one of responsible common ownership of a resource, but of no ownership at all, and no common morality either; it might be more accurately called "the tragedy of the wild frontier". The "prisoner's dilemma" models from game theory, of which Hardin's scenario is an elaboration, refer explicitly to the rational choices of self-interested individuals who not only have no concern for one another or any shared community values, but cannot even communicate with each other.
The apparent intractability of such "free rider" problems is thus due in no small measure to a particular atomistic conception of the individual, and an associated picture of a society of expedient associations with negligible coherence. The evidence surely supports a more optimistic view of the coherence of at least some human communities within every society, sometimes despite the fragmenting influences of surrounding culture. This coherence is arguably being destroyed by modern market societies; but it has not yet vanished entirely. Viewing, analysing and governing our societies as if it had already disappeared will only hasten its demise. Nurturing and celebrating community is a central part of any meaningful progress towards sustainability.
To be effective, then, arguments attempting to persuade individuals to consume less by holding out the promise of increased quality of life must appeal to them as part of a community, to a sense of shared or collective interests rather than purely personal ones. Some sense of what we stand to gain from our actions, which include all our individual actions, is essential. Obviously this in turn requires that the individual has a meaningful sense of "we" which can be appealed to. Determined individualists who refuse to see themselves as part of a community are simply not amenable to these arguments; not only because they resent the interference with their "right" to consume as they please, but because their picture of society does not allow them to see how such measures could ever work. Equally those who simply do not feel part of a community, even though they would like to, will not be persuaded by such arguments for the benefits of voluntary restraint.
This sense of community, of citizenship, implies a feeling of being genuinely included, both as someone whose interests matter and as someone who has a meaningful voice in the political process. It also requires that the community in question is readily definable, of a comprehensible scale and capable of acting on the will of its members; for all these reasons, vague and idealistic notions of the "global community" cannot fulfil this role. A sense of connection and "common destiny" with the human species as a whole is probably desirable in its own right, and indeed essential to a clear understanding of our ecological predicament; but it is no substitute for cohesive local communities, or for just and inclusive societies. In fact, ironically, at this point in our history it is at the level of global bodies claiming to act for "all of humanity" that the greatest threat is posed to such societies, and to the sustainable lifestyles which they alone can foster.
The global picture- "free trade" versus democracy and environmental regulation
Voluntary reductions in consumption, then, tend to require a feeling of membership of a community; a "belief in society", specifically including a more general belief in and identification with the ends of environmental and "sustainability" policy.
These conditions are equally necessary for more coercive legal and regulatory environmental measures to be acceptable and effective. As I have suggested, voluntary measures alone are unlikely to be effective in bringing production and consumption within the limits of sustainability; and it is extremely difficult for a government to successfully introduce and operate coercive environmental legislation unless it is clearly mandated to do so. This in turn requires that such policies and their enforcement mechanisms be seen to issue from clearly just and democratic sources, and therefore to be perceived as embodying and implementing the will of citizens.
Such public identification with the aims and methods of local and national government environmental policy-making is widely seen to be lacking at present and in Britain, as elsewhere, considerable practical and theoretical work is underway on improving and increasing public awareness of and participation in environmental decision-making processes, particularly through "Local Agenda 21" programmes (Young 1997). Public participation, however, is of little practical use, and may even produce only disillusionment, unless decision-making bodies are both willing and able to implement the publicly held priorities which emerge.
In the environmental sphere, as in others, anything which reduces the ability of democratic institutions to legislate and act in pursuit of popularly supported objectives will undermine public confidence in those institutions as effective, responsive and representative champions of the public interest. Thus any restriction of the powers of such institutions not only has a direct primary effect (for instance a relaxation of regulatory standards) but an aggravating secondary effect of further reducing the sense of empowered citizenship which encourages individuals to act in pursuit of wider public goods.
When forces producing or urging such restrictions come from within a sovereign nation state, they are at least in theory capable of being moderated, appeased or overruled by government, on behalf of the electorate, as part of the normal democratic process. However we are now increasingly seeing restriction of the legislative and regulatory capabilities of nation states themselves, irrespective of the wishes of their citizens or of their elected representatives, issuing from the powerful bodies created by international "free trade" agreements.
Informed commentators agree, whether they welcome (Ohmae 1996) or oppose (Korten 1996) the trend, that national sovereignty in the sphere of trade and economic policy is receding fast. Nation states can no longer maintain control over exchange rates and protect their currencies, as the volume of "private" money traded in foreign exchange markets dwarfs the reserves that used to permit effective governmental intervention (Ohmae p.152; Korten pp. 183-226). Nor can they effectively resist cross-border flows of capital, investment, goods, services or people. To a large and growing extent, they respond to, rather than shape or initiate, changes in global market conditions.
Since the demise of the Soviet bloc and the "opening up" of China to foreign investment, only a few "maverick" states have made any serious attempts to resist this encroachment on their economic sovereignty. Although, as recent events in South-East Asia
have shown, the strategy is immensely risky, the standard aim of macroeconomic policy is now to create conditions favourable to "inward investment", to attract capital from the global markets to finance domestic projects, and to curry favour with the prime movers of economic growth, the transnational corporations.
A 1996 study (Anderson & Cavanagh) showed that of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 were global corporations- only 49 were countries. Mitsubishi was larger than the fourth most populous nation on Earth, Indonesia. General Motors was bigger than Denmark, and Toyota bigger than Norway. The same study cited UN figures revealing that one third of recorded world trade actually represented transactions between different units of the same corporation.
By a combination of political pragmatism, commercial persuasion and shared economic ideology, the trading conditions preferred by transnational corporations have become the principal aim of most national and international economic policy-making. (Korten 1996) Even governments such as the New Labour administration in Britain, which ostensibly subscribe to other ideals in their social policies, continue to implement the neoliberal "free market" economic policies which favour the continued flourishing of major global corporations. Where economic and social policy priorities come into conflict, as they increasingly do, the "argument" (or more accurately the blind faith) that economic growth, whatever its short term costs, will bring the desired social benefits in its wake, usually ensures that the corporations' preferred economic climate continues to prevail.
Central to this neoliberal agenda is the removal, in the name of "efficiency", of remaining "barriers" to the free movement of goods, capital and investment. This translates as the systematic erosion of any differences in local trading conditions caused by anything other than "pure" market forces. This includes not only "protectionist" trade policies favouring domestic over foreign enterprises, but also the "rolling back" of regulations and legislation which "distort" the market. Prominent examples of such legislation are regulations protecting public health and safety, rights to union recognition and secure (or "inflexible") contracts of employment. Increasingly, however, laws, regulations and practices promoting environmental protection, animal welfare and sustainability are also being targeted as "impediments to free trade".
This colonisation of other policy areas by economic ideology is partly achieved by influential corporate lobbying of governments at the national level. Another important development is the creation of "free trade areas" such as the EU, NAFTA in North America, MERCOSUR in Latin America, and others in the pipeline. Within these areas, national sovereignty over trade policy is reduced in order to create the much-vaunted "level playing field". On a truly global level, the long-running negotiations under the auspices of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) created, on January 1, 1995, a powerful body that may prove to be the most significant actor in the consolidation of the power of "free trade" orthodoxy: the World Trade Organisation.
Paragraph 4 of Article XVI of the voluminous GATT agreement creating the WTO states that "each member shall ensure the conformity of its laws, regulations and administrative procedures with its obligations as provided in the annexed agreements". (cited in Korten p.174) The annexed agreements are a series of multilateral agreements on freedom of trade in goods, services and "intellectual property rights". The WTO is essentially a body created to adjudicate disputes arising where one country believes it is being disadvantaged by laws of another country which infringe these agreements, and where necessary to enforce this "conformity" through fines and trade sanctions.
In practice, no country has yet risked these enforcement measures, (which potentially amount to almost total economic isolation), by refusing to bring its laws into line with WTO accepted "international standards". In almost every case, this results in a lowering or relaxing of national or local standards of health, safety, labour or environmental protection. Thus what is presented as the "harmonisation" of international standards is in practice the enforced reduction of those standards to levels which are considered acceptable to the representatives of globalised trade, rather than to citizens and democratically elected governments. (Finger & Kilcoyne, 1997).
The only acceptable form of justification for local standards which exceed international ones (which are usually, and increasingly, set by the industry in question, or by bodies dominated by industry representatives) is "scientific evidence". A government which, for example, imposes an import ban on a foreign product in response to public concern over safety, health, environmental, welfare or animal rights therefore has no defence other than to attempt to create a scientific justification for the trade-restricting actions which it took for
other reasons altogether. Local interests are not considered a valid basis for local laws. Regulations and practices of local and regional authorities are also subject to challenge before the WTO, even though those authorities are not themselves signatories of GATT: national governments are held responsible for the compliance of local authorities within their borders.
Challenges are always nominally brought in the name of one country (or group of countries) against another. In practice, however, transnational corporations who find their interests threatened tend to encourage and help nation states (not necessarily their countries of origin) to bring cases which will benefit them. For instance, the recent WTO decision outlawing the British practice of maintaining import tariffs favouring bananas from the Windward Islands (as a form of post-colonial development aid) arose out of a case brought technically by Ecuador, but orchestrated and funded by American multinationals who have vast plantations in that country producing bananas at a much lower unit cost than the small-scale independent farmers of the Caribbean can match.
A May 1997 ruling overturned the European Union's ban on the import of beef and dairy products produced using the genetically engineered growth hormone rBST. The ban had been introduced in response to widespread popular concern over the health risks of chemicals in food; but under WTO rules the only admissible evidence was scientific proof that use of the hormone endangered human health. Scientific opinion was divided on the matter, and thus the WTO panel found the trade-restricting measure to be unjustified. Of course the uncertainty of the risks was and remains a major factor in the level of public unease which had produced the ban; but such "precautionary principle" measures are not legitimate under the new regime. The case was brought by the USA, the major user of rBST, but was widely seen as essentially a victory for Monsanto, who produce the chemical. (Retallack 1997)
One of the WTO's first rulings, in January 1996, was in favour of Brazil and Venezuela who argued that the sections of the US Clean Air Act which set stringent purity standards for gasoline (aimed at reducing atmospheric pollution) discriminated against foreign producers which could not meet them. The US Environmental Protection Agency, in May 1997, relaxed the standards to comply with the ruling, to the dismay of environmental groups which had fought long and hard against oil industry opposition to get the standards adopted in the first place.
Even before the WTO came into being, under the GATT rules that preceded it another American import restriction, on tuna caught by methods which kill dolphins, was undermined after Mexico successfully argued that the way in which a product is produced may not be used as grounds for trade discrimination. A prominent US campaigner was quoted at the time as saying: "This case is the smoking gun. We have actually seen GATT declare that a US environmental law [the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act] must go." (quoted in von Weizsacker et al 1997, p.285) The difference now under the WTO is that decisions like this are much more enforceable. The effect is not only to challenge existing legislation but to create pressure on nation states to ensure that future legislation of any kind does not interfere with free trade under WTO rules.
The WTO was explicitly envisaged and created to work closely with the Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, rather than with the United Nations, in developing frameworks for global trade and finance (Korten 1996, Karliner 1997). All three are secretive, unaccountable organisations with massive power and influence, which are effectively capable of dictating to nation states, rather than being constrained by the need to respect and implement the priorities of national interests as determined by domestic politics. To free marketeers and globalisation enthusiasts this is seen as a virtue; nation states are represented as increasingly impotent, ineffective and irrelevant, and the UN and all its associated bodies, as a collection of deadlocked national interests, as even more so.(e.g. Ohmae 1996; Schmidheiny 1992).
The institution of the sovereign nation state is indeed facing many difficult and complex challenges to its effectiveness at this end of the twentieth century, not least those raised by the environmental and social effects of the global economy. But satisfactory responses to these challenges are not to be found by transferring power over economic affairs to unelected institutions which view all other considerations as secondary to the central goal of encouraging growth by making life easier for big business. Nations do at least attempt to serve the interests of people as citizens, not only as consumers; the shortcomings of democracy certainly do not justify abandoning it in favour of a de facto global government which serves the interests of no-one except the infinitesimal minority of the world's population who stand to benefit from the success of the mighty corporations.
To return to the specific question of consumption levels, the growing power of bodies such as the WTO is clearly a direct threat to the development of sustainability policies at a national or local level which aim at reducing resource consumption through environmental legislation and regulation. The universal imposition of lax "international standards" in the arena of environmental regulation will dramatically reduce the ability of countries or local authorities to set higher standards in response to local factors, or indeed simply to the wishes of their electorate.
By reducing the power and effectiveness of democratic institutions it is also likely to be destructive of citizens' trust in their governments' will and ability to respond to their concerns. Although this may stimulate the emergence of alternative mutually supportive networks and highly politicised resistance movements among some strong-willed free-thinking individuals, in society at large it is more likely to destroy community and increase the general sense of powerlessness and fatalism, causing people to become further detached from social, political and environmental ideals. The flourishing and largely unregulated global advertising and marketing industries will ensure that these social conditions fulfil their potential to translate into continued growth in consumption, at ever-greater cost to human communities, other species, and the integrity of the natural systems on which we depend for life.
Freedom revisited: the interests of people and the interests of corporations
It has been widely observed that to call this process of globalisation "free trade" is wildly inaccurate. The inexorable erosion of any conditions which favour small local traders (with ties and responsibilities to local communities) over the local outposts of giant corporations is as destructive of free trade in the sense envisaged by Adam Smith and David Ricardo as it is of individual autonomy and environmental diversity (Daly & Cobb 1989, ch. 11). David Korten (1996) argues that we are witnessing the consolidation of a hugely powerful oligopoly of global corporations whose members effectively control most of the resources and productive capacity of the planet. These corporate bodies, while competing fiercely in their chosen markets, also co-operate extensively in manipulating governments and international organisations into promoting the advancement of their shared interests. Insofar as there is a coherent globalisation project, it is these interests which dictate its form and goals.
The only freedom associated with "free trade" is the freedom of these transnational corporations to trade as and where they please. As Karl Polanyi prophetically observed more than fifty years ago:
"With the liberal the idea of freedom thus degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise- which is today reduced to a fiction by the hard reality of giant trusts and princely monopolies. This means the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property." (Polanyi 1957, p.257)
This is freedom of capital, not of people; this distinction is rarely made, and these days usually obscured. In fact the rest of the world has effectively followed the lead of the American legal system, which ever since a Supreme Court judgement of 1886 considers a private corporation to be a "natural person" under the U.S. Constitution and thereby entitled to the protections of the Bill of Rights, including the right to free speech and the same right as any individual to attempt to influence the government in pursuit of its own interest. (Korten 1997 p. 59)
We are encouraged to think of businesses as legal persons who, like individual human citizens, have a basic right in a liberal democracy to carry on their chosen activities, to pursue their own good unhindered, and correspondingly to lobby and negotiate in the political arena to protect their interests against those of others with which they come into conflict. But a corporation is not a person, despite the American legal system's definition, and it is certainly not a citizen. Even leaving aside weighty moral and metaphysical questions about whether a corporation can be said to have interests at all, in any sense analogous to the sense in which human beings have them, it is clear that its interests will not necessarily be compatible with those of human beings. A corporation's interests, as a profit-making concern, are essentially financial. It has no direct interests in public goods such as a habitable and beautiful environment; evidently it has an indirect interest in the existence of the conditions its employees and customers need to survive, but only as means to its ultimate financial ends. For humans the priorities are reversed; despite appearances, we have only an indirect interest in acquiring money, as a means to our other more fundamental ends which however we describe them must always include non-financial goods such as a habitable environment and a supportive community. As the Cree Indians allegedly put it to the white settlers who plundered the once-abundant natural resources of their ancient homeland, you cannot eat money.
A corporation's interests thus can never be identical with those of people at large, nor even of its own employees; it is often claimed that its interests are those of its shareholders, but even this is true only in a narrow sense. Firstly those shareholders may well be largely composed of other corporate bodies; and even to the extent that they are individual people their interests are served by the corporation's success only within the financial sphere. Non-financial interests such as a habitable environment can only be, at best, contingently and indirectly served by bodies which exist purely to make and multiply money as efficiently as possible.
To extend to such a body the right of a citizen to campaign for its own interests in the political and decision-making processes of a human society leads inevitably to an under-representation of non-financial interests in those processes. Consider any situation in which a committee of people are deliberating as to whether to proceed with a profitable but environmentally destructive scheme. Each person stands to gain financially but also to share in the loss of a public good, namely environmental quality; the decision-making process consists of the difficult task of weighing these two essentially incommensurate quantities against each other. Suppose they find the two to be of roughly equivalent weight, and thus cannot make a decision. If they are joined by another person with a similar financial interest, the newcomer will have to make the same difficult calculation, and the outcome may well still be indecision. But if the newcomer is not a person but a corporation, it will bring to the table a decisive vote in favour of prioritising the financial interest, unmodified by any consideration of the public good in which it strictly has no interest. In this hypothetical finely-balanced situation, this may well cause the decision to go the way the corporation favoured. The fact that just one participant in the process was a corporation, not a human being, was the decisive factor. In practice, of course, commercial interests are intimately involved in political decisions, and in legal challenges to those decisions; indeed they have considerably more privileged access to these processes than non-profit-making bodies, and vastly more than individual citizens.
This is not to suggest that the interests, financial and otherwise, of the people who work for corporations should not count for anything in the political process; they should, as should everyone else's. The objection is to counting the interests of a private profit-making corporation per se; as an amoral, non-human agent with no interest in public goods, it simply has no defensible place in human politics. If its interests and those of humans were identical, its enfranchisement would be merely a curious anomaly; but where they are different it will inevitably shift the objectives of government away from those of real human people. On the issue of achieving a reduction in consumption, the two sets of interests are, as I have suggested, almost diametrically opposed.
Aristotle and the World Trade Organisation
The distinction between acquiring money as a means to an end and acquiring it as an end in itself goes back, as Karl Polanyi (1957, p.53) realised, to Aristotle. For Aristotle, human well-being or "the good life" is not reducible to the mere satisfaction of preferences but has definable content, and can be pursued by the cultivation of various virtues; any sphere of human activity or behaviour can potentially be examined in this light to discern the relevant virtuous course of action. The task of politics is to create and maintain a society which fosters these virtues and thus maximises well-being. Even this general assertion is often taken to constitute a telling critique of the values of market society, in which preference satisfaction is taken as the primary measure of well being, irrespective of the content or type of the preferences. But a more specific criticism is derived from Aristotle's description of the art of household management, involving the acquisition of goods only up to the point of sufficency for meeting need, as opposed to the trader's "wealth-getting art" of the acquisition of goods and money without limit, as an end in its own right.
These two forms of acquisition, says Aristotle, are easily confused, especially by those who "as their desires are unlimited, also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit" (Politics, 1258). But the two are distinct, and acquisition without limit is not the aim of good household management. (This in itself contrasts sharply with, for instance, Margaret Thatcher's famous evocation of households as market players in a "shareholding society".) For Aristotle, excessive consumption was unequivocally seen as a departure from virtue.
Aristotle goes on to suggest that the economic affairs of larger units of human societies (in his own context, the polis) should be managed in an analogous way to households, with a view to comfortably meeting needs rather than to endlessly increasing wealth. The point is developed, and applied to modern environmental concerns, in O'Neill (1993).
This has considerable resonance with modern critiques of growth as the end of economic management, such as Herman Daly's concept of the "steady state economy". On the specifically political level, however, my point here is to draw a parallel between the confusion Aristotle mentions and that which arises in the present day from the practice of regarding modern profit-making corporations, and their powerful collective voice, such as expressed by the WTO, as legitimate participants in themselves in political lobbying and decision-making. Anything approximating to an Aristotelian householding model of virtuous political economy, including any policy of deliberately limiting or reducing consumption, will inevitably be opposed by such interests wherever possible, since they exist purely and simply to practice precisely the "limitless wealth-getting" which Aristotle describes as so inimical to that model, and require a climate in which this is viewed as the legitimate end of human activity.
When Polanyi wrote in celebration of Aristotle's insights, he believed that free-market ideology in economics had been fatally discredited by the long drawn-out and catastrophic collapse of nineteenth-century European society which finally culminated in the Second World War. For three decades he was proved right; but nurtured in prosperous and conservative corporate America and quietly tested in places like Chile, the neoliberal backlash against the social settlement of the post-war years exploded into power in Europe and America at the end of the Seventies with the election of Reagan and Thatcher. The effective surrender of the only remaining opposition to the free-market "new world order" at the end of the Cold War allowed globalised capitalism to become more powerful even than the governments of the countries which had spawned it. Those governments, whatever their protestations, are now effectively dictated to by the rich, stateless major corporate players in the international markets, with disastrous social consequences for people all over the world; but especially, as before, for those in the poorest countries.
This time around, however, ecological sanity as well as social justice requires us to somehow regain control over the unrestricted market's senseless rush to turn all available "resources" into bankable short-term financial gain. "Free markets" are not an outcome of human evolution but of a radical political and economic programme which is inimical both to freedom and to ecological sustainability. Many things in the world simply have nothing to do with markets, and should not be for sale at any price.
Market forces will never meaningfully reduce consumption. The myth that they can or will is an attempt to protect the ideology of growth against the threat posed by its increasingly evident consequences. Achieving a sustainable future is not a task that can be left to the markets; it requires a renewal of non-material values, and political action by people as citizens, not simply as consumers. Ultimately this political action, if it is to be effective, must result not only in local resistance but in the election of governments which are prepared, and mandated, to govern in the interests of citizens as full human beings in the real living world, not simply as economic units of production and consumption. Such governments will have to explicitly question the desirability of further economic growth and be prepared when and where necessary to resist the powerful influence of globalised capitalism.
It is fundamentally illegitimate for a commercial enterprise to attempt to influence the legal, regulative and taxation framework within which it operates; such frameworks are the province of democratically accountable public bodies, answerable to citizens. Business is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself; it is creative and adaptable enough to work within whatever rules are set for it. A still stronger view might also question the legitimacy of attempts to influence the consumption habits of individuals in ways which undermine the aims of democratically decided policy.
Reducing consumption unavoidably entails reclaiming the political process from the constraining influence of non-human corporate interests. This is true not only because the agenda of what David Korten succinctly calls "corporate libertarianism" is one of resisting regulation, increasing production and promoting growth in consumer appetites, but also because the effect on human society of government which follows this agenda is the destruction of the sense of community and social good which is essential for the emergence of responsible citizenship. Only in a coherent society with a responsive, accountable and popularly supported system of government can either voluntary or coercive measures aimed at bringing consumption levels within the limits of ecological sustainability ever be effective.
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