The Threat of Thrift

A few environmental pundits have recently taken up an oddly contrarian position: personal consumption choices don’t matter.  “Lifestyle changes that emphasize greater efficiency, less consumption, and genuine personal sacrifice may feel good and make for good press, but they rarely help the earth,” argue economists Paul Wapner and John Willoughby (Ethics & International Affairs, 12/05).  Cutting personal consumption even to zero would be futile, according to environmentalist Derrick Jensen, because personal change “doesn’t equal social change” (Orion, 6-7/09). Gernot Wagner, economist for the Environmental Defense Fund, asserts that “the changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough” (NYT, 9/7/11).

Bummer, if true, for those of us who are turning off unused lights, buying smaller houses, declining extra shopping bags, taking Navy showers, and otherwise trying to burn less world in our own little way.

But it’s not true.  It’s flat-out, physically, materially not true.  If the economy were a car, lifestyle would be its steering wheel, not its “Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live” bumper sticker. More than 80% of the energy used and CO2 emitted in the US depend on direct consumer lifestyle choices or on economic activity supporting those choices (Energy Policy 33, 2005).  The centrality of individual consumption is the reason the New York Times says that one of the “best hopes” for future global economic growth — i.e., accelerated destruction of the planet — is for Chinese consumers to develop an insatiable “urge to splurge” (11/24/2010).  It is also why economists were “gripped by fear” in late 2008 as the Japanese economy contracted at an annualized rate of 12.7%, faster than at any time since the oil shocks of the 1970s (NYT, 2/21/2009).  Was financial-sector meltdown the cause?  No: the evil masterminds who had focused a shrinking ray on the world’s third-largest economy were typified by Mrs. Takigasaki, housewife, who had been doing more home cooking lately and noted, according to the Times, that “you can make almost anything with some cabbage, and perhaps some potato.” Also by Risa Masaki, college student, who said, “I’m not interested in big spending . . . I just want a humble life.”

Such statements are death threats to the system of waste, marketing-lashed desire, and obesity, both bodily and figurative, that is our present economy.  The masters, architects, and professional apologists of that economy fear the cabbage, abhor the potato.  That is why they spend $300 billion per year on marketing in the US alone: it is essential that the 99 percent be hypnotized into buying as much crap as we can possibly afford, preferably more.  If Gernot Wagner is right that personal choices don’t “add up to enough,” it’s strange that a third of a trillion bucks must be poured out annually to shape them.

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (plus a cabbage).

Wagner’s own big idea is carbon cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) to end “planetary socialism,” as he weirdly calls polluters-don’t-pay capitalism.  Fine ideas, but our chance of instituting effectual carbon cap-and-trade before the Rockies are under water is approximately zero and a carbon tax is, as Wagner admits, politically “off the table” — even given another four years of Obama, who during the election campaign spoke (and during his whole first term did) much more about his zeal for coal and offshore oil drilling than for mitigating climate change.  Moving right along, then, Derrick Jensen thinks many things are more effective than personal choice: voting, pamphleting, protesting, organizing, boycotting . . . and assassination.  Yes indeedy.  This columnist, beloved of Orion magazine, told journalist Dahr Jamail in 2010 that he wants “all activists to act like they are serious about their resistance and that might include assassinations,” a view he also expressed in his book Endgame (2006).  In a 1998 essay he ruled out killing US senators Slade Gorton and Larry Craig on the not entirely reassuring ground that “others would take their places.”  If we could find less replaceable targets, presumably, he would be all for the sniper-scope approach.

Fortunately Jensen, like the Weathermen of the 1970s, is a lunatic outlier of an essentially sane movement, and our hope of a better world therefore depends no more on his kill-Hitler fantasies than on Wagner’s million-to-won legislative wins.  Our hands are not tied: they’re on the steering wheel.  Most of us could pleasantly and profitably reduce our personal consumption by a fifth, third, half, or more, all while shifting our spending toward more local and sustainable ventures.  Voluntary, nonviolent, nontrivial lifestyle change, though not a panacea — we need collective action and better laws, too — could do much to downsize and restructure the industrial economy.  Its potential is big enough, at least, to scare the bejeezus out of mainstream economists.

Keynes fretted about the “paradox of thrift,” the idea that individuals socking away money in the bank, which is undeniably good for individual savers, might be bad for the economy as a whole because it lessens spending. Other economists have countered that personal savings give banks more money to lend, lowering interest rates and encouraging economic activity.  But thrifty lifestyle, though supportive of savings accounts among its other virtues, is more radical than saving alone: if adopted by enough people, it threatens (or promises) to decrease total economic activity.  If more people shrink their consumption than heed the hucksters and lenders, so that consumption overall decreases, then Keynes’ paradox arrives in force.  A consumption economy is existentially threatened by thrift.

Seen from space, as it were, the impact of each person’s consumption choices is invisible.  That is the obvious fact on which anti-simplicity pundits fixate.  But the same could be said for voting, marching, arguing, fighting, and any other possible way of changing the great big world.  If anything, the simplifiers must watch their strength: if 100 million Americans permanently contracted their lifestyle overnight by a mere twenty percent, the economy as we know it would probably collapse.  Malls would go dark, generators spin down, giant coal shovels rust in the rain.  And so we arrive at another paradox: it may be good that urgently needed voluntary change can only occur relatively slowly, since too-sudden action might capsize our ship of fools.   A few creepy people, including Derrick Jensen, are explicitly rooting for such a “crash” of extractive civilization, but I find it hard to believe that even if such a tactic were moral and practicable, it would be successful.  Our civilization’s death throes could easily be at least as destructive as its prolongation.

In addition to its pleasantly non-genocidal bent, voluntary personal change has another virtue: short of the “crash” that Jensen wants, it is the only glue that can make large-scale, big-system change stick.   Most people will fight tenaciously against any imposed constraints on lifestyle or the material order, real or perceived: see the light-bulb wars.  But thrift is fun and taps deep cultural and religious roots that are still green.  Shedding greed and botheration makes room for more life.  Recent quantitative studies show, unsurprisingly, that voluntary simplification does reliably make people happier.

The self-anointed realists argue that the pleasure of personal change is one of the worst things about it: it is, they say, a seductive self-indulgence, a sop, an opiate.  But the fact that thrift feels good does not prove that it is narcotic.  It feels good because taking responsibility feels good, paying attention feels good, owing less feels good, and loving more feels good.   To live as if no opportunity for restraint or care is too small makes one’s love for this tortured planet continuously incarnate.  It enlarges one’s love and educates one’s understanding of self and system.  It expands and clears the cognitive, emotional, religious, and practical space in which a sustainable society might come into being.  “Be the change you wish to see” is not the whole of wisdom, but it is wise.

The hardboiled case against personal change rests on one undeniable fact: recycling that peanut-butter jar won’t save the planet.  To which I reply: So what?  I’ve already sketched the economic case: collectively, personal consumption is the greatest single driver of material economic activity.  There is also a psychological case: The planet will assuredly not be saved by activists who think it a waste of time to recycle a can, turn off an unused light, build a zero-energy building, wipe a baby’s bottom, or perform any of the other countless acts that actually fit the human hand, because such persons will not, for the most part, be very credible or remain active for very long.  Finally, there is a spiritual case: when we bypass or devalue concrete, human-scale actions, “the Earth” tends to dwindle in our minds to a doomed, fuzzy abstraction mourned bitterly from orbit.  Rather than suffer the endless pain of such powerless spectatorhood, people unplug, withdraw into private universes, and end up conforming extensively to the very consumer culture that so horrified their younger, more idealistic selves.   Haven’t we all seen it?  Haven’t we all felt the pull?  The alternative urged by Jensen—a strict diet of militant zeal directed at system-level change—promotes burnout, desperation, and a yen for salvific murder.  Such counselors are not healthy for children and other living things.

Begin here (to recycle the title of Dorothy Sayers’s excellent 1940 essay): personal choice, in addition to its fiscal, psychological, and spiritual benefits for the individual, is globally powerful almost without limit in potentia.  We — a woman slicing cabbage, a student seeking a “humble life,” a middle-class American slashing energy waste and finding an increase of liberty, not misery, in the act — we are the unstoppable Ninja assassins of doomed consumption.  A trillion small deeds of responsible, attentive love may yet, in harmony with larger-scale collective works, each scale of action enabling and amplifying the other, make the conventional economists’ fears come true.  We may yet save the world.