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Untitled work on paper

Maureen McQuillan 2019


"When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."

Consumerism is an acceptance of consumption as a way to self-development, self-realization, and self-fulfillment. It makes a clear separation between producers and consumers. In a consumer society an individual's identity is tied to what s/he consumes. People living in consumer cultures have a tendency to satisfy social, emotional, and spiritual needs with material things.

For critics of consumerism, such as Zygmunt Bauman (Consuming Life), “the consumerist society has to rely on excess and waste” (p.38) The advent of consumerism augurs the era of ‘inbuilt obsolescence” and the insatiability of needs. New needs need new commodities; new commodities need new needs and desires, and this dynamic makes individuals wish to do what is needed for the to enable the system to reproduce itself. Thus consumption is a “hedonic treadmill” (p.45). Its promises of satisfaction remain seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified.

To what extent is the critique of consumerism a critique of capitalism?

Historically, Marxist critiques have focused on the means of production, especially the appropriation of surplus labor for the benefit of property owners.

The market is not simply as a sphere of opportunity, freedom and choice, but is also a compulsion, a necessity, a social discipline, capable of subjecting all human activities and relationships to its requirements.


Ecology is a sub-discipline of biology, the study of life. It is the scientific study of the relations that living organisms have with respect to each other and the natural environment. These relations are organized into ecosystems, which are communities of all living organisms in a particular area and their interactions with each other and with the physical components of that particular environment -- eg. air, soil, water, and sunlight.

The underlying concept of the ties between organisms to the physical and biological components of their environment was developed by George Perkins Marsh in ("Man and Nature'), 1864, which stressed human dependence on the environment and challenged the idea that the Earth's natural resources are infinite.

Virtually all of Earth's ecosystems have now been dramatically transformed through human actions. Major components of these transformations include the conversion of land to cropland, reservoir storage behind large dams, loss of mangroves, destruction and degradation of coral reefs. As a result of climate change mobile species such as birds are changing their migration patterns, and plant species will move as well, to be replaced by invasive species, with consequences for species diversity (which benefits from ecological equilibrium)

Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces forms of fundamental life-support that human societies require. These include the purification of air and water, maintenance of biodiversity, decomposition of wastes, soil and vegetation generation and renewal, pollination of crops and natural vegetation, groundwater recharge through wetlands, seed dispersal, greenhouse gas mitigation, and the cultural needs for aesthetic landscapes. The health and wellbeing of human populations depends upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components — organisms, soil, water, and nutrients.

These services clearly have value to human economies, both as provisioning services (of food, timber, water, and other commodities) and as regulating services (such as flood control or pollination) but to date these have been omitted from economic calculations because of the difficulties of placing accurate monetary values upon them -- particularly for those services that would be very difficult to duplicate. (see economic issues) One way of understanding their value is to compare the costs of providing similar services.

New York City is a case in point. Before it became overwhelmed by agricultural and sewage runoff, the watershed of the Catskill Mountains provided New York City with water ranked among the best in the Nation by Consumer Reports. When the water fell below quality standards, the City investigated what it would cost to install an artificial filtration plant. The estimated price tag for this new facility was six to eight billion dollars, plus annual operating costs of 300 million dollars — a high price to pay for what once was free. New York City decided instead to invest a fraction of that cost ($660 million) in restoring the natural capital it had in the Catskills watershed. In 1997, the City raised an Environmental Bond Issue and is currently using the funds to purchase land and halt development in the watershed, to compensate property owners for development restrictions on their land, and to subsidize the improvement of septic systems. (see actionbioscience.org: ecological services: a primer.)

See: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005.


According to Peter Boyle, There were two very important ideas behind the environmental movement. The first was the idea of ecology the fragile, complex, and unpredictable interconnections between living systems. The second was the idea of welfare economics -- the ways in which markets can fail to make activities internalize their full costs. The combination of the two ideas yielded a powerful and disturbing conclusion: Markets would routinely fail to make activities internalize their own costs, particularly their environmental costs. (see economic issues) This failure would routinely disrupt or destroy fragile ecological systems, with unpredictable, ugly, dangerous, and possibly irreparable consequences. These two types of analysis pointed to a general interest in environmental protection, and thus helped to build a large constituency which supported governmental efforts to that end.

The notion of an environmental movement helps to sustain a coalition that people join, give money to, and so forth, even when the particular issue being lobbied over affects them not at all. By coming to be convinced that they should give loyalty to the protection of the environment, rather than oppose the stuff that affects them in particular, the diffuse group was able to overcome some collective action problems. (see governance)

In a critique of the environmental movement, entitled “The death of Environmentalism”, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus claim that: “Environmentalists are in a culture war whether we like it or not, and it won’t be won by appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest. “ and that“Environmentalism will never be able to muster the strength it needs to deal with the global warming problem as long as it is seen as a “special interest.” And it will continue to be seen as a special interest as long as it narrowly identifies the problem as “environmental” and the solutions as technical.

As a political struggle over framing the issues, then, “Answering charges with the literal “truth” is a bit like responding to the Republican “Swift Boats for Truth” ad campaign with the facts about John Kerry’s war record. The way to win is not to defend — it’s to attack.”