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Hyperconsumption, global warming, and the fall of basic-goods buying power among the middle class

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A growing percentage of the work most people do these days is necessary only to produce, market, sell, consume and dispose of products and services that are increasingly superfluous.  Compare this to the ever lesser amount of work people do to produce those products and services that are of basic or fundamental importance and that meet basic needs. 


Now ask yourself this:  If (somehow), anyone who wanted to, could join with others of like mind, to work only as much as it took to efficiently and cooperatively produce basic goods and services, and take their fair share, then no one who wanted just these basic things -- housing, food staples, utilities, education, basic health care -- would have to work more than 20 hours a week, 8-9 months a year in order to get these basics. 


Obviously most people would, to one extent or another, want more than these basics, and to the extent they did, they could of course work at other jobs to get the money to buy what they wanted.  The point is that no one would any longer be forced to work full time, 11 months of the year, in the production of the environmentally damaging superfluous, in order to get all their basic needs met (including health care) in some adequate way.


As several surveys have shown, most people (Caucasians at least) were happier in the 50s and early 60s (when average consumption and incomes were much less) than they are today.  So, has all this increased personal consumption benefitted us as much as we think it has?  And at what cost to us and the environment has it been provided?




If the main contention in my first three paragraph is true, i.e. that people granted the opportunity to work exclusively, cooperatively and efficiently on the production of basics . . could today produce all they needed by working an average of only 20 hours/week, then on what rational basis do we deny decent housing (i.e. houses of average size and quality), decent health care, and other basics . . to artists, activists and other leisure-time lovers if they are perfectly willing and able to work 20 hours a week, 8-9 months a year (on the efficient and well-organized production of just these basic goods and services)?  Isn't this monumentally unfair to both them and our environment?


The crux of the matter is this:  For how much longer can our planet's human-friendly environment survive a hyperproductive-hyperconsumptive economic system in which no one is allowed to have decent housing, health care, education etc. unless they are willing to get on, and stay on, the hyperproduction-hyperconsumption treadmill? --which means working 40-50 hours a week, 11 months of the year, at some highly productive and probably highly polluting company or corporation that is willing to pay its employees a large enough salary for them to afford the steep prices of a relatively nice home, a college education for their kids, good health care, and their share of all modern luxuries?


In short, wouldn’t both we and ‘the planet’ be better off if most of us worked less, consumed less, wasted less and polluted less?




One related problem to consider:  As regards the purchase of basics like homes, health care, automobiles and college education, the real buying power provided by most jobs is falling (and has been falling) since about 1970.  To wit:


In terms of the number of hours that must now be worked in order to pay for it,

  • the cost of college keeps going up, thereby excluding growing numbers of would-be college students. 
  • houses that once allowed a single middle-class worker to own them, now require at least two such workers, man and wife. 
  • ever more people cannot afford basic health care.  There are not enough hours in the day.

A second problem:  Suburban sprawl is one of the most wasteful and polluting developments in history.  People who don't use automobiles, and who live in high-rise buildings or large multistory apartment complexes, close to their jobs, are responsible for far far less pollution and waste than are those who drive a car, by themselves, for 60 to 100 miles or more every day, just to get to work and back.  Then, with all their money -- from jobs at companies which, for the most part, produce superfluous products and services that must be heavily advertized just to sell – these suburban ‘consumaholics’ drive to the mall to buy a lot of that same stuff, just for the addictive (but short-lived) thrill of it.  Eventually they rent storage lockers to store much of it, after their spacious suburban homes and garages become too crowded with this very same stuff. 


But consider all the labor that's wasted in the production, distribution, marketing, sale, storage and finally disposal of all this stuff.  Then think of how much less we'd all have to work if the vast majority of us, by some miracle, became low-consumption ‘Buddhists’ or whatever, and were also given an opportunity to work efficiently and in a well-organized and cooperative way, on the production of basics, and had to work only as much as necessary, to produce just the basics that we wanted and needed. 


So, rather then be consumaholics whose ever increasing numbers are going to destroy the environment, why not learn to better appreciate literature, philosophy, politics, art, music, crafts, hobbies, conversation and the art of friendship & love?  Aren’t these things more important than gluttony and self indulgence at the mall?  The ‘planet,’ too, would be so much better off if most of us could make this transition.  But the truth is that most of us will never make this transition unless we have the kind of organizational opportunities outlined in my opening paragraphs. 


So what would be our main societal incentive for installing a government that would provide such opportunities?  By way of an answer, just realize how much less pollution there would be, and also how many fewer tons of greenhouse gas (primarily carbon dioxide) we would be dumping into the atmosphere each year if such opportunities were somehow arranged.  Realize that even if we had only followed Jimmy Carter’s conservation program laid out in 1979, America never would have had to invade Iraq to gain control of its oil, because we would have never again needed any Mideast oil.  And think of how much wasted labor and resources – not to mention lives -- will be squandered on this $2 trillion war before we are finished.,2763,1681119,00.html. 

Plus, think of how many fewer tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses we could have prevented from getting into the atmosphere just by avoiding this war! 

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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