The rabble must be thoroughly confused by now. Elite economists advise them continuously to spend, spend, spend, exercising their consumer sovereignty. Now the keepers of Buy Nothing Day suggest that the shopping masses can’t distinguish between simple gift giving, prudent consumption, and an engineered Furby frenzy and urge them to curb their profligacy and keep their money in their wallets. What reads like a noble asceticism in the press releases must strike the ears of this rabble–many of whom can’t afford to analyze their consumption habits with such detachment or, for that matter, buy much of anything beyond basic necessities on a given day–in the same tones as a scolding from the civics teacher: “Our environmental problems are attributable to your selfish, base, uncultured desires and the material goods that satisfy them.” It takes ample disposable income in order to vow meaningfully not to spend it–be it for a day or as a lifestyle–and it takes a certain conceit to ask this commitment of others less affluent. Buy Nothing Day, despite the good intentions of its proponents, says more about the privileges of wealth in our society than it says about anything environmentalism ought to be accomplishing.
It’s reassuring to see Harold Henderson outline the tactical confusion in the Buy Nothing Day strategy (especially in its tendency to inflate the role of retail consumption in environmental problems), as he does in his “Buy the Right Thing” review essay in the December 18 Reader. While Henderson’s account of the economic innocence in the “buy nothing” strategy seems generally incisive and on the mark, such a strategy may well be more muddled than he suggests. Capitalist markets are not things we simply step in and out of like the retail establishments that serve as the consumer’s tangible port of entry. Diverting consumption from one point is likely to do little more than direct it to another point. When I stay at home or at work and buy nothing on Thanksgiving Friday or any day, I will quite likely consume countless other goods I would not have consumed otherwise. Unless Buy Nothing Day advocates have a few acres of soybeans, some livestock, and a windmill out in back of their apartments (and even then they would need to rely on given markets to maintain these things), even an enduring commitment to voluntary simplicity will register as a blip on particular retail radar screens and little more. To treat capitalism as anything less pervasive defeats the purposes of resisting it, yet many otherwise sensible people have persuaded themselves that there is something inherently subversive in a stylized, urbane frugality and the indiscriminate nonconsumption it counsels. If one’s quarrel is with capitalism–and there are good reasons to believe that it should be–it’s probably more effective to acknowledge that changing it will involve a conscious deliberation on how we must participate in it while it’s here than to delude oneself that it can be avoided like a bad restaurant.
There is one point in Henderson’s review that might merit quibbling: the notion that economic growth in the U.S. and other industrially developed nations contributes to their ability to temper the environmental problems that plague less “developed” countries. Some researchers, including the authors of the Science article cited by Henderson, have noted that there appears to be a nonlinear relationship between the pervasiveness of some pollutants and per capita income–that is, pollution levels are low at similarly low levels of income, tend to increase as a nation’s income rises, but increase to a point, only to diminish as income increases beyond that point (we might say roughly that environmental pollution is an “inverted U” function of a nation’s wealth). This makes a good deal of intuitive sense: the industrial development that would tend to make a nation wealthier is also likely to make it more polluted; at a certain point, however, a substantial portion of the surplus wealth generated can be devoted to mitigating precisely the pollution that had been the unfortunate by-product of development. Advocates of capitalism invite us to look at this evidence and conclude that industrial-capitalist development is the ideal route to take if a nation desires substantial wealth and a clean environment. The historical record shows us, we are told, that as such development progresses, accumulated wealth can be used to correct its own problems (and, conversely, that to arrest such growth with burdensome environmental regulations would actually be detrimental to the environment in the long run).
It is by no means clear, however, that this is the most plausible conclusion to be drawn from such data. One might rightly point out that the inverted U observable in the relationship between environmental pollution and per capita income is based on a time-slice of many nations, not a longitudinal assessment of any one nation throughout its economic history. Given this, we cannot assume that it is an accurate picture of any single nation’s development (note that a synchronic interpretation of the inverted U is just as intuitively plausible as the diachronic one of “sustainable capitalist development”: poor nations at any point in time lack the productive capacity to do much damage, developing ones have the capacity but lack the resources to provide countermeasures to its attendant problems, and wealthier nations have both the capacity and the means to mop up afterward). Even if this account does happen to portray the development of a particular nation, that nation’s “descent” down the backside of the inverted U (i.e. its experience of improving environmental conditions as income rises) would not imply a net loss of environmental degradation in the world; it may just as well be farmed out in the form of pollution-intensive production in some other nation still working on the upside of the hump. Again, this makes intuitive sense. The notion that heavy industry gets exported from the developed world to developing nations with eager, low-wage workers strikes few of us as news. There is, moreover, an equally plausible economic rationale for this scenario: as developed nations find it cheaper to shift production away from pollution-intensive goods than to clean up afterward, the price of those goods will (assuming constant demand) increase, inviting others in the world market to enter into their production and fill the void. Yes, this is a fairly orthodox Marxist understanding of what the neoclassical models are really telling us. Unfashionable as it might be, however, it’s not at all clear that it has been discredited, and empirical evidence of the sort in question here won’t do it. We can point to a coincidence of first-world wealth and relative environmental progress, but just as easily as we might attribute this to a passage of all interested nations through common stages of capitalism and environmental betterment, we might describe the situation as a chronic condition that requires at any given time a developed “center” and an underdeveloped “periphery” to absorb its costs (in the form of pollution, poverty, and the whole honor roll).
Admittedly, I haven’t seen the Myers, Panayotou, and Vincent article that Henderson cites in his review, and these authors may well anticipate some of these concerns. A similar case, however, is made with reliance on largely cross-sectional data (e.g. those gathered by the Global Environmental Monitoring Systems, or GEMS) by both Gene M. Grossman and Richard Baldwin in their respective contributions to The Economics of Sustainable Development (edited by Ian Goldin and L. Alan Winters, Cambridge University Press, 1995). It’s also unclear how international treaties such as the 1997 Kyoto accords will affect the global distribution of environmental pollution (much will depend on whether and to what extent developing nations sign on to the specific targets, and whether the implementation of the agreements involves the global emissions trading market that the U.S. envisions). One point seems to be clear, however: we should be as careful in crediting capitalism for its apparent environmental progress as its apologists ask us to be in condemning it for its environmental excesses.