I bumped into a writer for Fast Company the other day, Michael Coren, and had a great conversation about many of the same topics that I often talk about on here. He told me about an article he wrote that totally intrigued me: “Have We Reached Peak Stuff?”. In it, he explores the possibility that there may be a “peak” to overall consumption. The case study that he repeatedly cites is that of Britons reducing consumption: “Why is our consumption falling?. I’ve been hoping for a while that we’d actually see this, so this is quite welcome.
The Yale 300 post on Peak Stuff had a good little nugget about the phenomenon: the environmental Kuznet’s Curve - which I’ve never heard of, but is reminiscent of the income-fertility curve. The overall point is that when an economy gets to a certain maturity of GDP per capita that it stops wasting additional resources, and GDP and material consumption decouple - leading to increasing GDP with less consumption - how welcome! We can see this very much by looking by the EU -> US -> China to see the spectrum of countries in very mature state all the way to emerging for a look at the acceleration of consumption.
I’m not sure what’s going on here though. Wikipedia says that it holds for some things like water / air-quality but not others like landfills. To me, that indicates that while refrigeration, cars, etc. seems comparatively more important at first, that once these needs are met that people start to refine further their quality of life - which leads to wanting better quality of their own habitat. Landfills however aren’t felt in the same way, so it make sense why usage doesn’t decrease.
In looking at Tim Jackson’s report, “Prosperity Without Growth”, where he explores the topic exhaustively, we can see that these curves are actually coming up everywhere in Briton, but I’m not sure of the drivers. Some, food consumption, make sense to go down now that everyone knows the health effects of obesity more than a few decades ago, and things like less waste make sense because of the overall increase in green thinking and perhaps good regulation. Even adjusted for imports though, that presumably could come from developing countries that have worse eco-friendly production that Briton wouldn’t “feel”, the effects are still net decreased - quite interesting.
I was really intrigued by his “12 Steps for a Sustainable Economy” (pg. 13) - which lays out his prescription for a sustainable economy. It’s covers three main areas - let’s take them one-by-one.
1.) Develop Sustainable Macro-Economy - This is the least controversial of his points, and reads almost like the standard European viewpoint on such a subject: infrastructure, fiscal responsibility, transparency, etc. Who can disagree with those? It’s too vague though to be very helpful though.
2.) Flourishing - This is where we start getting into the meat of what he wants, and what I really care about with post-scarcity economics. The overall idea seems to be empowering everyone in the economy - which is quite similar to my last post on redistributing (democratizing really) the means of production rather than money directly.
For me, this gets at a core problem of our current economies where we have a bifurcation in the productivity distribution of the workforce. We’ve got some, like programmers, who are able to quickly build very high value software that gives them immense productivity for society, and on the other side you have the 7-11 service jobs that give nothing by cheaper costs that replacement robots - for now.
In the middle used to be the semi-skilled labor in factories, clerks, etc. - however this is being captured by machines and software more and more - leading to this divide. What’s our problem? To me it’s a combo of education of the people, community building and access to the new productive resources that will empower them. I love TechShop for instance because it’s giving the tools, training and community for what I see as a revolution at the scale of the internet. I think my friend Dave Lang is also right to say that people are dissatisfied and overall looking for an accessible way forward - getting a concrete / believable case for what “flourishing” looks like is both essential and currently quite lacking.
3.) Ecological Limits - This is more revealing his environmentalist intentions, so I’m not sure that it’s really causal in bringing about peak stuff - more aided by peak stuff really, but his intention is a “sustainable economy”, so it works. However, even getting a basic cap-trade type policy is going to be hard as hell, so I don’t really see much of a “how” in any of this.
Bottom Line here:
Peak Stuff seems like something that happens due to material abundance and society’s increasing awareness of the problems of overconsumption in their daily life - we’ve got a way to go, but it’s encouraging to see real data in support of this.
If we’ve got peak stuff and GDP still increasing - what’s actually being created? It’s been argued we’re in the “experience economy”, with its decreasing physical goods, and also the “information economy” - with what is essentially near post-scarce knowledge from Wikipedia, to music, etc.
The standard capitalist economy that Jackson, et al. are skeptical of generally requires profit capture for productivity to be registered. An ideal GDP would capture things like volunteering, open source software, etc. The issue is that the real problem is that people still need to eat even though we’ve got them adding all this value. So even if we add that time, we’ve still got to come up with income for these people.
My question is: what kind of productivity is left to add into “ideal GDP” figures that can be realized as profit? It would seem to me that we need a new type of system to emerge that can capture more of these positive externalities as personal income. The concept of “flourishing” to me is directly related to productivity growth at the individual level. This is really what GDP Per Capita is - so this really just means “ideal GDP” or some measure.
This means that we actually do want growth, but in such an ideal GDP measure, not raw “what’s profitable” measure. I don’t buy the zero-growth philosophy - as it seems Malthusian, anti-technology and fatalist. The oft quoted “we need 7 planets to support this level of consumption” is rarely laid out, I’ve not seen it at least, and assumes technology has frozen - which of course it can’t.
Just because we don’t have the resources now, doesn’t mean we won’t be able to find better ways of using them to get the same level - the real thing to me is that flourishing requires a bent against consumerism. In a society so dependent on consumer spending, it seems that making things for yourself is a most subversive act.