In class last week, we watched Annie Leanard’s “The Story of Stuff”. If you haven’t yet seen this short film, it’s highly recommended, and may make you think about the high cost of low prices. I think what this little film really demonstrates is the concept of the treadmills of production and consumption, an idea developed by the sociologist Allan Schnaiberg in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I first learned of this concept a few years ago, and found it very helpful when trying to understand our hyper-consumerist conundrum.
There are many inter-related factors leading us into a life of hyper-consumption. As technology advances, products that formerly functioned perfectly fine now seem inadequate. The DVD player we just purchase last year no longer works and it is cheaper to purchase a new one, rather than get the old one fixed. The advertising is everywhere, with clever tag-lines and trendy images keeping the good life always just out of reach. We show up at the party wearing last year’s fashion and the hosts snub us and don’t introduce their friends. The news anchor talks every evening about stellar growth in the economy. Our neighbour just drove home in a brand-new black SUV with a 450hp V8, making our 14 year old economy car seem wimpy by comparison.
An analysis of all these factors will eventually lead us to the roots of our unrest – economic growth. “Perhaps no single idea is more deeply embedded in modern political culture than the belief that economic growth is the key to meeting most important human needs” (David Korten). The casting of human existence through an economic lens is a relatively recent phenomenon when the whole of human experience is considered. Our political leaders are almost evangelical in their acceptance of economic growth to the point of turning a blind eye towards the negative consequences we are experiencing. They can claim to be utilitarian in this approach, as they believe the benefits of growth more than offset these negative consequences. There are other parties to blame for our current predicament. As competition for customers increases, companies employ ever more strategic, innovative, and sometimes subversive, means to encourage consumption of their products. Business groups create powerful lobbies to sway government regulations in their favour. Technological growth has redefined convenience, inconveniencing those who can’t afford the current technology. Our cities are built around the car, and our communication networks are built around the internet and the iPhone.
As the treadmill of consumption speeds up around us, we make a subconscious decision to keep up, or a conscious decision to step off. Human beings are social creatures, and, according to Abraham Maslow, a sense of belonging is the first need we attend to once we are fed, clothed, sheltered and safe. If we have to consume to belong, most of us will do so. And as long as we believe we don’t belong, we will continue to consume until we feel we do belong. This is the engine that drives the treadmill of consumption.
On the production side of the treadmill, Canada, with its wealth of natural resources, has always been an active participant. As such, our country’s economic wealth relies on maintaining movement in the treadmill of production, and our leaders believe growth in our economy relies on increasing the speed of this treadmill. Canada experiences many negative consequences as a result of the treadmill – including environmental consequences of resource development such as mining, forestry and oil & gas, and social problems created by the boom-bust cycle typical of resource-based economies.
North America and Europe have already suffered the negative consequences of the treadmill of production. Environmental and social regulations in Canada and other developed countries have resulted in cleaner, fairer production facilities in those countries. However, these regulations combined with open markets and trade corridors results in more products manufactured overseas – social effects include poor working conditions in Asia that are invisible to the consumer because it is so far away. Environmental effects include more waste associated with packaging of consumer goods for shipment, and greater amounts of fossil fuels burned – shipping raw materials from Canada to factories in Asia, and shipping consumer goods from those factories back to consumers in Canada.
Many of these consumer goods are sold in large “big-box” shops such as Wal-mart. These stores typically open on the outskirts of a town, on former farm or forest land. They use economies of scale to offer lower prices to their customers, who abandon their local downtown shops. While the Wal-marts of the world offer employment to local economies, their profits are exported to their shareholders. To keep their profits high, the stores have to sell a lot of goods – and have to keep the treadmill of consumption running in order to do so.