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Posts Tagged ‘economics’

We must restructure our economy from a foundation built on consumption to regeneration and maintenance,” say Rebekah and Stephen Hren in the Huffington Post this week.

It’s a plea for ‘ecological economics’ — and one we EarthQuakers pretty much share.

Any hope it will come with the Obama administration?  Not a huge amount, but we might move a hair in that direction and that momentum — such as it is — may actually be something to build on.  EarthCare, Sustainabilty, Stewardship, Ecological Economics: we’re at least now putting names to visions that don’t so much want to do away with conventional global corporate capitalism as radically refine it.

If we can just get economists to add environmental impacts when they calculate costs, for example (and it’s insane that governmental economists, at least, don’t do that when they consider policy alternatives), we’d be a long way towards an economics of regeneration.  There would be new corporate winners and losers for sure, but the capitalist system wouldn’t need to end while the planet and its people would sure reap the benefit.

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Farmer-poet Berry has this stanza in his poem ‘Some Further Words,’ published in his recent collection ‘Given.’

When I hear the stock market has fallen,
I say, “Long live gravity! Long live
stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces
of fantasy capitalism!” I think
an economy should be based on thrift,
on taking care of things, not on theft,
usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.

(This is a cross post from my posterous site.)

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In the last few years we’ve seen little opposition to the idea that economic growth, however defined, is what national economies should be aiming for above all else.  That’s long concerned us EarthQuakers — we both challenge the ways in which economic costs are usually calculated and wonder how the earth can sustainably support its every inhabitant at American levels of resource consumption.

While many of the more apocalyptic predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972 original ‘Limits to Growth’ report have not come to pass, the actual arrival of then-feared global warming makes it worth revisiting the arguments made by people who warned of its coming.

It’s time, perhaps, to ask again if there are some limits to growth.  And it certainly seems time to question how we define growth.

The PRI radio show The World ran a usefully succinct item about this very issue today, which you can find at http://www.theworld.org/audio/1015081.mp3

The best stuff starts a few minutes in.

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Salon has an interview this weekend with Pamela Paul, author of the new book, “Parenting, Inc.” It’s a must read for anyone interested in the consumer culture of affluent Western parenting.

Paul tells Salon:

“I think that we have professionalized parenting, and in a consumer society that becomes translated into buying a lot of things. Parents aren’t as worried about spending too much as they are about not spending enough. It’s what I call the anxiety of under-spending.”

Especially enjoyable are her takes on Baby Einstein (“If Baby Einstein had been called “Couch Potato Kiddie,” . . . that would have been honest marketing”), doulas (“in the U.K. and in France the government provides people to do that, state paid, and it’s considered the natural course of things”) and Gymboree (“It’s not for your baby. It’s for the parents. You don’t actually have to spend a lot of money [to] expose your kid to massive amounts of stimulation”).

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Here at EarthQuaker’s suburban world headquarters we like to keep in touch with the world of hip, urban parenting, so we receive a daily email digest from Babble.com, the New York-based online parenting magazine.

That’s how we learned recently that even hipster parents find parenting a costly business these days.

Quoting parent Allyson Mazer, writer Melissa Rayworth tells us in a lengthy Babble feature:

“My husband and I were just talking about this with friends. You can make $300,000 a year and you’re just getting by. You’re not saving anything,” says Mazer, all traces of enthusiasm draining from her voice. “You’re paying the bills, and it’s not like you’re living the highlife.”

The bind Rayworth sees such wealthy parents as being in is paradoxical, she says. Parents are spending on things “that are clearly unnecessary but that [they] now feel all but mandatory. The optional has become the inescapable.”

Among those mandatory expenditures are not just tuition and childcare but:

“truckloads of consumer goods — kid-friendly groceries, kid-centric versions of family staples like bath products, even furniture — much of it emblazoned with Elmo, Thomas, SpongeBob, Spider-Man and the rest of their intensely marketed brethren.”

So what’s to be done? Rayworth seems to suggest that the proper — and only — response is to throw one’s hands in the air. “Call it crazy, insane, ridiculous,” she says, but “When it comes to parenting and purchasing, the definition of “necessity” has expanded to include just about everything.”

The parenting culture Rayworth depicts appears to have no self-control, no ability to determine what experiences are truly worth giving their children (which perhaps needn’t include Elmo shampoo, a Thomas bedset, an iPod or a $500 birthday bash) and no ability to critique an economic culture that regards it as a triumph when people buy things they don’t need.

All this expenditure doesn’t even make the parents doing it feel good, reports Rayworth.

“The obvious answer is to stop spending,” she says. “But that’s something our culture, our economy — and, after 9/11, our president — literally beg us not to do.”

When your culture drives you into debt and brings you no joy, all the while depleting the world of resources, perhaps the answer isn’t to acquiesce. Rather,might it not be better to work actively to change that culture in a more positive child-affirming direction — whatever your president may say?

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Mainstream economics is built on a convenient untruth: that humans act rationally when it comes to money.

Over the last couple of decades, however, behavioral economists have been showing how that’s simply not always the case. In making many of our financial decisions (and we’re talking significant ones like which car to buy, where to live, how much to spend heating our homes etc.) it turns out that emotion trumps logic.

With ever more books on the subject being published, behavioral economics is starting to gain some serious traction. That’s good news for anyone who believes that we need to change the way we run our economies.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that what we’re doing now is unsustainable. But to find a better way we need tools that reflect the way things are, not the way we’d like them to be.

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Green shopping is quite the fashion these days. No newspaper ‘home’ section goes a week, it seems, without an article on ‘green living.’ Magazine publishers are launching ever more eco-consumer titles, nourished by advertising budgets devoted to ever-growing lines of ‘eco-friendly’ products.

Much less often, though — in fact almost never — does consumption itself get questioned in the mainstream press. Which is why were delighted to see Monica Hesse’s article ‘Greed in the Name of Green’ in the Washington Post this week.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Hesse has this to say in reviewing the trend towards  ‘green’ shopping:

“And let us never consider the other organic option — not buying — because the new green consumer wants to consume, to be more celadon than emerald, in the right color family but muted, without all the hand-me-down baby clothes and out-of-date carpet.”

To do anything else, she points out, would be to fly in the face of a culture built on consumption. And yet, as she has Paul Hawken (as in the high-end consumer home and garden retailer Smith and Hawken) explain:

Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.“”

While it might be unrealistic to expect media dependent on advertisements to vocally advocate against unnecessary consumption,  our voracious appetite for stuff — and its absolute centrality to the Western way of life — is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing anyone hoping to reduce our impact on the environment.

We’ve built our perceived wealth on the ‘virtuous cycle’ of product invention, manufacture, consumption and disposal followed by further consumption.  We see breaking, or even decreasing the size of that cycle, as enormously threatening to our entire economic system — because, of course, it is.

But if that cycle is unsustainable, which large elements of it (at the very least) genuinely seem to be — then simply carrying on as before doesn’t seem an especially smart move.

Consumer capitalism, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us this week, now binds the entire world. If the American consumer stops consuming — and that amounts to the only really productive thing Americans do these days, Ehrenreich suggests — then the entire world will be economically devastated.

Ehrenreich’s concern seems to be less a critique of consumer culture than a fear that Americans have outsourced themselves out of any other productive role.  If we fail as shoppers, we’ll be forced to become ‘shoplifters,’ she suggests.

That presumes, however, that we should — and can — only define ourselves as consumers.  And it offers us the false choice of either remaining a consumer culture (only producing more stuff ourselves) and becoming lawless thieves.

What if we strove to see ourselves as something else, though — as citizens, as caregivers, as guardians of a fragile Earth, as people who don’t need to buy to find worth in our lives, perhaps?

Sure, in this scenario, we might not be as ‘wealthy’ or have as many shopping choices or cool stuff as we have now.  But it might be a way to secure for ourselves — and our planet — an better fate.  And since owning more stuff seems rarely seems to corleate to psychological well-being, it might make us happier to boot.

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