We Can Produce Less and Consume More
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
A major gulf between environmental and social justice activists is “stuff.” Environmentalists (or at least serious ones) say “less.” Social justice organizers have the habit of saying “more.”
This divisive question cuts to the edge of the sort of society we want to build. Deep greens envision a world with much less stuff. A great outline is Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff.  An excess of human-produced objects destroys species habitat, poisons communities with toxins, depletes oil and intensifies climate change.
Social justice activists, however, have devoted centuries to denouncing capitalism as placing fetters on the expansion of production. Whether the struggle is against racism, for labor rights, or resistance to imperialism, the cry is for the oppressed to have a much bigger piece of the pie.
In response to the current economic crisis, a near-unanimous chorus sings “There must be a stimulus package.” There is considerable debate over the size of the stimulus and what should be stimulated but not a whimper asking whether growth is really a good idea. It is a rare Michael Moore suggesting that auto plants should not produce autos, but rather solar panels and windmills for a society without privately owned cars.  It is even more rare to hear suggestions that auto plants should manufacture less and that unemployment could be resolved by shortening the work week.
A shorter work week is not exactly of the top of most environmental agendas. In fact, environmentalists often shoot themselves in the foot when they call for “sacrifices” from those who have already done more than their fair share of doing without.
Production and consumption: A broken connection
These conceptual problems stem from progressives using corporate economic frameworks. The error is believing that there is a connection between the amount of production and the amount of consumption. The common misperception is that an increase in consumption requires increased production, and, conversely, a fall in production means there will be less available to consume.
Accepting corporate economics, environmentalists make the false conclusion that if CO2 levels are to drop, then people must consume less. Social justice activists mistakenly believe that putting people back to work and providing basic necessities for all requires an increase in production. Neither of these are true. The greatest decrease in CO2 levels would come with a change in production and requires no personal sacrifice. Increasing production would not guarantee enough jobs; but, changing production could.
The mistake in economic thinking is hardly surprising since there was a direct link between production and consumption during more than 99% of human history. In pre-capitalist societies, if people wanted more, they produced more of what they wanted. This characterized the first few centuries of capitalism.
But between WWI and WWII, something happened that could only be considered a problem within the capitalist mode of production: Industry had the ability to produce enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. The first capitalists to realize this were aghast.
Jeffrey Kaplan chronicles their dismay at the discovery “that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.”  Though a tiny handful of business leaders thought that America should switch to a four hour workday, most concluded that such leisure could breed radicalism and that a failure to increase production would threaten profits.
In 1929 President Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes announced the growing corporate consensus that capitalism could best survive by creating artificial needs. The Committee gleefully announced that “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.” 
Having grown up in a world of planned obsolescence, most of us have spent our lives watching each new generation of consumer items last for a shorter period of time than the previous one. We grumble, complain and treat decreasing durability and increasing gadgetry as laws of economic nature which are beyond our control.
Capitalism has shown that it is possible to steadily increase the amount of production (about 2–3% annually) with little to no increase in meaningful consumption. The word “meaningful” is key in understanding whether consumption goes up, goes down, or stagnates. If a stove is manufactured to last 10 years instead of 50 years, a couple may purchase 5 stoves instead of 1 during a 50 year marriage. This is an increase in consumption in only the most non-meaningful way. In the world of real people, as opposed to the fantasy world of economists, there has actually been a slight decrease in meaningful consumption. There were four times when the couple was without a stove.
Is it possible to decrease production while increasing consumption?
Since the end of WWII, there has been a fantastic increase in production with very little increase in consumption of basic needs and zero increase in personal happiness. It is easy to miss the flip size of this: Due to the massive overproduction of the damaging and the useless, it is now possible to reduce production while consumption stays the same or even increases. This can be done by (a) producing more durable items, (b) producing different items, (c) changing the relationship between production and society [such as urban redesign] and most often (d) doing some combination of (a), (b) and (c).
The ability to produce less and consume more resolves the contradiction between environmental and social justice activism. Both should focus on “production-side environmentalism” or what is produced rather than “consumption-side environmentalism” or what people purchase. If we produce what people need, there is no reason to urge anyone to “Buy this instead of that.”
The most harmful aspects the economy are on the production side where consumer choices have minimal impact.  Arguing whether choices of consumers reduce environmental destruction by 0.2% or 2% is debating whether they are trivial or frivolous. Individual life style changes cannot even approach the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions needed to prevent the tipping point of climate change.
In contrast, changes in production can have an enormous impact on every aspect of the environment. Examining monstrous economic waste reveals that a very rapid decrease to 50% of current levels of production could occur simultaneous with an increase in consumption. Once that it achieved, we can enter a second phase of reducing production to 30%, 20% or perhaps 10% of current levels while continuing to improve the quality of people’s lives.
By reducing and fundamentally changing entire areas of production, it is possible to reduce the overall mass of stuff while having zero effect on meaningful consumption. Dramatically reducing production would profoundly reduce CO2 emissions, extend the use of available oil by centuries, and eliminate human expansion into species habitat. If people working at and living near manufacturing facilities were the ones making decisions about production, it would become possible to eliminate toxins that poison humans and other species.
Let’s take a look at how that could happen in a few sectors of the economy.
Just how do you “consume” militarism? Does it mean that you have increased “security?” Is it the ability to preserve your life, home and community?
Expanding US military production will not increase the consumption of security. It would make us less secure (meaning decreased consumption). The only way to increase the consumption of security is by halting the US assault on peoples throughout the world.
Additionally, the military is the only sector of the economy where emissions of green-house gases (GHG) can be reduced by greater than 100%. This is because militarism is the only type of economic activity whose primary purpose is destruction.
When a road is bombed in Serbia, energy is used to rebuild it. Energy usage translates to the emission of GHG, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2). When a home is leveled in Afghanistan, reconstruction requires energy. Every hospital brought down and every person maimed in Iraq means CO2 emissions during the treatment of patients and construction of new treatment facilities.
Military production is unique. If it were halted, GHG emissions would be reduced by an amount equal to (a) GHG emitted from repairing what the military bombed, plus (b) GHG produced during its regular activities of building bases, using weapons and transporting troops and equipment.
Though the official figure for the military budget is $623 billion, the War Resistors League  calculates total military-related spending at $1,118 billion by including NASA, Department of Energy nukes, vet benefits and interest on past military debts. Another $110 billion should be tacked on for extra spending on the war in Iraq.
The gross domestic product (GDP) is $13,246.6 billion.  Putting these together leads to an estimate that just under a tenth of the US economy is military-related spending:
[$1,188B + $110B] / $13,246.6B = 9.80%
This only accounts for military sales to the Pentagon. Since US arms manufacturers are major providers for regimes throughout the world, military spending actually accounts for considerably more than 10% of the GDP. Steve Martinot estimates that “The military is connected and conjoined to roughly 50% of all economic activity in the US.” 
Militarism may contribute more than any other sector of the economy to oil depletion, creation of toxins and habitat destruction. Yet, the one area of the economy where a greater than 100% reduction in greenhouse gases is possible is the area least likely to be discussed in connection with climate change. Clearly, reducing military (including nuclear) production would increase consumption by (a) providing more security and (b) destroying less infrastructure.
The food industry
When the 21st century began, obesity outpaced hunger.  In the current world, hunger has nothing to do with either the quantity of food produced or the size of the food industry. Increasing the size of the food industry would (a) increase corporate profits and (b) increase obesity with its related problems such as diabetes, blood pressure and heart disease. Increasing the quantity of food produced would do nothing to end starvation, which is caused by overpricing and non-distribution of food.
Food is the most basic necessity. It illustrates what “decreasing production” of an industrial sector means. It does not mean decreasing the amount of the commodity produced. The “production of food” encompasses the labor and other inputs that go into what Americans eat, including:
· huge agricultural equipment, its manufacture, and the oil to operate it;
· chemical fertilizers and pesticides, research to create them, and everything to transport and store them;
· genetically engineered seed, its research, and Monsanto’s legal team and seed police which perpetrate criminal trespass to steal plant samples;
· the entire chain of food processing and packaging (up to 99% of the cost of some products);
· transportation of 1400 miles from “farm to fork” for the average morsel of food;
· manufacture of trucks, boats, planes, roads and docks to transport food;
· advertising in order to manufacture the desire to eat garbage masquerading as food, and,
· growing 8 to 10 times as much grain to produce a pound of beef protein as would be contained in the grain itself.
Adding these together means that it could be possible to produce as much or more food than America currently consumes with less than 10% of the economic energy that currently goes into agro-industry. A dramatic overhaul of production would increase consumption by (a) increasing the quality (nutrition) of food we eat, and (b) increasing the consumption of healthy living by decreasing obesity-related disorders.
Clothing (and appliances)
Until the last few decades consumer goods were designed to last. Post-WWI corporations faced the dilemma that increasing the durability of products would mean that people would have what they needed with little reason to purchase more. By the post WWII period, planned obsolescence had slammed clothing, appliances and household items full force.
When I speak on global warming, I like to wear a blue corduroy shirt I bought when I was 17. It still has all the fuzzy nap between ridges, even though corduroy I bought in the 1980s and 1990s has long since fallen apart. In 2009, I turned 61. That proves beyond a doubt that, in 1965, clothing manufacturers knew how to produce corduroy that would last for 44 years. Every piece of corduroy that falls apart sooner than that does so by design.
People of my generation and older can tell dozens of stories of things that “used to last” — shoes, dishes, coffee pots, desks, furniture, everything bought for the home or office. The most vile form of commoditization is the disposable bag, bottle, cup, plate, and camera designed to be used a single time and then spend centuries contaminating groundwater or choking distant aquatic life.
This is one reason that trying to guilt trip people into “buying less to save the planet” is pointless. How much we buy is determined less by environmental awareness and more by product durability and what we are forced to purchase to keep a job and to survive.
Business is not immune to the ever-decreasing durability that plagues consumers. Computers and computer software suck capital from industry as they drain family budgets with their out-of-date-by-design formatting.
Take all the useless junk that people are persuaded that they need, add it to those useful goods with a premeditated plan to fall apart, and ask “How much manufacturing is truly needed for the consumer goods that make for a quality life?” Production could decrease by at least 70% with zero decrease in the quality of life and the increase in mental health that would come from knowing that you probably don’t have to fix or buy something tomorrow.
Current standards for urban planning anticipate that 2% of US buildings will be replaced every year.  That means the average house is expected to last 50 years. Does that make a 50 year old home an old building? Many European buildings went up 500 years ago. That proves that 500 years ago architects knew how to design buildings that would last for 500 years.
Architects should be able to replicate that in the 21st century. Or maybe the problem isn’t individual architects, but a building sector pushing to have each generation of homes constructed to worse standards than the generation before.
The construction industry has gleefully joined the agro-food complex and consumer goods manufacturers in intentionally undermining the use value of what they produce. After I spoke about global warming at an area high school, the principal privately challenged my figure that US buildings are designed to last 50 years. “I went to a city council meeting last week,” he told me. “And they were approving construction of a new government building that the architect said would last 20 years.”
“And did the architect promise it would be covered with eco-gadgets?” I wanted to know.
“Solar panels. Double-flush toilets. It would have everything.”
The amount of energy saved with green gadgets is lost many times over by erecting new buildings when existing ones will do fine. What could be more absurd than building mountains of new eco-homes when existing homes are being made empty by foreclosures?
Imagine a “green building” plan that said …
1. No building could go up unless there was an absence of unused comparable building space within 50 miles; and,
2. Any new building would have to be constructed to a 500 year standard.
It should be obvious that if buildings were constructed to last 10 times as long we would need one tenth as many new buildings. There is no reason that we should not be able to ensure a home for every family (increase in consumption) at the same time there is less construction (decrease in production).
Single payer health care
What does “consumption” of health care mean? If it means getting endless tests, surgery and pills that make you sicker, then increased production is required to increase the consumption of health care. But if we define “consumption” of health care to mean having better health, then increased consumption can only occur with a huge decrease in the health care industry.
The life expectancy in the US is 78.0 years. The life expectancy in Cuba is 78.0 years. The annual cost of health care in Cuba is $193 per person. The cost of health care in the US is over 20 times as much, over $4500 per person per year. A reasonable American could conclude that when s/he spends $100 on health care, less than $5 goes to keeping her/him healthy and over $95 goes to the cancerous growth of the sickness industry. 
This suggests that the US could decrease health care costs by 90% and still spend twice as much per person as does Cuba. Just how could the US make such incredibly deep cuts in the cost of “medical production” without damaging (and even improving) the quality of health care?
· Eliminate health insurance companies. The insurance industry alone soaks up at least 30% and possibly 50% of US health care costs 
· Focus on community preventive care rather than hospital care. Hospitals are necessary for many emergency treatments. Childbirth and locked mental health wards are examples of what the industry has medicalized in pursuit of profit.
· Eliminate most medications. Require physicians to document that available non-medication treatments have been exhausted prior to writing a scrip. I dumped my last primary care physician after he started yelling at me for refusing to take meds for blood pressure (which is now under control by changes in diet and exercise).
· Replace most specialists with neighborhood primary care physicians. Everyone living in a US city should be able to reach a primary care physician by walking or cycling for less than 15 minutes. The fact that the medical establishment cannot conceptualize this shows its contempt for preventive care.
Increasing the production of health care means bloating the profits of the insurance industry, hospital complexes, equipment manufacturers and drug pushers. Such increased production would not make Americans healthier. That can only happen by totally redesigning health care into a much smaller system than it is now.
Increasing the production of cars will not increase the speed with which people arrive at where they need to go. More cars means more roads, more distance between destination points, and more time spent traveling.
Nevertheless, the automobile industry would have us believe that improving transportation means putting more cars on the road. Corporate environmentalists nod in agreement, accepting the car culture as an Act of God but wishing it would be based on hybrid, electric or hydrogen cars. Shallow green plans to cope with transportation are consistently devoid of any thought of reducing the production of cars.
A deep green approach to transportation would focus on eliminating at least 95% of privately owned cars in American cities. Such a plan might look something like this:
· Redesign cities to rebirth local businesses so that people can make 80% of their trips by walking or cycling.
· Ensure that frequent and cheap mass transit allows for people to use it for 80% of other trips.
· Establish car-sharing or ride-sharing for the 4% of trips remaining.
· Only after the above are adopted, eliminate parking spaces except for emergency, construction and car-shared vehicles.
Would this increase or decrease the “consumption” of a transportation system? Orthodox economists would insist that it would not be increasing consumption because people would not be driving in ever-increasing circles. This rigid mindset fails to realize that transportation means getting from point A to point B, or from all the points A to all the points B you need to get to. The more that destination points are spread apart by urban sprawl and the more that roads are choked with cars, even “green” cars, the longer and more miserable transportation is. Despite what economists might tell you, this is increased consumption of agony, not increased consumption of transportation.
If people can get to all the where-they-need-to-go’s quicker, easier and in a more healthy way, their consumption of transportation can go up while the production of cars plummets.
Not necessarily a good thing to do
Just because you have the ability to so something does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing to do. As a society, 21st century American has the ability to simultaneously decrease production and increase consumption. While this is a beginning step, it does not mean that it is a path that need be long followed.
It should be possible to rapidly reduce US production by 50% while the average person would have the ability to consume more. If getting serious about addressing climate change and related catastrophes became the norm and if reducing production were to be seen as a virtue, people might think, “Now that shirts last four times as long and only cost a little more, I can afford to have 80 shirts instead of 30. But do I really need 80 shirts?” 
Once production for human need replaces production for corporate profit, it becomes possible to reconnect production and consumption. When people again produce what they need, reducing what they consume means less would be produced.
Multiply 80 shirts by a thousand commodities and hundreds of millions of consumers and we have Phase 2 of the reduction of production. Phase 1 is the reduction of production with an increase of consumption. Phase 2 is an intensified reduction of consumption based on a reduction of consumption and an improvement in the quality of life. Is it realistic to imagine reducing production to 30%, 20% or even 10% of current levels?
Phase 2: Less production, less consumption and a better life
Militarism. With the US having a military budget greater than the rest of the world combined, 800 military bases on which the sun never sets, and enough nuclear weapons to disintegrate every person many times over, it could reduce its spending by over 90% with zero threat to national security. A Phase 1 reduction in military production by 90% would be accompanied by spending some of that money at home in useful areas of the economy and some abroad to repair the damage done. Phase 2 reduction would begin if people asked, “If we are already providing the basic necessities of life with other economic changes, instead of using military savings to produce additional goods, why don’t we produced nothing extra at all and use the savings to reduce the work week?” 
Food. There might be as much as a 90% drop in food inputs by reducing transportation, pesticides, fertilizers, equipment, processing, packaging, genetic contamination and meat. As people watch this happen with no decrease in the quantity but a huge increase in the quality of food, the stage will be set for Phase 2. Wes Jackson, Stan Cox and their colleagues at The Land Institute have provided brilliant guidelines for developing hybrid lines of perennial food plants that would reduce the amount of land tilled, leading to less erosion and less land being needed for food production. Add this to the expansion of numerous techniques of organic and indigenous farming throughout the world to yield continuous ways to reduce agricultural inputs. 
Consumer goods. Core to the concept of increasing consumption while decreasing production is requiring consumer goods to be manufactured to standards of life expectancies that are many times what they are now. During Phase 1, people could well see their work week getting shorter while they accumulate even more stuff than they have now. Railing against people for personal accumulation does little good for many reasons, one of which is if one person buys less, then another person (or a government, a business or a bank) buys or invests more. It is only when production as a whole drops that reductions in personal consumption can lead to further drops in production. In this context, people might well decide to share tools and washing machines and children might enjoy clothes passed down from older siblings, which, multiplied millions of times intensify the downward trend in production.
Construction. When we ask how many centuries instead of how many decades a new building should last, it is also time to start thinking about the second phase of decelerating construction. The question for that phase is: If we focus on retrofitting existing structures, how close to zero new construction can we get? How do we modify what we already have to create housing collectives, co-housing communities and urban ejidos? In a post-market economy, new social relationships in living would become the dominant factor in architecture. More dense living and a smaller space per person would be the sine qua non of deep green urban redesign.
Transportation. The great transportation contradiction is that the more people who own cars, the longer it takes to get from points A to points B. As mentioned, increased car ownership increases the distance between destination points as well as obviously putting more cars on the road. The drive can take a dive only if people can get there without four wheels. Phase 1 of transportation reformulation means designing communities for walking and biking in order to reduce car ownership. Phase 2 begins when people collectively identify needs that can be met without their going anywhere. For example, imagine food warehouses replacing supermarkets. Households combine electronic grocery lists into a neighborhood order that the warehouse delivers and is then disaggregated by neighbors. Instead of thousands of cars each filling a massive parking lot, a few dozen delivery trucks fill orders.
Health care. A big reason for bad health care is the industry organizing itself separate and apart from communities. If neighborhood health centers were to replace distant offices, insurance companies, quick fixes, drugs, hospitals and overpaid specialists, people could then ask how else they could chip away at the sickness business while improving the quality of their lives. Though redesigning neighborhoods so people can walk to their doctor and kick soda machines out of schools is a part of this, changes can be much bigger. Communities could ask: How can a neighborhood share the care of severely disabled people rather than constructing more nursing homes and treatment centers with three shifts per day and a management team that answers to insurance companies?
Webster’s defines misanthrope as “one who hates or mistrusts all people.” Sincere environmentalists often border on misanthropy when they claim that “the problem is people” and prescribe “sacrifice” or “doing without” as solutions for ecological catastrophe.
Social justice activists can throw up an equivalent roadblock to progressive unity when they support proposals for endless economic growth. The greatest barrier to coping with climate change, peak oil, toxins and habitat destruction is the total mass of production. This mass is increasing; its increase vastly outpaces any real or imagined increase in consumption; and its increase is made worse by peddling green gadgets.
This eco-gadget pseudo-solution has expanded to the point that it is itself a major barrier. The shallow green quest for perpetual motion machines fuels the corporate myth that technology can solve crises of an over-technologized society. It diverts attention from examining why a social system would require an irrational increase in the production of objects when there are already far too many.
We cannot respond to every industry that should be abolished, shrunk, or changed to producing durable goods by saying “Let them build solar panels.”
· If we replaced every weapons factory and every nuke with solar panel factories…
· If we replaced every health insurance building and every drug company with solar panel factories…
· If we replaced every auto plant with solar panel factories…
· If solar panel production made up for the lowered quantity of production that manufacturing durable goods would cause…
· If solar panel production made up for the decline in construction that building homes to last for 500 years would cause…
If we actually created that many solar panels and put them on our houses, we would all be cremated by the amount of heat generated.
At some point, we need to recognize that we just do not need to produce so much. The point of enough stuff was reached about 75 years ago and we have been witnessing geometrically increasing obsolescence ever since.
We have the ability to cut back on production while providing for everyone’s needs. This should be the beginning point of socially aware environmentalism. It should be central to environmental social justice.
Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is published for members of the Green Party USA. He can be contacted at email@example.com
1. Free online at http://www.storyofstuff.com/
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13. While there could be a 90% or greater reduction in several economic sectors, economies of scale may mean that a much smaller drop in basic industry could be achieved, perhaps meaning that less than a 90% overall decrease would occur.
14. If militarism accounts for 11% of the GDP and it were reduced to 1% of the current GDP, that would be a reduction of the GDP by 10%. That could translate to 10% more goods being produced or it could translate to a reduction of the 40-hour work week to 36 hours, or it could translate to 5% more goods being produced and shipped abroad as reparations for US war crimes simultaneous with a 5% decrease in the work week to 38 hours.
15. Cox, S. Sick planet: Corporate food and medicine. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008. Glover, J.D., Cox, C.M., & Reganold, J.P., August, 2007. Future farming: A return to roots? Scientific American, 297 (2), 82–89.