Like lambs to the slaughter, they’re encouraging us now with the same enchanting tune they’ve
been singing for over a century: ‘Buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have. In this way,
the gears of production and consumption will keep turning, and our fantasy of unbounded growth of
business, in a world of inexhaustible resources, will be realised…’
A radical new breed of economists and ecologists are conjuring up what could be the most timely revolution that the “free-market economy” has ever seen.
Not surprising, considering that the current slump in economic growth has been an inescapable nuisance for almost every developed nation in the world, and despite nearly four years of instability behind us, the economic crisis shows no signs of abating.
Of course, this is an affliction that third-world undeveloped nations are already familiar with, right? So it’s quite reasonable to be more concerned with the well-being of the sensitive elite, right? That’s the uninspiring attitude that has perpetuated the same band-aid solutions we’ve seen throughout history; that is, how to shift the brunt of the burden onto the shoulders of the proletarian class, whether they’re in America or abroad. Like lambs to the slaughter, they’re encouraging us now with the same enchanting tune they’ve been singing for over a century: “Buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have. In this way, the gears of production and consumption will keep turning, and our fantasy of unbounded growth of business, in a world of inexhaustible resources, will be realised…”
Histories (and Products) Repeat Themselves
In 1929, a prominent real-estate broker in New York engineered a clever scheme to set the gears of industry in perpetual motion. The broker, Bernard London, proposed that every product on the market should have a predetermined “lease of life,” with an expiry date set by its manufacturer and designed into its workmanship, so that the need for replacement or upgrade would come sooner rather than later and so the consumer would be all but forced to purchase new products. This concept, which was dubbed “planned obsolescence”, was ignored by economists of the time. However, perhaps worse than the idea of planned obsolescence by legal obligation, as Mr. London had envisioned, is the fact that this shrewd business objective has, since the Great Depression, become an unofficial cultural norm, one to which the helpless mass of consumers does not hesitate to acquiesce.
Try finding a battery for your mobile a year after you buy it and odds are you’ll be hunting for one on the Web, because your wireless carrier has long since moved on to newer models and doesn’t carry a replacement battery in stock.
Pause for a moment and consider, the next time you’re purchasing any nonperishable goods like clothing, electronics, and home ware, do the manufacturers of this product really want me to be satisfied with its form and function or am I being lured into an interest in future models? Am I purchasing an enduring article or a fleeting status symbol? These are the themes that drive product development and keep businesses afloat.
This phenomenon is easily noticeable in the field of cellular phones, a market into which new models are introduced, on average, and by almost every manufacturer, every four months. Try finding a battery for your mobile a year after you buy it and odds are you’ll be hunting for one on the Web, and that your wireless carrier has long since moved on to newer models and doesn’t carry a replacement battery in stock. In the United States, wireless carriers’ policies of heavily subsidising phones when customers sign up for one- or two-year contracts reinforces the idea of change, even if you’re perfectly happy with the phone you’ve been using.This is one of the classic, backhanded tricks in business psychology, as explained by Allen Nogee, wireless infrastructure and technology analyst for In-Stat Research: “Operators do this where they can because they know if the subscriber has a better phone, he or she is more likely to use services which more than pay for the difference in cost on the phone.”
A reckless culture of prodigious consumption and production will never develop into a stable economy. As romantic as it may sound to strive for unlimited growth and innovation, in reality we see that, as a result of our so-called growth and innovation, the most promising industries of today are those involved with conservation of resources, sustainability and waste management. Indeed, the idea of unbridled economic development will only produce an abundance of maladies:
Consequently, although there is no lack of money in the world, there is a scarcity of peace. So much human energy is being diverted to making money, for the general population has increased its capacity to make more and more dollars, but in the long run the result is that this unrestricted and unlawful monetary inflation has created a bad economy all over the world and has provoked us to manufacture huge and costly weapons to destroy the very result of such cheap money-making. The leaders of the big money-making countries are not really enjoying peace but are making plans to save themselves from imminent destruction by nuclear weapons. In fact, huge sums of money are being thrown into the sea by way of experiments with these dreadful weapons. Such experiments are being carried out not only at huge costs but also at the cost of many lives. In this way the nations are being bound by the laws of karma. When people are motivated by the impulse for sense gratification, whatever money is earned is spoiled, being spent for the destruction of the human race.
– A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
These criticisms of the “growth society” are familiar to most of us. We might even be inclined to say, with an air of exasperation, that we’ve heard enough. However, there is something to be said in this regard which is novel and worth getting excited about: that an interest is brewing in the appraisal of environmental resources and that people are becoming more educated about the monetary value of a more holistic world-view and a (comparatively) restrained lifestyle. For example, ten years ago the city of New York made a decision to spend over $1 billion to purchase land in the Catskills watershed to secure or restore the capacity of the natural ecosystem to purify the city’s water supply. The rationale? To build water-purification plants with the same capabilities would have similar initial and long-term costs. Usually, during periods of tight government spending controls, environment protection programmes constitute ready targets for restriction as the public demands that money be channelled into perceived priority areas. Is it possible that our “perceived priorities” could be undergoing a profound change?
Hence, I adamantly support the proposal that, just as the value of a natural resource can be defined monetarily, so too can the natural pleasures of human existence, such as health, family, and spirituality, be given credence in a more mature economic model. I think it’s high time for intelligent people to reflect upon the dismal history of the “unlimited growth” paradigm and consider redefining what is valuable in our lives. Are we really making progress? Or are we just running in circles? When is enough, enough!? Failing to wake up from the dream of perpetual economic development, we remain with the bitter axiom of Blaise Pascal:
We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.