Every year on Black Friday, lines wrap around buildings for holiday deals. The annual sales have a notorious reputation for causing fights and veritable stampedes — clashes that are broadcasted globally.
The hysteria always wanes the following Monday. Shoppers are lambasted for their avarice as videos of the damage go viral. Consumerism is an easy ethos to pick on —it seems it’s the poster child for everything wrong with humanity under capitalism.
Each year, we hear the same admonitions from people who snub the sales — claiming holiday consumption is greedy, self-involved, and has deep environmental and social repercussions. Yet, these objections do not appear to have any real effect on the spending patterns of individuals, particularly during the bustling holiday season.
The issue is far more complicated than making the simple decision to shop or abstain. There are complicated arguments both for and against the role that consumerism — including the madness of Black Friday — plays in our economic future.
How then, do we overcome the purported perils of consumption? One view supplies potential answers, and it involves reversing the premise of the current growth-based model. Tim Jackson, a UK-based economist, popularized the idea of a zero-growth method with his report Prosperity Without Growth. The approach makes the case for a highly socialized market, one that reduces our reliance on material products and eliminates the concept of profit as we know it.
For Jackson and other zero-growth economists, curbing consumption is essential to our well-being. Prosperity is not to be found in a booming GDP, but within activities that are sustainable, in all senses of the word.
Yet for all the apparent dangers of the growth model, the reigning logic tells us that a robust economy and a good job market rely on consumption. Without profits, firms lose investors, and deprived of investors no company can survive. The message from this school of thought is clear: avoid civil ruin by filling your shopping carts.
So which is the better choice? If we want to be prosperous and safe, live on an ecologically sound planet, and have unified and inclusive societies, it seems we must simultaneously reject consumerism and receive it with open arms. Having it all appears to be a logical impossibility.
To Dr. Pierre Desrochers, an economic geographer at the University of Toronto, the zero-growth line of reasoning is utter fallacy. “It may be counterintuitive, but we can have our cake and eat it too,” he tells me.
Desrochers describes his far-right philosophy as riding “the edge of the fringe.” He argues that the environmental arguments against the perpetual growth model are all unfounded. The sky isn’t falling any faster now, at the historical height of material output, than it was when Plato voiced his own concerns about deforestation over two thousand years ago.
Desrochers thinks that anti-growth advocates make one simple mistake: they underestimate, and even overlook, the power of innovation. “Degrowth is based on a lack of appreciation for the human brain,” he explains. Abolishing the consumption mandate isn’t necessary for ecological welfare — we can rely on other ideas to solve our environmental woes.
Rather than reconstruct the economy so that it no longer seeks unlimited growth, Desrochers thinks that we should continue exactly what we’re doing. Capitalism is inherently efficient, he argues, and will minimize environmental impact naturally.
“It doesn’t matter if you consume more if you don’t release it into the environment,” he says. “We just need to close the loop.” Desrochers even believes, in his edge-of-the-fringe way, that it’s actually dangerous to shop less. “We’re already on the tiger. If we get off now, we’re in trouble,” he states. Besides, he adds, “societies that stagnate start to decay.”
Desrochers is rooted firmly in the camp that believes the human brain can overcome all obstacles. “There’s no limit to ideas,” he says. Since capitalism turns problems into opportunities, then according to Desroches maintaining the status quo is the best solution we’ve got.
There are, however, objections to the pro-growth perspective, including allegations that it emphasizes wealth production rather than distribution. Critics stress that by prioritizing profits, the growth model generates an insurmountable gulf between the rich and poor.
Dr. Walid Hejazi, professor of international economics at Rotman School of Management, disagrees that growth inspires disparity. Hejazi makes a strong distinction between wealth expansion and capital distribution. While growth is fundamentally good, he tells me, inequality is dangerous, and harms everybody in the long run. “Income inequality is a problem, and it’s going to come back to bite us if we don’t address it,” he says.
However, as Hejazi adds, there’s no escaping poverty without growth.
Ultimately, it’s not the growth paradigm that’s to blame for unequal distribution, but a lack of concern from governments about fixing income gaps. Regulation, says Hejazi, isn’t the answer, but creative solutions that encourage inclusion are “the right approach”.
The efforts are beneficial at all income levels. “We all have a stake in this,” says Hejazi. “People aren’t vested in society when they’re marginalized. Governments need to be proactive and forward-looking.”
GOODS AND THE GOOD LIFE
The problem, according to Dr. Joseph Heath, U of T ethics professor and co-author of The Rebel Sell, is that governments take growth as a priority at the expense of better routes to happiness. Increasing productivity and wealth redistribution are important, he says, but acquiring the good life requires governments to increase access to “positional” goods.
“No amount of economic growth will allow the poor to have what the rich have,” he says. “That’s because the differences in what they have aren’t material, they’re just differences in status.”
According to Heath, positional goods are what cause us to eternally tread the “squirrel-wheel” of consumption, so eliminating growth won’t necessarily fix the frustration of never having enough. What we need instead is a growing society that provides nonmaterial means of satisfying desires, so that we can consume without worrying about ecological damage or the status that our purchases confer.
But for Dr. Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at U of T, the pro-growth view is “excessively narrow”.
“There’s something dangerous about the idea that growth is always the right answer,” he says. “It becomes rapacious… it might even become self-defeating.”
However, he adds, focusing our cultural criticism on holiday shopping won’t get us very far. “Anti-consumerism is a mug’s game,” he says. “It’s more interesting to have a searching critique of the effects — and they’re not marginal effects — that the current arrangement is having on the conditions of life’s possibility.”
Heath, too, spoke of consumer culture’s detriment, with its landscapes marred by commercial imagery. “We get kind of inured to it, but when you walk down a city street, every second or two you see something that is in some way designed to trick you,” he says. “Usually to get your money.” Failing to find the right balance between growth and welfare, it seems, turns our environments hostile.
The commercialism that promotes growth is a two-headed snake. It takes considerable energy to resist its coercive enterprises, but coerced we must be if we are to preserve its health.
Kingwell, upholding philosophic tradition, thinks we ought to remain sceptical, cognizant of the ways in which we manipulate ourselves to make material acquisition a priority.
“You don’t have to be part of the feeding frenzy,” he says. “It’s a depressing spectacle, at the very least.”