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Economic Roots of the Consumption Dilemma

Updated: May 14, 2022

I’m finishing up my M.F.A. in Design for Sustainability at Savannah College of Art and Design, and this is my first blog post. Don’t let the academic format scare you. I’ve worked to make what I think is really interesting information accessible to a broad audience. Doing so is one of my passions, in fact.

(photo credit: AdobeStock_162379916.jpeg)

It’s been fascinating to me to learn about the foundations of our current climate crisis, ways of thinking through problem solving, and how designers can play an enormous role in helping us get out of the mess that in large part, design got us into in the first place. If you’re interested in design, sustainability, and ways to work on changing our broken systems, buckle up. This is just the beginning, with many more posts to come!

Here we go:

As Victor Margolin wrote in The Politics of the Artificial, many consumers and most businesses still operate in what he calls the Expansion Model of society (Margolin, 2002). During the 19th century, economic models in the West placed different geographic regions within a hierarchical structure of importance. These models reinforced colonial endeavors and attitudes, and a concrete idea of expansion theory (ibid). Today the expansion model looks slightly different, consisting of a world made of markets for the exchange of products and raw materials (Margolin, 2002).

Until recently the biggest market contenders have been the economically developed countries of Europe, North America, and Japan, also called The Triad. Economic power has since shifted to include China, recently industrialized countries in Southeast Asia, and a few others such as Brazil (Margolin, 2002). All of these function use the expansion model.

One of the many problems with this is that all persons are considered consumers before they are considered humans, wives, fathers or individuals. Instead of measuring human welfare, the GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is used as the primary measurement of economic health and evaluates only the market value of goods and services produced within a nation (Raworth, 2017). Growth of product sales is sacred. Quality of life fails to be evaluated.

By the logic of the GDP, a country is more successful if people get divorced, because if they have children they need two homes, two sets of toys and supplies. It’s more successful if crime increases because items need to be replaced. Success decreases if a parent stays home to care for children, or if a person decides to live more simply. This begs the question of whether the definition of success needs revision. Only a few states or regions have adopted the use of the alternative, Genuine Progress Indicator, which attempts to do just that (Utah Council, 2020) .

(image Copyright © 2011 Günseli Berik and Erica Gaddis)

In his essay titled, Economy and Pleasure, Wendell Berry examines this through the lens of agriculture. He says that competitiveness based throughout the industrial age on ever accelerating technological innovation has resulted in accelerating dependency on purchased products made increasingly far from home (Berry, 1988). He goes on further to say,

“The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so drastically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings” (1988).

Wendell Berry, Image From New Statesman

An alternative to the existing Expansion Model, the Sustainability Model came into being after several comprehensive studies about the state of our natural systems were completed around 1987 (Margolin, 2002). This model presents the world as a system of ecological checks and balances in the context of finite resources. It prevents “overspending” from our naturala budget, which is crucial if we don’t want to go into foreclosure or bankruptcy. Without a system of accountability, elements of the existing system become unbalanced and essential resources depleted, causing the world to experience significant damage or possibly face collapse (2002).

The Sustainability Model is more rational than the Expansion Model, but has not accommodated the dynamic nature of production and trade that is fueling the development of an emerging global economy. This has led large portions of the public in industrialized countries to either ignore it or pay it lip service only (Margolin, 2002). Alas, the Sustainability Model requires a redefinition of success and growth.

In a Design Issues article in 1994, Ezio Manzini provided three consumption scenarios that he said were necessary because redesign of existing products would be insufficient in the face of the current, structural crisis (Margolin, 2002).

The first of these involves reframing the view of objects to replace the idea of novelty with one of attachment and care. To do this we must trade our addiction to disposability for an appreciation for quality, craft, and objects that improve our sense of belonging. or our memories of special people, places, or times. The second envisions utilizing product sharing of goods we don’t need to have all the time, or creating services to meet specialized needs. The third will be the hardest for people to accept because it calls for decreased consumption. However, if humans insist on a definition as consumers, we can at least consume less (Margolin, 2002). In doing so, we may be surprised that we can not only survive, but thrive.

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