Thursday, February 22, 2007

Capitalism - can the world cope?

Timothy Garton Ash

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six-and-a-half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich north. In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - and change the earth's climate as a result. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today. However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - and they will be very ingenious - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

Marx thought capitalism would have a problem finding consumers for the goods that improving techniques of production enabled it to churn out. Instead, it has become expert in a new branch of manufacturing: the manufacture of desires. The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but that it makes them want what it has to give. It's that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale. But are we prepared to abandon it? We may be happy to insulate our lofts, recycle our newspapers and cycle to work, but are we ready to settle for less so others can have more? Am I? Are you?


jo said...

"consumerism, the opiate for the masses." Well I think its seems like the new religion, anyway. Its what people do on Sunday. Fills that little gap. Whats missing? Is the question though.

Terence said...

Hello again Jo,

thanks for your comments.

"consumerism, the opiate for the masses"

I agree - heck I'm tempted to to go to Unity books on my next lunch break and take a hit.

However, I think that TGA's most important point is that marketing (which may, or may not, be an essential part of capitalism) drives us to consume much more than we would do otherwise. And that this is hastening our planet's potential demise.

I'd be really interested to see what advertising free capitalism would look like. Would it work?

Tim said...

"I'd be really interested to see what advertising free capitalism would look like. Would it work?"

I've often wondered about that too! Usually while I'm standing in the bus 'shelter' getting wet, trying not to look at the advertisements that paid for the old, functional, bus shelter to be demolished.

Actually, as a little aside, I started wondering to what extent the Australian governments have raised the cost of advertising by swamping the market with political ads (ie, a crowding out effect). I'm sure you could easily measure it if you had the right data, and I'm sure it would be signficant. At least 1 or 2 advertisements per TV ad-break are state or federal government ones (they are equal culprits, at least in Victoria). A significant number of Federal govt advertising is about WorkChoices (the new IR laws) as an attempted counter to the ads placed by unions. And the state government even has its own ads countering the Federal govt ads, also regarding the IR laws! The battle for minds (even those of poor quality and short attention span) is pretty expensive, and looks set to go a few more rounds too (until November at least).

The other big spender is the "Keep Australia Safe from Terrorism" ads, which have been adorning train stations and the insides of trams since at least Feb 2005 (when I arrived).

I'll see if I can find you some numbers.

...Here we go

Coming up is $23m to promote Howard as a sensible pragmatist on climate change:

In 2005, $55m to promote WorkChoices, before it had even been put through Parliament:

$500m over 3 years is the total spending figure for State govt:

(About $100 per person?)

(Some of these are just inane, by the way. There are loads about 'Workplace Safety', basically just with the message 'think about being safe').

Here's another link about Victorian ads:

$237m spent annually by the states promoting tourism, to other states

And apparently a grand total of $1.7bn over 10 years on Federal govt ads:

(What's that... about $85 each?)

Anyway, don't follow those links, there's nothing cheerful in there. I just wish I never knew about this stuff - I was happier before!

Terence said...

I suppose that's why they call it the miserable science :)

I love the idea of the govt. crowding out private advertising (I hear it's even worse in North Korea). I just wish my taxes weren't funding it.

Imagine a world where all advertising - private or public simply filled the role that is assumed in much of economic thought: information provision.