I’m not sure environmentalists understand what the word “consumption” means to economists.

Feb 25 JDN 2458175

Several times now I’ve heard environmentalists repeat variants of this line: “Capitalist economies depend on consumption; therefore capitalism is incompatible with environmental sustainability.”

A recent example comes from this article on QZ arguing that “conscious consumerism” isn’t viable for protecting the environment:

In short, consumption is the backbone of the American economy—which means individual conscious consumerism is basically bound to fail. “70% of GDP in the US is based on household consumption. So all the systems, the market, the institutions, everything is calibrated to maximize consumption,” Brown told me in a later interview. “The whole marketing industry and advertising invents new needs we didn’t know we had.”

Consumption. You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

To be clear, let me say that I basically agree that “conscious consumerism” isn’t good enough. There are a few big things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, like moving to California (or better yet, Scandinavia), becoming vegetarian, driving a hybrid car (or not driving at all), and not flying on airplanes. Aside from that, your consumer choices are not going to have a large impact. There is a huge amount of greenwashing that goes on—products that present themselves as eco-friendly which really aren’t. And these things by themselves are not enough. A 2012 study by the European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production found little or no difference in long-run carbon footprint between people who claim to be “green consumers” and people who don’t.

Moreover, there is a strong positive correlation between a country’s GDP and its carbon footprint. The list of countries with the highest carbon emissions looks a lot like the list of countries with the highest GDP.

But there is still substantial variation in the ratio of GDP to carbon emissions. Scandinavia does extremely well, at over $5,000 per ton (as does France, thanks to nuclear energy), while most European countries make about $3,000 per ton, the US is at about $2,000 per ton, and the very most carbon-intensive economies like China, the UAE, and South Africa only make about $1,000 per ton. China produces more carbon emissions per capita than Denmark despite having only one-third the standard of living (at purchasing power parity). Emissions also vary a great deal by states within the US; California’s per-capita emissions are comparable to France’s, while Wyoming’s are worse than the UAE’s.

This brings me to my main point, which is that economists don’t mean the same thing by the word “consumption” that environmentalists do. The environmentalist meaning might be closer to common usage: When something is consumed, we think of it as being destroyed, despoiled, degraded. (It’s even an archaic euphemism for tuberculosis.) So I can see why you would think that if our economy is 70% “consumption” that must make capitalism terrible for the environment: An economy that is 70% destruction, despoliation, and degradation does sound pretty bad.

But when economists use the word “consumption”, what we actually mean is private household expenditure. Our economy is 70% “consumption” in the sense that 70% of the dollars spent in GDP are spent by private individuals as opposed to corporations or the government. Of the $19.7 trillion of US GDP, $13.6 trillion was personal consumption expenditures. That’s actually 69%, but it’s okay to round up to 70%. The rest is made up of $3.4 trillion in government spending, $3.3 trillion in private investment, and a loss of $0.6 trillion from our trade deficit.

There’s no particular connection between private household expenditure and destruction, despoliation, or degradation. In fact, the most destructive form of GDP is obviously military spending, which is not counted as “consumption” in the National Income and Product Accounts but rather as “government expenditure”. Military spending is almost pure waste from an ecological perspective; it consumes mind-boggling amounts of fossil fuels in addition to causing death and destruction. The US military produces almost as much total carbon emissions as the entire country of Denmark.

In fact, the vast majority of private household expenditure in highly-developed countries is in the form of services—over $9.2 trillion in the US. The top four categories for expenditure on services in the US are housing/utilities, healthcare, finance, and food service. I can at least see how housing and utilities would be related to ecological impact—concrete and steel are very carbon-intensive, as is electricity if you’re not using nuclear or renewables. But healthcare, finance, and food service? When environmentalists point to the fact that 70% of our economy is consumption as evidence of the fundamental unsustainability of capitalism, this amounts to asserting that the reason we can’t prevent global warming is that there are so many nurses, accountants, and waiters.

Of course, most people don’t quite grasp what economists mean when we use the word “consumption”, so it makes for a nice talking point for environmentalists. You can conjure images of degradation and destruction while citing the respected authority of the National Income and Product Accounts. If you were already left-wing otherwise (as most environmentalists are), you can make it seem as though the problem is capitalism itself, the very structure of an economy built upon “consuming” the Earth.

In reality, there is enormous variation between countries in terms of their carbon efficiency, and in fact the most carbon-efficient nations are all those that have the highest degrees of political and economic freedom—which is to say, social democracies. One can debate whether social democracies like Denmark and Sweden are “truly capitalist”, but they definitely have free-market economies with large private sectors. On a global and historical scale, there’s really not that much difference between Denmark and the United States (compare to the USSR, or China, or Burkina Faso, or Medieval Japan, or Classical Rome). And if the US isn’t capitalist, who is?

My advice? Don’t talk about consumption at all. Talk about carbon emissions. Don’t ignore variation in GDP/carbon ratios: If the world copied China, we’d all have a per-capita income of $15,500 and emissions of 7.6 tons of carbon per person per year; but if the world copied Denmark, we’d all have a per-capita income of $51,000 and emissions of 6.8 tons of carbon per person per year. (Granted, even 6.8 is still too high; the targets I’ve seen say we need to be at about 3.0 by 2030. But Denmark has also been trending downward in emissions, so we could copy them on that too.) Reducing our standard of living wouldn’t save us if it meant being like China, and maintaining it wouldn’t hurt us if it meant being like Denmark.

I definitely agree that focusing on consumer choices isn’t good enough. Focus on policy. Carbon taxes, bans on unconventional extraction (e.g. offshore drilling, fracking), heavy investment in solar and nuclear energy, large reforestation projects, research into soil sequestration and ocean seeding. Demand these things from all politicians of all parties at all levels of government always. Don’t take no for an answer—because millions of people will die if we don’t stop climate change.

But I don’t think nurses, accountants, and waiters are the problem—and it doesn’t hurt for people to become vegetarian and buy hybrid cars.

2 thoughts on “I’m not sure environmentalists understand what the word “consumption” means to economists.

  1. I’m not sure economists understand what the word “consumption” means to environmentalists.

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