Citizen Action Monitor

The profit motive, entwined with consumer demand, lock us into an ‘Iron Cage’ of consumerism

“It is entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies.

No 2075 Posted by fw, October 14, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

In his very short introduction to Chapter 6, “The ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism,” Jackson sets out to explore two entwined features of our modern economic life: profit motive and consumer demand.  Through a ceaseless process of innovation and rapid obsolescence, the profit motive spurs the release of newer, better, cheaper products and services. Simultaneously, expanding consumer demand is a function of slick, aggressive, in-your-face marketing. “These two factors,” says Jackson, “combine to drive ‘the engine of growth’ on which modern economies depend and lock us in to an ‘iron cage’ of consumerism.”

(For my own purposes, I label this synopsis Section 1, and title it “Introduction”, neither of which is used by the author).

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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Introduction, a synopsis, from Chapter 6, “The ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Tim Jackson’s analysis in Chapter 5, “The Myth of Decoupling” led him to conclude that “… it is entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies.”

It is to this question that Jackson turns in Chapter 6, “The ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism”.

Although capitalism sometimes delivers efficiency in the form of productivity improvement, the capitalist engine of growth also maximizes throughput, that is, the rate at which material resources and energy are used, with little emphasis on pollution prevention, recycling, reuse, reduction of unnecessary waste, and other forms of resource conservation.

In Chapter 5, Jackson found no historical evidence that efficiency gains can outpace throughput, at least not in the way it must do if economic growth is ever to be compatible with sustainability:

And yet,” suggests Jackson, “the idea of running faster and faster to escape the damage we’re already causing is itself a strategy that smacks of panic.”

It’s time to understand why our capitalist system breeds our “pervasive anxiety” –

“Maybe we’re haunted by subconscious fear that the ‘good life’ we aspire to is already deeply unfair and can’t last forever. That realization – even repressed – might easily be enough to taint casual joy with existential concern.”

Jackson sets out to explore two entwined features of our modern economic life: profit motive and consumer demand.  Through a ceaseless process of innovation and rapid obsolescence, the profit motive spurs the release of newer, better, cheaper products and services. Simultaneously, expanding consumer demand is a function of ubiquitous, in-your-face marketing:

These two factors,” says Jackson, “combine to drive ‘the engine of growth’ on which modern economies depend and lock us in to an ‘iron cage’ of consumerism.”

In the next section, Jackson begins to identify how we might escape from this “twin dynamic” with a look at the varieties of capitalism.

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