Consumption and Democracy

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 November 1998


Consumption is politics. Unsustainably high consumption in industrialised countries doesn’t come merely from a pre-existing desire for “progress”. Nor is it just a plot on the part of large corporations. Rather, it results from complex social struggles which divide different groups of people from each other along power, race, cultural, class and gender lines. A different, more democratic pattern of political action will be required to lower consumption.

These remarks were made at the launch of People and Planet's "Footprints" Campaign at the University of Warwick.



People in industrialized countries with a taste for teasing themselves with the absurdities of the 20th century have sometimes tried to calculate the impact on the world of what they eat, smoke, wear, build, drive, and use. The results are unsettling and often outrageous.

To take just one example, an average UK citizen today consumes over 200 kilogrammes a year of paper. That rate of consumption adds up to a lifetime consumption of 14 tonnes of paper. Simply to manufacture this paper will require 1.6 million litres of water, 280 plantation trees, and nearly 17 megawatt-hours of electricity. This is to say nothing of the erosion on the land where the plantations are located, the chemical pollution to waterways and air resulting from cultivation, electricity generation, and bleaching, or the effects of disposal.

The story is similar for nearly any other commodity you could name, whether sugar, metals, soybeans, shoes, beef, clothing, plastics or electronics. I don't know exactly how much land worldwide each British person needs to support his or her current consumption, but, according to a careful study by the Netherlands Committee of the IUCN, Holland, in order to supply its agricultural, timber and energy imports, requires not only most of its own land area, but also effectively occupies and uses an area of approximately 230,000 square kilometres outside The Netherlands, or an area seven times the area of the country itself.

And figures like this, disturbing as they are, don't even mention the concrete effects on the lives and livelihood of human beings in other countries. Some of the paper marketed by several of Britain's large paper companies, for example, is made from fibre supplied by the Aracruz eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, where indigenous groups are engaged in a continuing struggle to reacquire land and waterways coerced from them 30 years ago by the company and since degraded and polluted.

And there are innumerable other connections between the things we use and the packages we see on our shelves and the abuses of power we often can't see. When General Augusto Pinochet of Chile was arrested in the UK there was a lot of discussion about the terrorism practiced by his regime. But one of the reasons that regime was so warmly approved by many foreign governments was its policy of handing out massive subsidies to large corporations, many of them foreign, seeking cheap exports of copper, wood, and other raw materials for consumer goods. In a similar way, oil interests have been subsidized for many years by the cheap access to resources and repression of resistance offered by the Nigerian state, and Western and Japanese shoe and garment manufacturers have been subsidized by the inexpensive labor available under the repressive regimes of Indonesia, Los Angeles, or Mexico. And such effects are of course not merely a recent phenomenon. For example, since the colonial era whole regions and even countries have been made dependent on exports of sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, coca -- the "drug foods" which helped stimulate (in more senses than one) the Industrial Revolution in Europe, at an often incalculable human and environmental cost.

What's It All For?

Considerations like these prompt the question: what is all this consumption -- this exhaustion and destruction and repression -- for?

The conventional answer, of course, is that more consumption means more well-being -- at least the well-being of those who consume, as opposed to those who are consumed. Consumption is supposed to mean warm houses for cold people, nourishing food for the hungry, comfort and stimulation for the starved or inquiring spirit. In that sense, more consumption stands for progress. Any violence to others and to their environment which happens along the way is supposed to be merely the price that has to be paid.

This would be an alluring, if tragic picture, if it were true. Yet how much consumption is actually directed at well-being?

Take basic needs. In the industrialized world as a whole per capita consumption of grain and fish is three times that of the South and of iron is 13 times that of the South. Is all this extra consumption really needed for the well-being of Northerners? Are people in the North three times bigger than other people that they need all this grain and fish to feed themselves and all this iron to support their huge weight when they go up in elevators and travel around in buses and cars?

A US citizen produces at least 25 times the carbon that an Indian does, which perhaps is hardly surprising given that he or she consumes 43 times as much oil, and consumes nearly 400 times as much pulpwood. It is plausibly estimated that about 90 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted during the last 150 years can be attributed to the industrial states. If this is well-being, if this is progress, whose progress is it?

A lot of consumption, of course, is merely inefficient use of resources -- and always has been. In the year 1500, when Danish people used wood and peat for fuel, they used up to five times the energy per capita in cooking and heating that they used in 1900, after they had converted to efficient coal-burning cast-iron stoves. Yet in 1950, after oil furnaces took over, per capita consumption of cooking and heating energy went up again to more than twice what it had been in 1900, and in 1975, aided by the further inefficiencies of power stations, it had jumped again to a level comparable to that of 500 years earlier. Obviously in this case consumption doesn't necessarily equate to comfort. I'm no historian, but I doubt anyone would claim that in the year 1500 Danes were twice as warm and had twice as much hot food as in 1950, or were five times warmer in 1500 (or 1975) than in 1900.

Then again, a lot of consumption is mainly symbolic. It doesn't advance anyone's physical welfare but is simply a token in the status wars or identity struggles which are a part of every society. This kind of consumption doesn't even necessarily make anyone happier and may just lead to heart attacks. If everybody in your social class already has a mobile phone, then the race will soon be on to acquire something else to set you apart. Which is one reason why surveys suggest that an elite person in a richer society who has five million pounds to spend on consumer goods doesn't tend to be a whole lot happier than one in a poorer society who has "only" 5,000.

Still, aren't there at least some kinds of consumption which contribute to progress in at least some senses? Take paper consumption. One of my own favorite definitions of progress is that of Ashis Nandy, the Indian psychologist and social critic. Nandy defines progress as "growth in the awareness of oppression". I think that part of what Nandy means is that we are fortunate, that due to the rise of (for example) feminist movements we are more aware of the way women have been exploited than formerly, that due to anti-racist struggles we are clearer about many of the ways of oppression, that due to the long hours Karl Marx put in at the British Library we understand our world better. Who could deny that paper consumption -- writing materials, books -- have played a part in all this?

But let's be a bit cautious here. How far can we go even in equating paper consumption even with just literacy, let alone progress in Nandy's sense? Citizens of my own country, the US, consume 1.7 times more paper per capita than British people, four times more than Malaysians and 83 times more than Indians. Yet patriot though I am, it's not immediately obvious to me that I and my fellow Americans are 83 times more literate than Indians, four times more literate than Malaysians and 1.7 times more literate than the British. Some people have even been known to maintain contrary points of view. Or consider another example: the single-year increase in per capita consumption of paper between 1993 and 1994 in Sweden was double the total per capita consumption of Indonesia.

No: to understand what consumption is really about, we need to look again at what consumer goods are really used for, and the power struggles out of which current patterns of consumption have developed.

The Struggle to Increase Consumption

Since I've been talking about paper, let's take paper for our topic. Two centuries ago the modern paper-making machine was invented in France -- not to meet the needs of deprived children clamoring for schoolbooks but, on the account of its own inventor, to take power away from paper artisans at a time of labour unrest and put it more into hands of machine financers and managers. It wasn't until a century later, when the invention of wood-based pulps inaugurated the era of cheap paper, that consumption began to take off and many of the uses of paper we know today began to be found. That's also when the paper-producing industry began to be wedded to its current dynamic of ever-increasing scale, capital intensity, large-scale industrial forestry, and recurring cycles of excess capacity. Trapped by this dynamic, the industry has been constantly haunted by what David Clark, a European paper industrialist, has called the "need to create our own growth [and] stimulate demand".

Luckily for the industry, a number of powerful actors with their own political and economic agendas have continually lended a hand. Over the last century, for example, manufacturers of food, soap, medicine and other goods have been constantly developing and redeveloping a remarkable invention: the modern paper or cardboard package.

One thing the package did was to eliminate shop staff who, many manufacturers felt, stood between them and potential consumers. If you don't have to ask a shopkeeper to get you something, but can merely pick a package off a shelf and pay for it, it's often a lot easier to buy it -- as any teenager trying to get condoms at a pharmacy will appreciate. Paper packaging, with its built-in colorful advertising, also made possible an explosion in "impulse" buying: purchases of things you didn't know you wanted until you saw them. According to a 1938 survey done for Du Pont (today's largest US toxic polluter), only about 21 per cent of the items bought in stores where you had to interact with sales clerks were purchased on impulse, while nearly 33 per cent of those bought in self-service stores (where you confronted the goods without having to answer questions) were entirely unplanned. "Things you didn't know you wanted until you saw them" -- I think that's as good a definition as any of the moment at which demand is constructed.

Small wonder, then, that over the 20th century, shops have been progressively turned into warehouses of individually wrapped, colored packages containing their own sales pitches and constantly replenished by long-distance transport using still other types of paper packaging. As one historian of packaging, Thomas Hine, puts it, "packaging was what made the supermarket not only possible, but close to inevitable." The new type of consumption stimulated by supermarkets, of course, fed back into increased demand for yet more paper packages. And the process continues -- often aided by generous taxpayer subsidies. For example, TetraPak, partly financed by the World Bank, recently opened a disposable carton factory in Hungary that caused the country's deposit bottle system to collapse in a matter of weeks.

Today by far the largest use for paper -- over 40 per cent of production -- is not for books, not for newspapers, not for needy schoolchildren's notepads, not for indigent university students' studies, but for packaging and wrapping. An increasing proportion of the rest is devoted to advertising, mail-order catalogues, junk mail, disposable nappies, and computer paper. Even in the South, where there are real shortages of reading and writing materials, the biggest focus of paper marketing is not on goods to aid literacy, but rather on disposable nappies, tissues and the like. As Forbes magazine enthuses:

"[T]he potential is almost limitless. Only 10 per cent of all worldwide nappy use today is disposable. In Mexico the figure is 30 per cent, in Brazil 20 per cent, in China practically zero. Says one paper company executive, 'As disposable income per capita goes up around the globe, I want to be where we can sell bathroom tissue, feminine care, facial tissues and diapers'."

Another part of constructing paper demand has consisted in simply moving the effects of production out of sight. By making sure that the people affected by the monoculture plantations established to feed paper pulp factories are not your neighbors and have no way of contacting or influencing you to convince you to rethink paper manufacture and paper subsidies, industry ensures that manufacturers and consumers will have fewer second thoughts about increasing their paper use. By taking advantage of cheap land or forced labor or government-subsidized waste sinks, in addition, moving production around the globe helps keep consumer prices low.

In fact, a good pocket definition of "globalization" is simply the process of turning political and cultural differentials over the worldwide field to advantage in order to keep consumption increasing no matter what. Dividing people from other people along power lines, race lines and gender lines is part of what consumption is all about. Thus when the Japanese paper industry's supply of cheap wood residues from the US Pacific Northwest began to run out, threatened by environmentalist opposition and physical shortage, it simply expanded its operations in Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, PNG, Viet Nam, Siberia, Fiji, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Hawaii and elsewhere, leaving a trail of rural destruction and social strife all around the Pacific Rim.

Demand for paper, in short, like demand for many consumer goods, does not simply arise from people's pre-existing desires for basic necessities or even for progress. But nor is it simply imposed unilaterally on people by corporations and their helpers. Its construction is the result of two centuries of continuing social and class struggle and maneuver among many different groups over matters as diverse as industrial structure, access to information, and the cultural meanings of time, work and leisure.

Consumption Politics and the Future

It follows that consumption is going to undergo as many changes in the future as it has in the past. There's no reason why some of these changes, instead of spinning out consumption in still more irrational and degrading ways, may not instead bring consumption once again under human control.

The question, of course, is how to do this. Here there will be many avenues of experiment. I would only stress one thing: the close connections among consumption, production and power politics. Companies engage in politics when they work at managing consumption. Bringing consumption under more democratic control also requires political action. At a minimum that means bringing to light connections which corporations often work to conceal. It means opening channels of information and contact between consumers and affected people that have been blocked by corporate interest and cultural barriers. It means helping to make it possible for consumers and affected people to enter into a new, more civilized kind of negotiation over what reasonable consumption might consist in -- a negotiation less dominated and mediated by industry. It means imagining ways of setting prices which take account of hidden subsidies for repression and environmental violence.

Consumption, in short, is simply too important a matter to be left to corporations and to the consumer part of our individual mentalities. We are not only consumers but political actors and citizens, and with the political parts of our brains it's time to think new thoughts.

Accordingly, it's not enough to say that "if we want change it's up to us as individual consumers to alter our buying habits and pioneer new lifestyles". Saying that may be a good way of making people feel guilty or confused. But any action it inspires, because it will be likely to spring from personal guilt rather than from learning, or from anger at exploitation, or from solidarity with those who are being stomped on, is not likely to be very effective. Do the problems of consumption begin with you as an individual? And do the solutions depend only on the choices you make as an individual consumer? To think that is more likely to make you want to withdraw from society than to engage with it.

Let me give an example -- and since I've already been talking a lot about paper, let me vary the diet by turning to oil. In order to get here today I had to rely partly on automobile transport, with all the various horrors that entails. I had to take a taxi from my flat to the nearest Dorset railway station. Many people would frown on me for having done so. Perhaps rightly. But to what extent did I actually "choose" to consume the relevant amounts of oil, steel, rubber, chromium, to shut my eyes to the social and environmental effects of the automobile? Does it follow from the fact I took a taxi yesterday morning that I should shut up already about overconsumption until I reform my own greedy life?

It seems to me that in making my regrettable consumer "choice" to travel by taxi yesterday I was pretty forcefully guided along the way by a lot of political decisions I had fact taken no part in and didn't particularly agree with. I don't recall having been consulted, for example, when the British government tore up the rail line to the town I live in the 1960s partly to make way for what Margaret Thatcher later called the Great Car Economy. I don't remember the local rail station acceding to requests to provide a secure place to keep bicycles, so I could ride my bicycle to the station. Going back a bit further, I'm not aware of having had a say in the decision made by Robert Moses, the godfather of North American urban reformers, to retool New York in the early part of this century to make it into a city of motorways friendly to the car-owning middle classes, setting a pattern of auto-centered urban life and subsidized auto production which has been followed ever since. Or in the decision of oil companies to buy up railroads in California and then shut them down to make the state friendlier to the car. I don't remember being asked for my opinion when, following the Second World war, the US government chose to subsidize weapons industries and interstate highways instead of providing modest research outlays for finding efficient new means of public transport which could have benefited the whole world. In particular, I don't recall asking the US military and its allies to kill more than 100,000 Iraqis in the Gulf War to safeguard what the US State Department has sometimes referred to as "our" resources. What I remember is standing in Trafalgar Square in the autumn of 1990 with tens of thousands of others protesting this attitude.

Yet all of these political decisions in which I have played so little part have had a role in making it possible, even necessary, that I take that taxi ride yesterday morning. This role is in many cases direct. Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information in the US estimates that the US devotes more than US$50 billion annually on military forces dedicated to the Persian Gulf. If this subsidy were reflected in the prices of petroleum shipped to industrialized nations from the Gulf, a barrel of that oil would cost not $16, as it does today, but $90, which is perhaps a little closer to a reasonable price.

I may sound irritated by the political decisions which have contributed to my own consumption. But imagine what those people feel who have to endure the more seriously negative effects of that consumption. Will the Nigerian who has lost income or even livelihood partly as a result of the production of the petrol poured into my taxi's tank even have a chance to meet, exchange, and negotiate with taxi drivers or political activists in Britain? Will she get to help negotiate the international trade treaties which give transnational corporations a freer hand over her land and labor? After all, not even the middle classes in industrialized societies are given information by their governments or their newspapers about treaties such as the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Sometimes not even cabinet ministers are given such information.

To say that these sorts of issue can be dealt with merely through the blunt instrument of my standing in front of a supermarket shelf and deciding which brand to buy -- or not to buy at all -- is to deceive myself. The labels on these products may ask me to choose them, but they can't tell me what happens if I do or don't buy the product. They won't allow me to negotiate with the people affected by its production, and, if the company's advertising agency or PR firm have done their job, will conceal from me as much as possible about the political history which went into the product's development. If any problems require collective action, it is precisely those thrown up by modern consumption.

Rather than blaming ourselves for having been made ignorant about the effects of consumption, it's perhaps time to join with others to counter the structures which make us that way. Rather than taking for granted that our interests are necessarily opposed to those of others far away who produce the goods or raw materials we use, it's perhaps time to undertake some projects to see what struggles we might have in common. Rather than assume that increasing consumption of everything in sight is our biological destiny, it's perhaps time to bring into play more of what Henry James called the "civic use of the imagination" in seeing what other, more humane futures we might negotiate for ourselves.

Further reading

Caro, Robert, The Power Broker, New York: Knopf, 1979.

Carrere, Ricardo and Lohmann, Larry, Pulping the South: Industrial Tree Plantations in the World Paper Economy, London: Zed Books, 1996.

Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI), International Campaign for the Extension and Demarcation of the Indigenous Lands of the Tupinikim and Guarani, Aracruz: CIMI [29190.000 Aracruz, ES, Brazil], 1997.

Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods, London: Penguin, 1978.

Durning, Alan Thein, How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, London: Earthscan, 1992.

Galbraith, John Kenneth, The New Industrial State, London: Penguin, 1970.

Hine, Thomas, The Total Package: The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Tubes, New York: Little, Brown,1995.

Illich, Ivan, Toward a History of Needs, Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1978.

------------, Medical Nemesis, London: Penguin, 1976.

Larsen, Jensine, "Crude Investment: The Case of the Yadana Pipeline in Burma", Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30 (3), July/ Sept. 1998.

Lovins, Amory, Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace, Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1977

Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, London: Penguin, 1986.

Ohmae, Keniichi, Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy, London: HarperCollins, 1990.

Rifkin, Jeremy, Beyond Beef, New York: Knopf, 1992.

Ross, Andrew, ed., No Sweat, London: Verso, 1997.

Stauber, John C. and Rampton, Sheldon, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995.