(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Last week I wrote about the “anticonsumerism” movement, in the context of a
report that the Environmental Protection Ministry is preparing a television
campaign that will educate for “green consumerism” and among other things will
encourage moderating consumption expenditures.
An astute reader wrote to
ask me if such a campaign wouldn’t be likely to harm employment. After all, if
people buy less, there will be fewer jobs to provide them with goods and
The short answer is that that is exactly the point. The long
answer is that the short answer shows how far our society is from coming to
terms with the movement to limit consumption.
The idea of excess
consumption has a strictly economic understanding and a more far-reaching
philosophical understanding.Economic reason
The strictly economic
understanding is as follows: Much of what is recorded in our national accounts
as productive activity leading to consumption that increases our welfare is fake
– a consequence of sloppy accounting.
When we pump oil out of a well,
this is listed on our national income accounts as “production,” but in fact a
large part of it is reduction in inventory because someone owned that well and
now he has less oil inside.
When the oil is burned we record that as a
productive use, but we do not make a deduction for the damage the burning does
to the environment through air and thermal pollution.
When a consumer
product is produced, it is valued at its full cost without deducting the costs
that will automatically be induced in disposing of it.
To add insult to
injury, we then record the expenses of waste disposal as a productive
According to orthodox economic theory, the problem could be
largely solved by taxes. Israel and Europe already have very high taxes on
gasoline to factor in the costs of pollution and road congestion. Taxes on
packaging commensurate with the costs of disposal would be another step in the
right direction. All these steps would lower national income (GDP) and most
likely employment as well. But that is not because they are not worthwhile; it
is because the national income accounts are incorrectly measuring welfare by
leaving damage to the natural environment, through pollution or using up
nonrenewable resources, off the balance.
The Environmental Protection
Ministry believes progress can be made by education as well. That’s why they
prepared the broadcasts, but many are skeptical of the effects of
The philosophical approach is as
follows: It is not enough to pursue our existing preferences and consumption
patterns in a more ecological way.
These habits are themselves a product
of a “consumption ethos,” whereas what is needed now is a “conservation
It is evident that our desired pastimes change over time and that
these changes are correlated with our values and ethics. It used to be a wildly
popular sport for scores of men, women, children, horses and dogs to go chasing
after one tiny wretched red fox and endeavor to tear it to pieces. Today few
people would consider this activity “fun.”
By the same token, many
environmentalists would say it is not enough that those who engage in
environmentally harmful activities are induced to bear the full economic costs
of the damage done to the environment.
We should create a mind-set in
which the realization of the economic damage wrought by these activities makes
us stop viewing them as fun in the first place. Education and exhortation would
clearly seem necessary to effect such a change.
I think both of these
changes in our approach to consumption are called for. Since both help protect
the environment, both fall squarely within the mandate of the Environmental
Some kind of entente will have to be reached between
the forces of consumerism, which still has a important role in improving our
standard of living, and the forces calling for moderating consumption and
seeking ways to pursue well-being that are not at the expense of the natural
Asher Meir is research director at
the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the
Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).