It depends on what “consumption” is, really.

by w3woody

The headline from Boing Boing is very typical of the discussions surrounding global warming and the need for a radical “rethinking” of modern capitalism.

You can’t consume your way out of global warming

One of the fundamental problems I personally see with a lot of discussions on this topic–as well as other shibboleths of the Left (such as income inequality and other issues surrounding social justice) is a misapprehension as to what “wealth” is, how wealth grows within a society, and how overall welfare of a society depends on this wealth.

The biggest problem most people have is that they basically don’t understand what wealth is.

To a classical Marxist (as well as many later thinkers), wealth is bound in the raw resources of the land and in the effort necessary to convert those raw materials into some useful item, such as a home or an article of clothing. Wade through dense babble such as this, and you arrive at the conclusion that wealth is determined by the value of certain resources (such as fabric or wheat) and the labor used to convert those resources into something useful (such as a dress or a loaf of bread).

The more labor put into the object, the more valuable it is and, vice versa, if the production of an object only takes a little effort, it is only worth a little.

If you look up the definition of wealth on Wikipedia, you find a slightly different variation of the same thing. Wealth is the surplus of resources or possessions. Depending on the context, it could mean natural resources or it could refer to money (and proxies for money), or it could refer to savings or the value of real estate.

To an economist, wealth is related to the desirability of a thing. For example, a hungry man who desires a loaf of bread may then exchange something else someone else wants (money) for the thing he wants (bread)–and literally thousands of books and millions of pages have been spent explaining how this simple swap of desirable things leads to modern economies.

None of these concepts are wrong, at least on a very narrow level.

But when discussing the evolution of society–when discussing how we have, through the creation of wealth, moved from living in caves to living in high rises–none of these definitions are really adequate.

As we know from simple supply and demand analysis, an excess of supply satisfies demand, and thus drives down the price of a product. You simply cannot crank out shoes or shirts or car breaks indefinitely, with every shoe or shirt or break having the same value as the previously produced one.

After all, how many shoes does the world really need right now? A billion? A hundred billion? Ten trillion?

At some point, shoes stop being a valuable and useful commodity and start becoming landfill–a waste of resources and of the time to produce them.

This is, by the way, how the Soviet Union fell. If (as a historic materialist would have it) wealth is resources plus the labor to produce a thing, then it doesn’t matter if the current 5 year plan produces an excess of shoes. There is wealth in the excess. The homeless who scrounge the landfills where the excess production is sent are the richest men in the world.

And while desirability does help explain the modern economy far better than simply assuming a product is worth what labor and materials were used to produce a thing–it helps explain a Picasso, for example–desirability alone is inadequate to our understanding. Just because crystal clear glass was highly desirable to 12th century consumers doesn’t mean anyone made money selling crystal clear glass–it simply did not exist until the folks on the island of Murano discovered techniques for creating and blowing crystal clear glass in the 14th century.

Certainly those 12th century consumers would have loved to own an iPhone.

Wealth, at least when talking about the evolution of society and the growing wealth in places like the United States, does not strictly come from natural resources or from labor.

It comes from knowledge.

It comes from knowing how to produce more exotic forms of fabrics and more exotic forms of rubber, synthesized using methods discovered using science and implemented by chemical engineers. It comes from knowing how to create machinery that can shape those fabrics into specialized shapes while minimizing waste, moulding the synthetic rubber into a more useful shape. It comes from creating a factory layout which allows workers to produce not just shoes, but high quality tennis shoes or running shoes or a dozen other types of shoes depending on use.

It comes from discovering the right mix of soda ash and the right quartz pebbles to use in the right proportion and heated to the right temperature to produce 14th century Murano glass–a secret Venice tried to preserve by prohibiting glass maker from leaving–and by putting to death those who attempted to share knowledge.

What makes an iPhone valuable is not the Chinese workers who assembled the parts from parts created from all over the world. What makes an iPhone valuable is the knowledge behind the design, the software that it runs, the men and women who crafted and engineered and created not just the device, but all the processes used to help assemble it.

Why we’re all clothed rather than running around in thread-bare rags is because of a series of inventions starting with primitive looms to the creation of automated power looms, leading to cheap cloth and eventually cheap clothing. In the 17th century a fine gown would cost as much as a new automobile today. Nudity laws existed in California from the 1800’s simply because the natives in California could not afford to cover themselves. Today even the poorest of us own clothing, and we take clothing so for granted that we have laws against people going without.

And the power looms themselves can be assembled from raw materials by anyone, assuming, of course, they have the right knowledge and experience machining the right parts and assembling them in the right way.

Knowledge drives wealth and arguably knowledge is wealth.

So when I read the shibboleths of the Left arguing against consumption, arguing against wealth creation, arguing about the evils of wealth inequality–I really have to wonder what the fuck they are thinking.

Wealth creation is the inevitable result of learning and accumulating knowledge. Inequality in part arises because new techniques and new knowledge is unevenly distributed–even despite the Internet. Consumption is driven by desire–but providing what people consumes comes from suppliers learning how to create better or more desirable items. And in a sense, consumption is driven by knowledge.

To stop this cycle–that is, to stop the cycle of learning: of figuring out better ways to deliver the things people want and need or to figure out new things that may make our lives eve better–is to invite disaster.

That’s what happened in the Soviet Union before it fell: in a real sense people were prohibited from learning how to make better products or what products would serve a country best–as all decisions about production were centrally controlled.

Any industry where we prohibit experimentation and learning and the expansion of knowledge, we see stagnation and eventual failure.

So when we discuss things like global warming–and start suggesting that perhaps the expansion of wealth is the problem and that the only way to stop global warming is to slow down or stop wealth expansion–I see it in light of the above.

What I see is the Left asking people to stop accumulating knowledge.

To stop figuring out better ways to create and distribute products. To stop investigating new techniques for making materials or working on new algorithms. To halt learning how to better address the needs of a growing population more efficiently and to stop learning what would make children happy on Christmas.

Which is ultimately why I despair at the shibboleths of the Left.

Because they’re fucking stupid.

And I mean that in the most literal way possible.