Celebrating Consumption, Bruce Nordman
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
90-4000, Berkeley, CA 94720 USA
Phone: 510-486-7089; Fax: 510-486-6996
This paper describes consumption as I have come to see it, presents some background on why, and what this may suggest for the future. The underlying assumption is that we can significantly improve well-being and reduce environmental damage by changing consumption processes in ways not necessarily apparent from production measures. Drawing attention to these benefits will require acknowledging the importance of consumption efficiency and investing resources to increase it.
The point of engaging in production is to add value by consuming some resources (land, labor, capital, etc.) to create useful materials or products. Production usually involves much trade and many institutions to conduct, organize, and facilitate it. Measurement is readily accomplished by counting both mass and dollar quantities that are traded.
The fraction of the process that is industrial in nature is usually high. Production is costly in both economic and environmental terms. Efficiency of production is measured as productivity, and assesses how effectively resources are transformed into products (or commercial services).
In contrast to production, the essence of consumption is that it destroys the value of materials and products. It subtracts value, or rather, transforms it from product to service value. Production of commercial services still adds economic value, but many such processes have more in common with consumption than with industrial production processes. Trade is usually absent from final consumption, or when present, difficult to measure. Measurement of consumption is difficult with conventional measures since the lack of trade makes it unclear what mass to count, and dollar aggregation (as with production measures) has limited application. Most activities in consumption have a low level of industrial content; rather they are dominated by social processes. Costs of consumption are usually ambiguous. Defining the boundaries of a consumption activity can be problematic, and a particular product may be used in multiple activities. Environmental costs that occur in consumption vary greatly.
Consumption efficiency is measured as Consumptivity, which is how effectively materials and products are translated to services that people value. While in some cases the connection between a material input and the resulting service is clear, in other cases one must assess an entire activity with a multitude of inputs and resulting services. Consumption is also tied to how we ‘spend’ time in activities. Activities organize a ‘top-down’ analysis of consumption (e.g. clothing, health care, information). A ‘bottom-up’ approach begins with individual objects.
Consumption is a complex transformative process. It is important to remember that a separate process of satisfaction occurs after consumption, to translate services to well-being.
A key to understanding consumption in efficiency terms (as we do energy) is to treat materials and products as a flow, not as discrete objects (again, just as we do with energy). Reducing industrial materials use through increased ‘materials efficiency’ is defined as reducing the “mass of paper per unit of service delivered”.
Conventional views of our economy and society rely on and result in several myths. Myths are stories that are not true, but are useful to treat as true to help explain reality. For example, while the earth is ultimately spherical, for local purposes we treat it as if it were flat. The burden of calculating and applying the sphericality would not be worth the trouble for most purposes (such as building design). However, it is critical to know the limits of such myths, or wrong conclusions will be drawn. Several myths problematic for consumption are that:
Well-being follows directly from production (e.g. GDP)
This allows the typical belief that the “standard of living” (presumably a measure of well-being) is to be measured by production. A corollary is that “consumption efficiency” (if the term were used) is constant, in individual circumstances, across space (regions and countries), and across time. A further corollary is that there is no need to measure consumption, since production (and trade) measures will capture all that is important. The only way to increase well-being is to raise production.
Consumption occurs at acquisition
This is most often put forth by those who believe that society has insufficient guilt about consumption. Consumption is equated to shopping, and it is implied that much of what people buy is irrelevant to their well-being (this is consistent with the idea that there is ‘good consumption’ and ‘bad consumption’). This myth also avoids needing to articulate how people use products.
Consumption occurs in disposal
This is most commonly articulated by those involved with disposal (such as recyclers), and presumes that minimal value is lost during use, and so long as materials are recycled, they are not “wasted”. This makes it difficult to associate consumption with all but a few costs of production, undermining most arguments for consumption efficiency.
Note that the “production implies well-being” approach neither requires nor prohibits the equation of consumption and acquisition, as one can believe that products are useful for a long period of time without acknowledging that there is any question of efficiency. A common problem with all of these myths is that they imply that consumption is uninteresting and that understanding it better is not a priority.
Amongst these myths, several truths emerge from the consumption view
Production == Consumption
(always in the long run, often in the short run)
This is similar to the identity between precipitation and evaporation of water, or the conservation of energy and mass in the laws of physics. Two corollaries are that “Everything that gets produced eventually gets thrown away” (with a few minor exceptions), and that “the interesting question is not if, or how much, is consumed, but is how well”. Any guilt or pride in production or consumption must be transferred to the other.
Production interferes with consumption
(not always, but more often than not)
Physically, socially, and economically, the presence of additional productive capacity and all that it entails makes it more difficult for people to consume well. This can be due to use of land, resulting pollution, or disrupted social relations. For much of production, the benefits of the consumption it allows outweigh the costs, so it is socially worth doing. However, this doesn’t alter the fact of interference with consumption.
Consumption is a complex transformative process
As noted before, consumption is a process, not a static fact. Discussions and analysis of consumption that fail to build on this will generally come to wrong conclusions.
Consumption analysis must be science-based to succeed
The success of energy efficiency indicates the power of good science to overturn myths and shed light on topics that previously seemed unknowable. The application of LCA to some consumption processes suggests that science will be applied-the challenge is to insure that the correct methods and good science are used.
Consumption is inherently linear
For those fond of materials recycling, the fact that consumption obeys different law is disappointing. Nevertheless, there is no way to map the linear path of the transformation of value as it moves through industrial production, consumption, and on to satisfaction.
Truths about consumption have evolved considerably over recent decades and centuries. Figure D expresses this schematically-consumptivity or well-being can’t currently be quantified this way (any more than utility in conventional economics can be), but the concept is useful. Ever since production began climbing at the beginning of the industrial revolution, quantitative gains in production have been tempered by declines in consumptivity. While this effect was small in comparison to rises in production, there was little harm in ignoring it. However, industrialized countries may have reached the point at which consumptivity declines match or exceed production gains. There is a danger of a long period of diminishing well-being. However, attention to consumption could facilitate rising well-being (whether production continues to rise, or preferably falls).
Rising rates of production are likely for the foreseeable future, particularly for developing countries.For developing countries to avoid the high production levels of industrialized countries, their best option is to aim for high levels of consumptivity. The fact of past falling consumptivity need not be of concern so long as the rate is low enough. For industrialized countries, with our consumptivity as low as it is, we can reasonably expect to be able to raise it considerably (if we try).
A consumption-based perspective does not deny the usefulness of others and should be used in addition to, not instead of, them. It provides an additional way to understand and improve the world, so is essentially optimistic (this is part of the motivation to “celebrate” it). Consumption may be particularly useful for those wanting to reduce environmental damage, as it can help identify significant changes that may not change well-being, but that allow significant reductions in destructive production.
The prospects for consumption analysis are unclear. It calls into question several widely held assumptions, and takes away some (not all) of the moral imperative for production, and in particular, rising levels of production. It also conflicts with many other social and governmental goals that call for increasing production and increasing the aggregate work (jobs) that needs to be done. There is increasing recognition of the disconnect between rising levels of production and most people’s sense of individual and social well-being. Many responses to this look for scapegoats or put blind faith in some system (e.g. religion or the market). Improving consumption may be one of several mechanisms of social transformation that have few losers and a wide array of co-benefits, and so be worthy of further consideration and investment.
A key to understanding the importance of consumption is that it is a process, not a static fact. Consumption is usually ignored or denounced, both of which obscure its true nature. If we are to improve consumption, we should feel good about it, pay attention to it, do it well, have fun-“celebrate consumption”.