Peter Wenz on Consumerism and Human Nature

From Environmental Ethics Today (Oxford, 2001)


1.      Consumerism: Human welfare requires increased consumption

         a.      More is better

         b.      Success = How much we consume

         c.      Since 1950, we Americans have used more resources than all the people that ever lived before 1950

2.      Consumerism harms nature

         a.      But consumer lifestyles degrade nature, jeopardize healthy ecosystems, and threaten biodiversity

3.      Issues: Is all consumption anti-environmental?

         a.      What about socially and environmentally responsible consuming?

                   i.       Juliet Schor’s “Clothes Encounter”

         b.      What about consumption of services that don’t require using nature up?


4.      Environmental Synergy: Synergy exists between respect for people and respect for nature (169)

                   i.       Synergy exists when two or more things acting together produce results greater than sum of results of each acting separately

          b.       Overall and in long run simultaneous respect for people and nature (valuing each for own sake) improves outcomes for both

          c.       E.g., Humans benefit from valuing nature for itself and nature benefits from valuing people for themselves

5.      Consumerism is opposed to synergism

         a.      If human flourishing depends on continued and increased consumption, people can’t flourish while valuing nature for itself and protecting ecosystems and biodiversity

         b.      Because consumerism undermines these


6.      Raise up the poor: Need economic growth, spending, consumption for the poor

         a.      Poor child in Alabama can’t afford 35 cents for lunch; solution grow the economy

                   i.       Wenz reply: Since economic growth exacerbates inequality rich and poor, it hurts the poor; solution is less inequality and redistribution (e.g.,, subsidized school lunch programs)

         b.      Poor in developing world?

                   i.       Some in 3rd world lack enough food & medical care and they need more consumption, not less

                   ii.      But what they need is food and medical care, not ipads, coke, Nike clothing

                            (1)    Globalization is bringing them not what they need, but what can make profits

7.      Patriotic duty to consume to keep economy going (=growing?)

         a.      Consumption is good because it creates jobs

         b.      Recession throws people out of work and this is bad

         c.      Why not a steady state economy?

8.      Employment argument for increases in consumption in response to productivity gains

         a.      With increased productivity (due to improved technology)

         b.      Fewer people required to produce same amount of goods,

         c.      So unless people consume more, result will be unemployment

         d.      Alternative solution

                   i.       Share work

                   ii.      Take productivity gains as leisure (free) time

                            (1)    Since 1948 we have doubled our productivity, so we now could have same amount of material goods as in 1948 and work ½ as much (4 hour days, 2 ½ day work week, work one year, take 2nd year off)


9.      Wenz rejects consumerism’s idea that human welfare requires high consumption

         a.      Rejects idea that life improves with increased spending power

                   i.       That welfare is the same as wealth

         b.      Most middle class people better off with less money

                   i.       Just middle class? How about the rich?

         c.      Where consumption already high, people do better w/o growing economies/income

         d.      For high consumption frustrates important human needs

10.    Happiness not increased with increased consumption

         a.      Income and consumption gone up incredibly in last 50/100 years, but people don’t say they are any happier

11.    Comparative dimension to welfare

         a.      Important part of how we perceive our own well-being is determined by how we compare with others

                   i.       If we are keeping up with the Joneses, we are as happy whether we/Jones are at a high level or not so high level of consumption

         b.      So increased consumption overall by society makes us no happier as our comparative welfare is the same

         c.      Examples: SUVs, bikes, fancy school clothes

12.    High consumption is addictive:

         a.      Like a drug, the more you consume the more you need to keep same level of happiness (w/o suffering)

         b.      Consumer luxuries come to be perceived as necessities (Air conditioning, TV, cars, telephones, washing machines, staying in fancy hotels, vacations)

13.    Rich poor gap grown with high consumption

         a.      High consumption has gone along with increasing gap between rich and poor

         b.      Wealthiest 1% in U.S. has more than bottom 90% combined

         c.      And its been growing

14.    Equality is more important to human well being than is economic growth

15.    Many countries with much smaller economies have much higher standards of living (higher literacy, decrease child mortality) than big economy countries

         a.      Saudi Arabia lower literacy rate than Sri Lanka and yet per capita income is 15 times higher

         b.      Brazil’s child mortality rate is 4 times higher than Jamaica’s, yet its per capita income is twice as high

16.    Marketing/advertising foster discontent

         a.      You are no good, or will be unhappy w/o the product

         b.      Connection between watching more TV and increased levels of consumption

         c.      Spending on advertising increased faster than world economic growth

                   i.       Spend almost ½ as much on ads as on public education

17.    High consumption, debt, bankruptcy, divorce

         a.      In high consumption society people have huge debt, high rates of bankruptcy

         b.      Consumerism undermines the family and community

18.    High consumption requires high work load and this degrades quality of life (we are overworked, work and spend cycle)

         a.      We would be happier, more fulfilled, with fewer consumer goodies, less work, more leisure

         b.      Take productivity gains in free time, not more goods

         c.      Slow down and enjoy each other and our lives

19.    Fulfilling work and meaningful relationships, not high consumption, is what leads to human happiness

20.    Simpler living increases happiness

         a.      Frugal: High joy-to-stuff ratio

21.    People can act for internal (satisfaction) not just external rewards ($)

         a.      Wenz rejects idea that people only act for external rewards (like more $ to buy more things)

         b.      People can also act for internal rewards (the satisfaction of doing something well for its own sake) and acting this way makes people happier/fulfilled

22.    Love, family, community, doing worthwhile jobs excellently more meaningful/fulfilling goals than are high consumption (which undermines these)

Study questions for Wenz on Consumerism and Human Nature

1.         What does Wenz mean by “environmental synergism.” Do you think the claims it involves are true? Why does he think consumerism is opposed to synergism?

2.         What are some of the arguments in favor of consumerism that Wenz addresses and what are his responses?

3.         What response do critics of consumerism have to the claim that we need to keep increasing consumption or employment will suffer? How does increase in worker productivity add to the worry that increased consumption is necessary to prevent unemployment?

4.         In what way does Wenz think high consumption is addictive? Give examples.