Consumerism and social justice

Gaius makes a fair point: cries against “consumerism” can ring hollow when there are people who are genuniely struggling, even in the land of overstuffed plenty.

But this doesn’t solve the problem, that, given resource and environmental constraints, an economy devoted to ever-expanding consumption is unsustainable. And “we the people” bear some responsibility for it.

Individual virtue isn’t a substitute for political action, of course. Political change is necessary and can make it easier for people to alter their lifestyles. For instance, national health insurance could enable people to step off the getting-and-spending treadmill by working part-time or at a more fulfilling or service-oriented job, one where they might not traditionally get benefits. A carbon tax could direct resources away from wasteful consumption toward alternative energy development, creating “green” jobs. Better planned communities could cut down commuting time. Etc. Social justice and environmentalism shouldn’t be at odds and can work in tandem.

I’m just trying to learn about this stuff, and I’m not going to pretend I know what all the answers are or that there aren’t trade-offs involved. But it seems to me that we need to think about it if all 7 billion of us living at the level of the American upper-middle class is going to wreck the planet.

Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t struggling as much can think about parts of our life where we’ve let an excess of stuff take control. Modern research and ancient wisdom seem to agree that what both the New Testament and Plato call pleonexia is not only a vice, but it doesn’t make us happy either.

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