I’m not in the habit of promoting other economists’ work, but Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss deserve a mention at Christmas time. Twelve years ago they wrote the seminal book ‘Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough’ which pilloried the scale and negative consequences of rampant consumerism. Richard has now published ‘Curing Affluenza’ and was interviewed about it on ABC Radio National two months ago. I was away and didn’t hear it, but luckily this is the holiday season so the ABC’s programming consists largely of repeats.
Richard talked about the idiocy of buying bottled water and throwing away the plastic bottle – an artefact that would have been considered wondrous and valuable throughout all but the last few years of human history – and the fact that the most widely cultivated crop in the USA is lawns.
But the thing that caught my attention was his response to Fran Kelly’s question about consumption being good for the economy – almost a civic duty. Richard pointed out that the nature of our consumption matters. At the moment, and especially at this time of year, people are exhorted to borrow money they haven’t got to buy imported stuff they can’t afford to give to people who don’t want it. In effect we dig up minerals, send them to China, and ship back container-loads of plastic stuff that we use once or twice and then bury in landfill.
In one way this may be seen as a neat circle: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Richard Denniss sees it as an insane waste of resources that could be put to much better use – and I agree with him.
“What about job-creation?” you may ask. Well, if we think it a worthwhile use of intelligent manpower to have people standing around in shops waiting for customers to wander in, or selling overpriced coffee to those same customers when they grow weary and need reviving for another bout of fruitlessly seeking fulfilment be means of material acquisition, then that’s a perfectly valid question. But even if that were a worthwhile use of human resources, seismic changes are under way in the retail sector making human beings as obsolete as milkmen’s horses. One thinks of online shopping, with delivery by drone from warehouses staffed by robots; or do-it-yourself supermarket check-outs.
So what should we be spending money on, if not useless imported gewgaws? Richard suggested care of the elderly: keeping old gits such as myself alive and happy for as long as possible, in an industry that is (for now) very labour-intensive. I say “for now” because, as readers of The Eeks Trilogy know, I expect intelligent robots to take over that kind of work quite soon.
No, I would prefer the Government of over-affluent nations to tax the surplus demand out of their economies and spend the money on their armed forces, specifically to target and destroy the creeping evil of militant religious extremism. Our wealth gives us the power to confront the closest thing to pure evil that we have seen since Hitler. Why choose to spend it on transient toys and tee-shirts?