THE POST-CONSUMER ECONOMY: A MODEL FOR OUR FUTURE

economy chart

Although economists might have you believe that capitalism is a new phenomenon, the essential building blocks of capitalist economy — private property, shared work effort, agriculture and tool-making — began about 30,000 years ago, as the predominant human culture on Earth changed rapidly from a hunter-gatherer culture (which had been dominant for three million years) to an acquirer-settler culture. This new, acquisitive economy dominates human activity to this day, and defines how we ‘make our living’: by selling our labour to commercial-industrial enterprises (extractors, producers, distributors, and servicers) whose economic mission is to create and distribute ever more goods & services to ever more consumers.

As such, this acquisitive, capitalist economy might be better called a consumer economy: It requires the human citizens of Earth to be insatiable consumers, and relegates us to be merely that. We are largely valued, as individuals, by how much we produce and how much we consume — our wealth — and most commercial-industrial enterprises aspire to be the largest, most profitable and fastest-growing enterprises in Earth’s history. We have become wage-slaves to this economy, toiling away at an unprecedented rate so we can afford to consume more, believing this is the only way to ‘make a living’.

In addition to our indentured state as ‘human capital’ in the life-long service of commercial-industrial enterprises, the cost of this new economy is:

  • the requirement to produce more than a replacement level of new consumers every generation, 
  • the ravaging of our natural environment, 
  • the production of massive amounts of pollution and waste as by-products of our enterprise, and 
  • the occupation of most of the planet’s livable land area, 

so that much of the planet’s land, air and water have been poisoned, and our planet’s biodiversity is in a tailspin.

Some economists have postulated that the change from a hunter-gatherer to an acquirer-settler culture, with its associated acquisitive economy, was an adaptation by man to sudden scarcities of food 30,000 years ago, as the large, slow game that was our natural and easy prey became scarce as Earth’s climate changed.

We face comparable challenges today: Overpopulation, inefficiency in enterprise production and the endless drive to produce and consume more every generation, have made us realize that our 30,000-year-old acquisitive economy is unsustainable. We know we have to change. What we need is a new model.

Time
Culture
Economy
Why it Ended
3 million – 30,000 years ago
Hunter-Gatherer
Subsistence
Food Shortage
30,000 years ago – today
Acquirer-Settler
Consumer-Capitalist
Unsustainable
today forward
?
?

Perhaps the best way to identify this new culture, and new economy, is to describe what it would look like and how we might achieve it, and then give it a name.

In an earlier post, I proposed that the first step must be a radical shift in our tax system, to tax non-renewable resource use, pollution and waste (the activities shown with red arrows in the chart above), instead of taxing activities, as we do today, that create employment and are neutral or even beneficial to our environment. The consequence of such a tax shift would be to make products produced from non-renewable resources, or from processes that pollute, much more expensive. Other goods, and almost all services, would become much cheaper. That would inevitably lead to a shift in our consumption patterns, to a dramatic reduction in importation of goods that can be produced locally, and to a cleaner and less destructive world. As one example, a music CD would no longer cost as much as a tank of gasoline. Natural foods would become much cheaper than processed foods, and vegetable products would become much cheaper than animal products.

The next step is more difficult. It requires a complete change to our value system, a repudiation of excess consumption and excess wealth, so they are viewed as something deplorable, not admirable. It requires us to value freedom and mobility highly, such that our ‘possessions’ become a burden rather than a blessing. It requires us to refuse to consume, and refuse to be treated as consumers. Instead, our new value system should be based on the elements of well-being instead of wealth . These elements include health, learning, enjoyment of each other’s company and of nature, and the pleasure that comes from sharing and self-sufficiency and recreation. It would be a much simpler life, but arguably a much richer one, and certainly one with much less toil.

There are two ways in which this change to our value system can occur, one economic and one social. The economic change requires people to walk away from the capitalist economy and to establish new collaborative enterprises that are motivated strictly by the well-being of their members and not by profit or growth. I will be writing a great deal about such ventures in the next few months. If enough such enterprises were established, a parallel economy would be created that would use its members lack of consumption of shoddy, overpriced goods produced by traditional enterprises (i.e. the power of the consumer) to undermine and eventually replace the acquisitive economy.

The social change is more subversive, and if it occurs will probably be led by the group that almost certainly ushered in the acquirer-settler economy 30,000 years ago by developing agriculture when the men no longer brought home the beef: women. Throughout our culture, women ultimately do the choosing of partners and dictate how the household is run. It is women’s leadership that drives human culture. It is their willingness to adapt their lifestyle to the needs of our acquisitive economy — staying home to raise the family, or bringing in a second income, and providing the support and sustenance that men need to operate in the economy (vastly more than men reciprocate), that allows the economy to continue. If they refuse the life-style choices that perpetuate the economy, the economy will change.

How could women do this? By refusing to work for, or allow their spouses to work for, or deal with, enterprises that take excessive time away from the family. By refusing to support governments that put corporate profits above citizens’ well-being. By refusing to buy products that are exorbitantly priced, or poorly made, or imported at the cost of local jobs. By establishing new collaborative enterprises of their own to show men how to do it. By choosing mates that have the values and qualities necessary for the next economy — fairness, tolerance, pacifism, strong interpersonal skills, recognition of the importance of well-being versus wealth, sensitivity to the needs of others — and not choosing aggressive, materialistic, competitive, emotionally shallow men. And, most important of all, by educating themselves and their children on the horrendous consequences of continuing to try to sustain our unsustainable economy.

I am sure you are incredulous. Surely four changes:

  • a tax shift, 
  • a small minority of people setting the example by walking away from the acquisitive economy,
  • the leadership of women in selection of mates and establishing cultural values and family ground-rules, and
  • the education of future generations on the non-viability of our current culture

couldn’t undermine and replace an economy and culture that have dominated for 30,000 years? I would argue that the huge economic and cultural change that occurred 30,000 years ago happened with even fewer levers of change than this. So did the industrial revolution. As it was then, our survival is at stake.

Until someone comes up with better designations for the next human culture and economy, I would suggest the following uninspiring but accurate working names:

Next Human Culture:     Relater-Sharer Culture
Next Economy:             The Collaborative-Well-Being Economy   

I’ll conclude with two quotes, for the skeptics:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Buckminster Fuller)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Stay tuned for a blueprint for new collaborative enterprises, within the next week.

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16 Responses to THE POST-CONSUMER ECONOMY: A MODEL FOR OUR FUTURE

  1. Doug Alder says:

    I won’t quibble with where you think it has to go Dave but I will say that I think it ignores human nature. To a certain extent what you are describing is a society consisting of co-ops. The biggest difference between what you are decribing (on the economic model) and the teory of what the Soviet Union was supposedly trying to achieve (as opposed to what they actually did) is the lack of central planning (and that’s a good thing).The real problem is human nature. one of the biggest failures of the soviet model was the lack of incentive for anyone to aspire to achieve. Leaving aside personal satisfaction and scientific curiosity when everyone is being paid roughly the same no matter what job they do (and yes I know you’re not really gong there but there are parallels) why put all the effort into becoming a rocket scientist when you could just dig ditches? People want to be compensated appropriately for the level of difficulty and required training in their jobs – this is basic human nature wanting to be acknowledged and rewarded as someone special. The problem with that and your model is that reward is the basis of acquisitiveness. If I get paid 100K a year I can show the world that I am “better/smarter/more important etc” than the person who makes $20K a year and the easiest way to do that is through worldly goods. In other words you have a real ego problenm to overcome and it is spread just as equally across both sexes. Men go after the worldy goods to assert their alpha ststus and women go after the alpha males to assert their status. I don’t know how you’re going to get around that problem :-)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Maybe. I’m an eternal optimist, but having passed the age of 50 without losing that, I instinctively believe in the fundamental willingness of human beings to do what they know is right, even if they aren’t financially compensated for it. Take a look at the model I present next week on New Collaborative Enterprises and let me know if you’re still dubious. I think there are other ways than money to be compensated for behaving responsibly and respecting other people and the environment. But I appreciate and respect your comments: this is not going to be an easy journey.

  3. Ray Jefferd says:

    Looking forward to your next post on New Collaborative Enterprises. Will wait till then to add my two cents.

  4. I believe the changes you are outlining are necessary, but there is a difficulty in achieving them, because your way requires everyone to be conscious of the current system’s limitations and appreciative of “the way” you point out.Let me suggest that there may be a simpler way.An important point is that, in my view, it is not the Consumer-Capitalist type economy that is at fault, but rather its economic set-up, which includes an omnipresent constraining factor: interest.It is really the presence of interest in the current economic set-up which forces constant growth, profit maximization and consequently environmental destruction. In our economic reality, a good part of all production goes to satisfy the demands of “capital” for maximum return with all the negative consequences you describe.Take the interest out of the economy as a contstraining factor and you will end up with a collaborative economy. I am sure Richard Douthwaite, whom you quote in an earlier post, would agree.An article I wrote years ago on this is on http://www.hasslberger.com/economy/eco_1.htmJosef

  5. mrG says:

    Some random thoughts:As Bucky Fuller points out (9 chains to the moon?) the advent of interest to simulate the accrued growth of holding someone’s cattle is not applicable to the static and non-reproducing currency standard, so I’ll agree with Josef on that point — banking commmercials like to use the metaphor of making your money grow, but it doesn’t, you have to steal the interest excess from some other more hapless individual, and that sets up and sustains the unfounded Malthusian darwinianisms that power the particular flavour of our consumer/capitalism, a myth which Bucky also exploded (Grunch of Giants).It’s important to realize what happened 30,000 years ago was not voluntary, it was forced, sustained and propelled to this day by the technologies of weaponry and surveillance. The fiefdoms and associated protection rackets protect the free peasants from no one but their masters, and slavery continues still to this day in many of the goods we buy from the ‘developing’ nations.What is changing is not the economic model, and, again Bucky, the model is not going to change until there is a catastrophic failure, or a major advance in technologies of draconian control (cf mainland China) but what can and will change is networking. It’s the biblical “All their secrets shall be known” that heralds the end of tyrannic theft that siphons off the imaginary currency growth. Free flow of information is causing the Catholic empire to reform, it’s causing democracies to reform, it’s causing academic integrity, journalism, all these heretofore highly corrupt professions are finding it harder and harder to hide their ‘anomalies’ from the masses. The outcome is that final scene in Antz where the colony realizes it outweighs the oppressive grasshopper gang, and fearing the fate bestowed by an informed public on the Mayan priesthood, the oppressor gangs are succumbing to the Enron scandals and lining up for “cleaning house” … even quietand staid Toronto has most of the Mayoral candidates now standing on a primary platform of “cleaning house” — it’s because they know , in a networked world, there is no alternative.Apropos to quote both Mead and Fuller because it is Bucky once again who points out that change does happen by the actions of “one lone individual” but he’s quick to add that ideology has never changed the world, nor has theory or policy. The agent of change is always invention; in the wake of that change, the ideologists and pundits will always flood in to take credit, but it is the technology that makes the change happen. Even the current rise in organic farming is not due to re-channelling consumer desires through ideological campaigns, it’s been because of the increasing failure of the technology of forced-yeild farming (driving prices higher) and the increasing efficiency and success of new and innovative organic farming methods (bringing their costs lower) — you might sway a few consumers at the crossing point, but once organic is significantly more efficient than forced-yield, we won’t even bother with the distinction because forced-yield will just vanish.Given the immanent rise of the fuel cell, of nanotechnology, of genetics and, of course, the Internet, I believe we will see change and new economics, but I don’t see it being from any other blueprint than the engineer’s design board and happenstance.

  6. Doug Alder says:

    “banking commmercials like to use the metaphor of making your money grow, but it doesn’t, you have to steal the interest excess from some other more hapless individual”This is a common fallacy. For it to be true the monetary system would have to be a closed system, that is, a fixed amount of capital that doesn’t grow. But that is not the case. Governments create capital by minting more money. Individuals create more capital by adding value to natural resources and putting the resulting products into circulation in the economy which in turn (assuming there is sufficient demand for those products and others like them) forces the government to increase the supply of money.There is far more capital in the system today than there was say 75 years ago just before the great depression even allowing for inflation. The monetary system is NOT a zero sum game which it would have to be to make your statement true.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Ray: Thanks. I originally tried to build something based on Quinn’s concept of New Tribal Ventures, but his material is not specific enough. I have some useful experience helping entrepreneurs start new business ventures, but what I’m talking about here is something quite different.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Josef: I’ll have to give this some more thought. The concept of zero interest is changing, especially with economies like Japan into a deflationary spiral, where interest really is essentially zero and has been for awhile. It hasn’t had any impact on capitalism as it’s practiced there.

  9. Rob Paterson says:

    I am with you Dave – I sense that we are close. Maybe it will need a catastrophe to get us there though.I have just finished Zuboff’s book the Support Economy – I promise you will enjoy itRob

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: I knew you’d be a Bucky fan. I agree that the change 30,000 years ago was forced, but I’m not as optimistic as you that the changes we need will occur organically. Last week’s Greenpeace protest to get ExxonMobil to agree to commission a study of the company’s impact on global warming was telling: It wouldn’t have cost much, and would have shut up the protesters very quickly, to have agreed. Instead, they issued a hostile and antagonistic press release, defeated the motion after a long and acrimonious discussion from the floor, and had the protesters arrested.The SEC and others don’t really care about management fraud, they just want to be seen to be doing something about Enron type cases, and to find someone to blame and sue when they occur. Business ethics are really in a terrible state, following the example of many governments, and exploiting the unwarranted loathing of most Americans for public institutions and the IRS. Whistle blowers face dismissal, legal action and personal ruin while the blowees with their expensive lawyers get away more-or-less free. There is no ‘free flow of information’, especially under the Bush administration. I agree that innovation/invention is the only way to change the world, but that invention need not be technology, even in the broader sense: it can be institutional or structural innovation. I see New Collaborative Enterprises as very inventive and ideologically neutral (as I’ll explain next week), and like any innovation they are disruptive rather than ‘revolutionary’ in any real sense of the word. The industrial revolution was not in and of itself an ideological one, nor was the agricultural revolution. They were both innovations that solved burning human problems, though tragically creating worse ones in their wake. You’ve made me realize that I need to explain better why there is already a sufficient sense of urgency among at least a ‘Mead-sized’ critical mass of people, and that I need to explain better the concept of ‘walking away’ from the old economy: It’s not going back, or dropping out, but rather proactively selecting a radically different, but completely natural, comfortable, and sacrifice-free way of ‘making a living’. Gotta get working on next week’s post soon — I think it will make everything clearer. There’s only so much you can pack into one post, and it all ties together. I guess eventually it will have to be a small book.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: Thanks for responding to Josef — more articulate than I could have put it.Rob: I’ve added Zuboff to my pending reading list — thanks for the reference. My sense is that the catastrophe is already upon us, and that ‘a small number of people’ who realize that will show the way for everyone else, in a non-revolutionary, non-confrontational, innovative way that will cause people to respond, as they have to every important invention: “Aha. Of course, that is the answer. Why didn’t we see it sooner?”Everyone: Thanks for your constructive and gentle criticism. Now I can face the inevitable, hostile reaction from those who will see this as dangerous, deranged or ‘seriously wacked’.

  12. Dynamnic Driveler: the vast majortity (over 90%) of the money supply is NOT created by governments (as interest free cash) but by private banks (as interest-bearing debt). Here is a quick money_guide.pdf .Most of the best money reading and links can be found via reinventingmoney.com

  13. Don Dwiggins says:

    I particularly like your inclusion of women’s leadership in the list. I too think there’s tremendous power there. A couple of interesting bits of evidence:- Muhammed Yunus’ Grameen Foundation, which pioneered the idea of microcredit, found early on that women were much better than men at using the loan wisely and paying it off in time. In fact, the large majority of microcredit borrowers in the 3rd world continues to be women. (And this in many societies where women definitely have second-class status.)- UN social workers have observed a decline in birth rates in 3rd world areas where women have achieved a degree of autonomy and education (such as by learning to run their own businesses, financed by microcredit).

  14. I Know how to get around the money or finances issue regarding my dreams. Homeiess a serious problem in our World today. Unabling to budget as I should,to much foolnish present, I need to become A lot more stable with my son living in Homeless Shelters, until I’m Able to have a healthier lifestyle located for long lasting value for my son.

  15. grungeboater says:

    I am going to have to disagree with at least one of your basic premises. You did mention that people have the basic desire to do good. Dont agree with that. Some people do, perhaps. First of all, biologically, we are animals. If you observe animals in nature or captivity they definitely exhibit behavior that recognizes and promotes status. As Mr Alder (above poster) pointed out, women and men are both status seekers. This can never change. It is biologically inherent. People (and animals) will do bad (selfish) things to achieve or maintain social recognition. We are of course capable of doing good. One reason to do good is to seek approval or gain cooperation from others to maintain our survival. If we want to do good for the purpose that goes beyond the short term goal of personal survival we must have a long term goal in mind that promotes something beyond our physical and social survival. This is where, I believe, spirituality comes in. I am not sure spirituality can be taught to the masses. Religion can be taught to the masses and in some sense spirituality can arise from religion. But as we observe in day to day life people constantly choose material and social status above the spiritual life. I can agree with your assertion of women playing the leadership role in society. Basically, though, men revolve much of their life around keeping their women comfortable and happy. Again, status seeeking females seek out high status males. And the man better produce some status! so the Mrs can enjoy her social life! Its a television soap opera stereotype because it is true behavior to some large degree. Just think for a moment, if you want to end our materialistic endeavors your first hurdle will be to prevent women from buying gifts at every birthday and holiday. You dont see many men running around the mall buying gifts for every relative. That is a womens job (hobby) by the womans choice. As materialistic, petty and wasteful that behavior is, just trystopping that. It too is biologically inherent and not confined to the capitalistic society.

  16. Paris says:

    Dave, your proposals makes sense, however I also believe you don’t look human nature in the eyes. Although reality is cruel, the world has come to the point of no return because of human nature. Why did farmers whipped out hunter gatherers from Earth’s surface? because the former were ‘poorer’ and making fewer babies. Unfortunately your proposals suggest that we shall seek a financially poorer lifestyle and curb births=> that’s exactly how bright people who know how to make the world a better never get heard! The vast majority of people are greedy, selfish and ready to take your inheritance out of your only kids hands thanks to their armies of youngsters.As suggested above change will only come from innovation, and greedy selfish people innovate only when forced to, which means in case of BIG problems…unfortunately that won’t be smooth, smart changes like your ideas=> to get an idea let’s study WWII, and that will enlighten us with regards to what human beings actually do to trigger change.

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