Alternatives to a consumer economy and the point of humanity

by John Stapel

Occasionally people protest that if everybody retired early, the consumer economy would collapse(*). Similarly, I imagine the PR people working for Nike receiving correspondence that if everybody went into the shoe industry, the world would quickly find itself covered in shoes. Obviously, you see the “problem!”

However, for the sake of the argument lets assume that everybody really did decide to stop consuming. What would happen to the economy?

It is important to realize that a consumer economy in which people go to work in order to buy stuff is not the only form of economy. It is just the current one.

(*) Good riddance, I say!

Money can also be spent on productive assets, art, preserving nature, space exploration, eliminating hunger, maybe even eliminating war. It’s just that we’ve collectively chosen to spend it on cell phone upgrades, furniture replacements, fashionable vehicles, shoe collections, throwaway electronics, and so on.

It is simply a question of collective priorities.

For example, it’s now been some 40 years since mankind set foot on the moon. No astronaut has visited the moon in my lifetime. As a kid I used to read books about space from the 1960s and 1970s depicting lunar colonies, Mars colonies, interplanetary space travel and even interstellar space travel. None of this has come to pass. Priorities are such that we no longer even have an operating shuttle program. Humanity’s vision has turned inward. These days we’re more concerned about whether some 13 year old sings well enough to win American Idol and what data rate we get on our phone—this determining the speed by which we can share pictures of random cats.

The story of NASA in many ways resemble my space dreams in reverse. We’ve gone from buying passage on other countries rocket launches, to having a space shuttle, to having a space station, to sending probes to other planets, to landing men on the moon. Hat tip to wherever I saw that observation.

Space exploration aside, the consumer economy simply reflects ONE choice among many of what humanity as a species has chosen to focus on. What an interesting legacy. In particular, when archeologists dig through the landfill strata associated with the 20th and 21st century, they’ll find our pottery shards—it so happens to be that the biggest and most solid ceramic products we’ve made in abundance are toilet bowls. That humans once went to the moon might some day be legend. Armstrong and the Astronauts. Jason and the Argonauts.

But for now, a consumer economy is where it’s at.

PS: If you’re interested in a trying to understand humanity within the context of the [entire] universe as an evolving story, I highly recommend The Universe Story.

Originally posted 2011-11-03 16:56:52.