Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Inequity, Excess Commercialization, and Overconsumption in the Anthropocene: Two Very Modest Regulatory Proposals
Scottish author Alistair McIntosh, reflecting on the climate challenge that our communities collectively face, sagely wrote in “Where Now ‘Hell and High Water’?” that “consumerism is a false satisifier—just another form of addiction that masks the emptiness.” He called upon society to return “from excess to sufficiency, challenging profligate consumerism.”
We need a deeply rooted social movement for systemic change. A push for society-wide change was at least the original intent and purpose of the U.S. environmental laws adopted in the 1970s and 1980s to reverse attitudes of chronic economic extractivism. Laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were intended to seek long-term and progressive strategies to restore ecological integrity. These laws as administered and interpreted, however, have perpetuated extractionist attitudes as the permits mandated under these statutes became simply the cost of doing business. Several major industries, including our industrial agricultural complexes, have continued to be largely exempted from core regulatory programs, including even reporting their air emissions from animal waste under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
Since the passage of these laws, moreover, there has been no systemic challenge by major government institutions to consumption-oriented growth. In fact, there are even perverse incentives to promote continued growth; for example, the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates companies to report their earnings quarterly and publicly, thereby pressuring companies to continue pushing for growth in hopes of protecting perceived corporate reputation.
What fuels this crisis of overconsumption is not simply capitalism as a system, but many intersecting factors that have built “the matrix” that has been sold to us as “the good life”. Two factors in particular bear particular attention because they have an important relationship with laws as negotiated rules to govern community and individual behavior that present opportunities for change. One factor is the replication and dysfunction of profound gaps in financial wealth. The statistic that the wealthiest 1 percent has secured two-thirds of all new financial wealth since 2020 ($42 trillion) has been often quoted but it remains unsettling. In 2022, 95 food and energy corporations doubled their profits even as many individuals struggled to access food and energy resources. At least some of these 1% elites have American nationality or some form of private or commercial assets within the United States.
One of the main purposes of the U.S. Constitution, as stated in its Preamble, is to “promote the general Welfare.” However, several government representatives elected and appointed under the framework of the Constitution consistently promote private welfare over general welfare in their policymaking, at the behest of lobbyists and special interest groups. This practice of giving preference to the private over the general is at the heart of both broader inequity and resource degradation.
A second factor directly related to overconsumption is over-commercialization and excess marketing in the public sphere. Advertising for goods and services has been part of communities for centuries and a constant part of modern communication from radio, television, and the internet designed to fuel consumption. While there is no easy way to calculate how much the average American might be exposed to advertising or marketing, one media industry report suggests that the average American in 2014 spent at least a few seconds on 153 ads a day. A movie is no longer simply an hour or so of entertainment but a place to view product placements and be barraged by product pushing. Perhaps no movie’s product pushing could be more demoralizing than the 45 second spot of the “I speak for the trees” Lorax marketing an internal combustion engine sport utility vehicle, that will not be named here to avoid unwarranted advertising, but that outlandishly claimed to be “certified Truffula Tree friendly.” It seems that no cultural symbol is beyond commercialization.
There are no quick legal fixes until there is a monumental attitude shift beyond our current rampant overconsumption. Nevertheless, there are small-scale legal reforms with potentially large social payoffs that are possible and will alleviate excess consumption. First, at a minimum, nations need to end some of the reckless consumption patterns that impact general welfare. While the hopeful messaging of many environmental groups has been that personal choices from diet (less meat) to clothing (no fast fashion) can collectively make a positive difference, individual choices also undermine collective efforts. No place does this fact become more apparent than in sumptuary consumption. The top 20 billionaires in the world in 2018 emitted an annual average of 8,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, with 2/3 of that coming from the operation of luxury yachts. The average person in a high-emission country such as the United States emits 14.5 metric tons per year and the average person in a lower-emission country such as India emits 2 metric tons per year. Thus, the top 20 billionaires emit as much as 11,000 Americans or 80,000 Indians. Programs such as Jet Carbon Offset and Yacht Carbon Offset fail to address the conspicuous consumption that continues to fuel financial inequality.
What is urgently needed are luxury taxes that change how resources are consumed. The Internal Revenue Service in its public lesson on how taxes influence behavior notes that “when a luxury tax becomes too steep, people may choose to stop purchasing a particular product.” If manufacturers are unwilling to charge for environmental externalities, it is time to change luxury tax codes to reflect the true costs of goods and services and to require individuals to be accountable for their material decisions. Luxury tax measures are non-existent in the U.S. and insubstantial in other countries such as Canada, which has a 10% tax on select cars and planes. Nevertheless, a substantial tax to reflect environmental costs might change consumption patterns. It may even be time to imagine a World Tax Organization designed to ensure that the wealthiest do not evade fiscal responsibilities across political borders by seeing tax refuges.
Second, while we have laws to regulate pollution from toxins, we need to use law to remove visual pollution from our public spaces urging us to buy more “lifestyle”. There is a truth that “where our attention goes, our energy flows,” so that we need to recover our attention and shift from being pliant consumers to humble citizens aware of the challenges of being human but also willing to work towards “general welfare.” This shift requires legally regulating what kinds of messages the public is exposed to in public spaces. This will require decisions about what constitutes a public space and what sorts of non-commercial messages might be distributed in these spaces instead. Some cities such as São Paulo, Brazil, removed outdoor advertising and public transit advertisements as part of its “Clean City Law” to alleviate the commercialization of urban space, and other cities have followed its example, including Grenoble. The City of London, England ,banned unhealthy food advertising across its public transit. Communities can and should regulate their viewsheds. Certain arenas of cyberspace should also be considered “public space” and free from unwanted commercial exposure; in the United States, this change may require the federal government to take a more active role in creating its own public access search engines and data structures. A proposal like this is likely to generate questions about the interpretation of the First Amendment. Where do rights to express commercial interests end? Are there competing rights such as privacy rights that protect an individual’s right to be free of intentional, unreasonable commercial intrusions into civic spaces such as public schools?
In the end, these proposals are indeed minor legal reforms, but they have the potential to create the social momentum that allows for attitude shifts by sending two important messages: those with economic privilege have environmental responsibilities to stop reckless consuming; and our lived spaces where we will dream of new ways of being in this world belong to all of us and not just those who pay. For generations we have taken from the planet; our next collective challenge is to figure out how to give back.
-- Anastasia Telesetsky