The Impulse Society: America In the Age of Instant Gratification by Paul Roberts (Bloomsbury 2014)
Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in A World of Finite Resources by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (Berrett- Kohler 2013)
Reviewed by Lance Bennett
These two books chart the ways in which large numbers of people have been hard wired to consume far beyond the survival capacity of the planet. The Impulse Society starts with the individual consumer and shows how people live to consume and what that does to them individually and socially. Life in the consumer bubble makes it hard for people to grasp the collective planetary shock of so many consumers harvesting resources on a finite planet. Roberts then begins to step back and examine the limits of our political system, and the reasons why politicians and their corporate backers have become bonded around the mantra of economic growth as the cure for most of our social ills.
My main quibble with the analysis is Roberts’ charge that consumerism produces narcissism. This seems unnecessary to make the larger case. While it is clear that consumerism produces measurable levels of debt, stress, anxiety and little gain in happiness beyond rather modest levels of lifestyle, it is not clear how to make the claim of narcissism stick or why one needs this argument to make the case that we are consuming ourselves to death. At the least, it seems to be preaching to the choir of more enlightened folk. Since most of us are consuming more than we really need, do we want to let people off the hook if they reject the idea that they are narcissists? Beyond this quibble, the book delivers the goods on how the consumer society is perpetuated economically and politically, and what we can do about it before it is too late.
Dietz and O’Neill cover much the same territory, but they operate more at the big picture level, showing patterns of consumption, economic problems, population growth, resource capacity and projected scenarios for the future. A good part of the book looks at solutions which often seem so simple and obvious that it is hard to imagine how we have ended up with the economic models that currently drive humans to the brink of disaster. For example, we might think of curbing unproductive economic speculation in favor of rewarding (through taxes and other incentives) investment that pays better returns to society and people. Investing in education and social support services such as health and childcare may pay bigger economic dividends down the road while producing tangible social benefits in the short run. They also offer ideas about how to engage politicians and the media in discussing how to make the economy work better for more people on a shrinking planet. Of course, many politicians and the media outlets that publicize their pronouncements would argue that we can’t change things for fear of losing jobs and disrupting the system. In fact, we are losing jobs, and creating unlivable conditions for the working poor and the marginally employed. And the current system is highly disruptive: the great economic collapse of a few years back is not over yet for much of the world. The authors revive a discussion of Herman Daly’s idea of a steady state economy and show how it could work. The challenge, of course, is to reform the political process that stands in the way.