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The Consumer Society

PART VIII
CONSUMPTION AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Overview Essay

by Jonathan Harris

The consumption of the average U.S. citizen requires eighteen tons of natural resources per person per year, and generates an even higher volume of wastes (including household, industrial, mining, and agricultural wastes). Some of these wastes are released to the atmosphere, rivers, and oceans; others are landfilled or incinerated; a small proportion are recycled. The standard conception of economic development envisions the rest of the world's population as moving steadily up the ladder of mass consumption, eventually achieving levels similar to those achieved by the United States and some European economies. Clearly, the environmental implications of the global spread of mass consumption for resource use and environmental waste absorption are staggering. Should not this promote some rethinking of economic theories of consumption, which for the most part have ignored resource and environmental implications?

The articles in Section 8 address both theoretical and practical aspects of this question. We have already become familiar with critiques of the simple economic theory of utility maximization through consumption of goods. The hypothetical consumer at the center of this theory is devoid of social relationships, ethical principles, or any relationship to the natural world. His or her satisfaction is measured only in terms of quantities of goods and services consumed, and the science of utility maximization is concerned primarily with the choice of how to balance consumption among various alternatives offered in the marketplace. The individual's role as consumer is independent of involvement in the productive process, in which capacity his or her labor is sold in the market for the best possible wage. The only link between the two activities is that the money earned through work provides a budget for consumption. Income may also be saved, but savings serve ultimately to support future consumption via the increased production that results from investment.

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