The Lie At The Heart Of Consumer Society

Let them order Amazon (with creepy AI hands)

Consumer goods are always wearing down, becoming outdated, and need to be replaced. You constantly need to buy new clothes, new vehicles, new things. Consumer society, however, is presumed to be infinite. We can keep doing this forever, indeed, this society can keep growing. This is a lie.

The lie at the heart of consumer society is that all of this stuff comes out of nowhere and gets dumped nowhere. Don’t worry about it. The resources that make goods are infinite and the waste is off the books. That is to say, entropy applies to the individual, but not the system. But this is just physically impossible. You can run the experiment yourself. Just unbox something.

You can feel the relentless process of entropy when you open a package. An organized box becomes a mess of cardboard, foam, cables, and devices exploding across your room. Just compare the tree on Christmas Eve with the carnage of Christmas morning. It’s the definition of entropy. Things fall apart, hot goes cold, new becomes old. You have to buy again. Consumer goods are in fact engineered this way, even more than they have to be.

The lie is that this entropic process we can observe on a personal level, does not apply to the system, ie the planet. The consumer goods you buy are known to degrade and become less useful, but the mines that produce them never will. While mainstream economics does acknowledge that factories and machinery degrade (depreciation) there is no similar concept for anything on the environmental level.

Economics just stops at macroeconomics and everything bigger than that is just half-assed assumptions. Assuming that we can keep digging stuff out of the ground, throwing into a whirring entropy machine, and expecting that overall entropy in the system won’t increase. It’s madness of course, and this is mainstream economics. This is what we’re drowning in. As Earl Cook wrote the year I was born:

“the concept of limits to growth threatens vested interests and power structures; even worse, it threatens value structures in which lives have been invested. . . . Abandonment of belief in perpetual motion was a major step toward recognition of the true human condition. It is significant that “mainstream” economists never abandoned that belief and do not accept the relevance to the economic process of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; their position as high priests of the market economy would become untenable did they do so. [Cook 1982, p. 198, via Daly]

Entropy is an important concept because it’s just life or, more accurately, it’s just death. When you die nature ‘unboxes’ you real quick, decomposing and disintegrating what was ordered into a far less orderly state. I’ve watched bodies go up the chimney at the crematorium, turning into a gas that rapidly expands into the air and which will never spontaneously regroup into Uncle Mohan, for example, sitting and smoking his cigarette at the Barefoot Cafe. It just doesn’t happen that way. In many ways entropy is the arrow of time itself. From the Big Bang to a big mess. And yet life — living itself — finds a way.

When I tell my kids about Mercutio the dog buried in the garden, where the pink and red flowers are falling today, I tell them that his body returns to the earth, which is a living thing. That millions of bugs and microbes decompose his body and return him to the world of the living, though the dog is gone (he was a good dog). His life wasn’t a waste. In this way life is a stubborn resistance to entropy, recycling and forming stuff into bodies, failing and dying every time, but then reproducing and trying again. Reproduction is actually a capitalist term, the more logical word is rebirth, which is how I believe in it. But anyways.

What capitalist production produces, however, is almost only waste. After fucking up the thermostat even worse than us 2.5 billion years ago, microbes learnt how to carefully balance the oxygen and other elements in the atmosphere in a living, intelligent, cybernetic system. We come in a few hundred years ago, dig those same ancestors out of the ground as ‘fossil fuels’ and proceeded to completely unbalance the system with the carbon in their bodies, plucked unceremoniously from sacred tombs and incinerated. While the cybernetic system can re-balance CO₂, it can’t do it as fast as we emit it, digging up millions of years of stored entropy and unleashing it in mere centuries. As Yeats said, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. Mere entropy is loosed upon the world.

The stuff we produce under the capitalist system is novel to nature in that it can’t be meaningfully processed by the ecosystem. Whereas nature packages soft fruit in a perfectly timed banana-peel, we wrap the whole thing in plastic which will take decades or even centuries to break down. Whereas the living ecosystem resists entropy (recycling my dog for example) the capitalist system is a pure entropic machine.

You get delivered this illusory ordered package from Amazon, neatly sealed and packaged, but then you open it up and entropy spreads everywhere. Into your hands, where the product immediately starts to degrade, onto your flow, into your bin, into the landfills. I recently read that 99% of manufactured goods are tossed within 6 months, and I know for certain that 100% of them are tossed eventually. Amazon seems like it’s delivering your order, but in fact it’s a massive entropy machine.

This is the lie at the heart of consumer society. Every consumer knows that shit falls apart, that’s why we keep buying things. But the resources that we consume are presumed to be endless. We experience entropy in our closets and pockets and houses and we’re supposed to resolve this by just buying more things. But all this does is increase entropy in the system! And our concept of recycling is a cosmetic fad, recycling a fraction of components using hideous amounts of energy. Half the time what people in the North call recycling is just dumping stuff in the South so they can feel better about filling up their bins every week. It’s cosmetics on the corpse of consumer society, which stubbornly refuses to decompose properly.

What is the way out of this impasse? Well, the actual answer is No. We’re just fucked. We’re not the first motherfuckers to do this, as I mentioned photosynthetic life (plants) broke the thermostat hard when they discovered solar power and went crazy with oxygen emissions. Then 99% of everything died — including them — and they learned how to carefully balance the thermostat and (barely) prevented the Earth from being frozen forever. Which is hopeful but not in the way you’re thinking of. It took hundreds of millions of years. If you’re asking about your lifetime or even the next few rebirths, the answer is just no, we’re not going to unfuck this, this world will just be consumed by consumption and it will be a long, unrecognizable time before a new balance is achieved. And there’s absolutely no guarantee that humans would be the ones doing it. Indeed, that’s unlikely.

However, if you want a theoretical answer (which is wildly impractical, as he acknowledges) Dr. Tom Murphy offers an antithesis of consumer society, organized within environmental constraints rather than within the magical void of economics. This is one rendition of a ‘steady-state’ economy:

A few key principles will help flesh out aspects of how a steady state economy might work. A critical goal is to reduce the flow (or demand) of resources into the economy, and reduce the waste (pollution, CO₂, for instance) back into the environment. This would be akin to diminishing the sizes of the two thick arrows in Figure 19.1. One approach would be to levy substantial taxes on every tree that is cut, mineral that is mined, drop of oil that is extracted, or wild animal that is unnaturally removed from the environment. Likewise, a heavy tax would accompany disposal of waste and emissions of pollutants. Meanwhile, labor would no longer be taxed. Labor can add value to resources already in hand. The idea is to tax the damaging things, not the beneficial things.

Think about what happens under these conditions. Buying a newly manufactured item becomes expensive. Throwing away an old device becomes expensive. Repair (labor) becomes cheaper. Say goodbye to the disposable economy, or “planned obsolescence.” Durable goods and lifetime warranties become popular. Items are designed to facilitate upgrade or repair. (Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet)

I have actually seen a society like this. During the Civil War in Sri Lanka, Jaffna was (militarily) cut off and people had to reuse everything and learn how to make old Morris Minor cars run on kerosene. I went right after the war ended and you could still see signs of this life, but now it’s like anywhere else. Such is the ‘development’ model that everyone follows, even though it’s a planetary Ponzi scheme. Until the very last moment, however, you’re a fool not to get in.

As Murphy goes into, the political and cultural pressures against ever taking your foot off the gas are such that we can’t turn around, not without serious and honestly violent climate communism. And nobody wants that right, how ugly. So we end up with the climate itself doing greater violence to us, and pass the task onto future generations to rebuild some sort of communal life with far less resources to do anything with. Because we consumed them all. That’s the logical result of consumer society on the systemic level. We can’t keep consuming and avoid eventually being consumed. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Ask Marie Antoinette. There is a debt to all this consumption and one way or another, it will be paid in blood.