Taking Stock: Rethinking consumerism

James Gustave Speth, dean of School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: I don't know if he said it first, but Adam Smith probably said it best. Consumption, he wrote in "The Wealth of Nations," is the sole end and purpose of all production. The only reason to make something is to have someone else buy it.

Americans have been really good at that consumption part for decades. It's been a huge driver of our economic growth. But it's making things a little tricky, too, as we try to climb out of this recession. Because those old habits we had -- of buying whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted -- aren't really sustainable.

As we continue our series "Taking Stock" today -- occasional conversations with people who can give us the long view of our current economic situation -- Gus Speth. He's the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale.

Welcome to the program.

GUS SPETH: Hi, Good to be here.

RYSSDAL: Do me a favor, would you, just as a baseline and characterize U.S. consumption for us.

SPETH: Well, we have affluenza, don't we? I mean, until this crisis hit us, we were a shop-till-you-drop society. And, uh, maybe one thing the crisis will bring is some . . . an end to that, in the best of all worlds.

RYSSDAL: Well, how might that happen? Because if you read the classic economic texts, they'll tell you the only way to grow is to consume.

SPETH: Depends on what you consume, doesn't it? There are lots of things in our society that we need to grow. We need to grow health care, we need to grow education, we need to grow infrastructure, we need to grow an entirely new energy system. But what we probably don't need to grow is the volume of our stuff. We now have . . . the square-footage of the self-storage industry in the United States would now cover all of San Francisco and the entire island of Manhattan combined.

RYSSDAL: So what does a recovery that changes our consumption habits look like?

SPETH: The great hope I have is that we won't just recover. That we will reinvent. That we will change the nature, to a large degree, of what our economy is all about. What I would like to see, personally, is some set of policies put in place which would have the effect of both curtailing our consumption, and at the same time improving Welfare. So what things would do that? Certainly, taking more time in leisure, having a shorter work week, longer vacations. Greater labor protection, greater job security. Some restrictions on advertising. The Swedish ban on advertising directed at children is something we should consider shortly. You know, really thoughtful trade agreements that didn't give away our jobs and our environment. There are things we need to be striving for, if we are going to build an economy that really does sustain people and communities and doesn't see these things as just what might happen if we're lucky, as a consequence of undifferentiated mere GDP growth.

RYSSDAL: Well, for that to be true, though. For us to be able to do all those things that you'd like us to do -- and lord knows I'd like to do them too -- seems to me that the economic return for whatever new investments we're making has to be greater than the economic return on buying widgets from Wal-Mart at a discount.

SPETH: Well, we might not grow as fast. And I personally think that there are diminishing returns to growth. There are diminishing returns to affluence. And when you get a country that's as rich as ours, it really becomes a matter of spending what we have wisely. And all of my adult life I've heard people say, "You know, we need to keep growing or we'll face the distribution issue in our society. And we kept growing and distribution of income and resources and assets got worse. So, I think it's time to worry about some of these other things, and not so much about just growing the aggregate economy. And gives us the time to do things in life that really matter. We're rich enough for that now.

RYSSDAL: What we're trying to do, then, and this is no easy task, is change human behavior. Because, for many years in this country, it's been all about how much stuff you have.

SPETH: Well, I think some changes in human behavior would be welcomed by a lot of people in our country. We now have seen the birth in recent years of this new field of positive psychology -- where the psychologists aren't studying deranged behavior but are studying what makes people happy. What brings satisfaction to life. And one of the things they found, consistently, is that the more materialistic, the more consumption-oriented people are, the less happy they are, the less satisfied they are. In our country, in the United Kingdom, in Japan, GDP per capita has gone up and up and up but the level of life satisfaction has been stable. And what really makes people happy is warm, close, personal relationships. And giving, rather than getting.

RYSSDAL: You are in a position where people probably come to you, people of influence come to you and say, "Listen, I'm working on a new policy for this. Or I'm going to see Senator XYZ on this issue. How do you translate these thoughts that you have into political action. Because that really is the discussion we're having here, right?

SPETH: The truth is that I think these changes right now have to come from people, from communities -- sort of bottom-up changes. I don't think our political system is . . . They've got their hands full, right, on things that just desperately need to be done, like getting people back employed, things like universal health care. You know, the sad thing about this crisis, though, is that what I and a lot of other people have been advocating in a way is a new American Dream, a less materialistic American Dream that is more sustainable environmentally, and more family friendly, and community friendly. But those are voluntary decisions, decisions made out of people's empowerment. And what we have instead is a kind of a forced collapse. You know, the crisis does present some opportunities, but it's certainly not what people have wanted to see, the way people have wanted to see it come about.

RYSSDAL: Gus Speth is the dean of the school for forestry and environmental studies at Yale University. Dean Speth, thanks a lot for your time.

SPETH: Thank you, Kai.

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