The average German household contains 10,000 items. That’s according to a study cited by Frank Trentmann in his sweeping history of consumption, Empire of Things. We’re “bursting”, he says, with the amount of stuff that we have – while all of this consumption is steeping us in debt and dangerously depleting the planet’s resources and systems.
So after Christmas, and the Boxing Day sales, it seems like a good time to ask: what is the purpose of all this consumption?
The consumption cake
If consumption is about facilitating quality of life, then quantities of money, materials, energy and so on are merely ingredients. They’re not the end product.
If I was baking a cake, would it make sense to use as many ingredients as possible? Of course not.
Yet “more is better” remains the narrative of modern society, and therefore of the economic system we use to make it happen. This makes sense while there is a sustainable correlation between quality of life and material resources consumed.
But this correlation is weakening. There is growing evidence that we are on a trajectory of diminishing returns on quality of life. A growing spate of titles such as Affluenza, Stuffocation and How Much is Enough? speak to the phenomenon.
Yet in the midst of unprecedented wealth, and unprecedented threats (from climate change and mass extinction, to inequality and social fragmentation), is the opportunity to move on to better things – to move beyond the consumer machine, and gear the future economy towards what we are really after in life.
So what are we baking? And what are the optimal amounts of ingredients we need?
Optimising consumption to maximise quality of life
What is the optimal level of income, for example, and of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a country? What about energy use per person? We scarcely even ask these questions.
Indeed, Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil had shown that the highest HDI rates were found to occur with a minimum annual energy use of 110 gigajoules (GJ) per person. This was roughly Italy’s rate at the time, the lowest among industrialised nations and around a third of the US figure. He noted no additional gains past that point, with diminishing returns past the threshold of only 40-70GJ per person.
Tim Jackson reported a similar pattern in his 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth. In a study from the year 2000, life satisfaction measures were found to barely respond to increases in GDP per person beyond around $15,000 (in international $), “even to quite large increases in GDP”. He noted that countries such as Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Ireland recorded as high or higher levels of life satisfaction than the United States, for example, with significantly lower income levels.
By way of comparison, at the time of that study, GDP person in the United States was $26,980. Denmark’s was $21,230, Sweden’s $18,540, New Zealand’s $16,360, and Ireland’s $15,680. Australia’s was $18,940, also with a comparable life satisfaction measure to the United States.