Confronting Consumption

By Hamilton, David | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Confronting Consumption


Hamilton, David, Journal of Economic Issues


edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2002. Paper, ISBN: 0262661284, $29.99; cloth, ISBN: 0262162083, $75.00. 382 pages.

Consumerism is a term with a rather strange metamorphosis. It first began to appear in economic literature in the 1930s and 1940s. It then expressed a new concern for consumption problems. Since standard economic theory contended that consumption was the end-all of economic activity, a final end in the analysis of Adam Smith, little could or need be said about it. In the standard texts prepared for students it was relegated to the back of the book in no more than two chapters.

Wesley Mitchell, in an influential essay in the AER in 1912 entitled "The Backward Art of Spending Money," argued that consumption matters in the society as a whole were neglected. Consumer economists such as Leland Gordon, in his long-used and many-editioned Consumer Economics, wrote of developing a "technology of consumption." This theme was prevalent within the consumer movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

The marketing movement, at which much of the consumer advocates directed their attention, began to refer to this consumer-centered movement as "consumerism," only their use of the term was a pejorative one and was accompanied with a certain cynicism.

In the book Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, the term "consumerism" as used should not be confused with any of these earlier meanings of the term. Their book of essays is directed to what they consider an imminent danger, the mass-consumption society already within the so-called developed economies and now just beginning to threaten less developed ones. That imminent danger is one that threatens the very existence of the earth.

The book consists of essays by seven other contributors in addition to the three editors, but the bulk of the text consists of contributions by the three editors. The general theme is laid out in the first two or three chapters.

The threat to Earth stems from the mass consumption that threatens not only resource depletion but also accumulated waste. Resources are finite, and space in which to put the waste, waste sinks in the language of the authors, are limited. The finite nature of earth space and the geometric explosion of goods and waste is the source of the problem. …

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