John Kenneth Galbraith, who died recently, was an economist of capacious interests and controversial views. His many works of scholarship were widely read, acclaimed by some and dismissed by others. I am not an economist, and thus not in a position to judge the merits of Galbraith’s writings on the modern corporation or the free market. What I wish to do instead is to focus on Galbraith’s forgotten contribution to the environmental debate.
This took the shape of a single essay, published in 1958, the same year that appeared the economist’s The Affluent Society, a book that wryly anatomized the social consequences of the mass consumption age. In his book, Galbraith highlighted the ‘preoccupation with productivity and production’ in postwar America and Western Europe. The population in these societies had for the most part been adequately housed, clothed, and fed; now they expressed a desire for ‘more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment’.
The essay I speak of was written months after the book which made Galbraith’s name and reputation. ‘How Much Should a Country Consume?’ is its provocative title, and it can be read as a reflective footnote to The Affluent Society. In the book itself, Galbraith had noted the disjunction between ‘private affluence and public squalor’, of how the single-minded pursuit of wealth had diverted attention and resources from the nurturing of true democracy, which he defined as the provision of public infrastructure, the creation of decent schools, parks, and hospitals. Now the economist turned his attention to the long-term consequences of this collective promotion of consumption, of the ‘gargantuan and growing appetite’ for resources in contemporary America. The American conservation movement, he remarked, had certainly noted the massive exploitation of resources and materials in the postwar period. However, its response was to look for more efficient methods of extraction, or the substitution of one material for another through technological innovation.
There was, wrote Galbraith, a noticeable ‘selectivity in the conservationist’s approach to materials consumption.’ For ‘if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!’
Galbraith identified two major reasons for the silence with regard to consumption. One was ideological, the worship of the Great God Growth. The principle of growth was a cardinal belief of the American people; this necessarily implied a continuous increase in the production of consumer goods. The second reason was political, the widespread scepticism of the state. For the America of the 1950s had witnessed the ‘resurgence of a notably over-simplified view of economic life which [ascribed] a magical automatism to the price system…’. Now Galbraith was himself an unreconstructed New Dealer, who would tackle the problem of over-consumption as he would tacke the problem of under-employment, that is, through purposive state intervention. At the time he wrote, however, free-market economics ruled, and ‘since consumption could not be discussed without raising the question of an increased role for the state, it was not discussed’.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the appetites of consumers in the Western world (and of the United States in particular) placed a serious stress on the global environment. The pillage of forests, the strip-mining of land, the pollution of water and air, and the disturbances in world climate—these all were the consequence of the environmentally insensitive growth policies followed by the developed world.
In the present century, the threats to the global environment will be posed mainly by the developing world, in particular by the economic aspirations of those emerging giants, India and China. It is thus that the question posed by Galbraith, ‘How Much Should a Country Consume?’, may yet turn out to be the fundamental question of the 21st century. For the jury is out on whether the earth can sustain the globalization of the American way of life. There are real concerns that the competitive greed of the industrialized nations (India and China included) shall lead to ecological devastation and to costly wars between nations, these fought for control over natural resources.
Galbaraith’s essay of 1958 is so obscure that it might even have been forgotten by its prolific author. And it appears to have escaped the attention of his hardworking biographer, Richard Parker, whose massive 700 page tome, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, shows no awareness of this particular work of his subject. Yet it was strikingly prescient, as this final quote from the essay reveals: ‘It remains a canon of modern diplomacy that any preoccupation with oil should be concealed by calling on our still ample reserves of sanctimony’.
Published in The Hindu, 4/6/2006