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More On Limits

How much stuff do you need? That is the fundamental question at the heart of the current global economic meltdown that is crushing economies around the world. The chemistry enterprise is by no means immune to this economic chaos, as the pages of C&EN attest week in and week out.

I am not a shopper. I honestly cannot tell you the last time I was in a mall. Except for the few suits I own, almost all of my clothes are mail order. The only stores I actually enjoy going to regularly are grocery stores, because I like to cook and I like to eat good food.

My wife, Jan, is not much of a shopper either, but she does, on occasion, venture out to the mall for this or that. Invariably, when she returns home, she will comment on the vast quantity of goods arrayed in the aisles of the department stores and chain stores and wonder aloud where it all winds up because, surely, it cannot all get bought.

It definitely is not being bought today. Neither are cars or appliances or tools or furniture or home improvement items or McMansions. Demand for stuff has collapsed worldwide.

A front-page story in the Washington Post

on Feb. 16 was entitled “Economy Strains Under Weight of Unsold Items.” It led, “The unsold cars and trucks piling up at dealerships and assembly lines as consumers cut back and auto companies scramble for federal aid are just one sign of a major problem hurting the economy and only likely to get worse. The world is suddenly awash in almost everything: flat-panel televisions, bulldozers, Barbie dolls, strip malls, Burberry stores. Japan yesterday said its economy shrank at an 12.7 percent annual pace in the last three months of 2008 as global demand evaporated for Japanese cars and electronics.”

In a front-page story in the Post

on Feb. 18 entitled “Swift, Steep Downturn Crosses Globe,” a London-based economist is quoted: “Manufacturing, construction, financial services, non-financial, retail—wherever you look, you see a complete collapse in demand.”

The past three decades have seen an orgy of consumption in the developed world and an understandable desire in the developing world to emulate us. Last year, the collapse of the subprime mortgage market was no more than a distant rumble of thunder for most of us in the U.S. and hardly even that for consumers in the rest of the world. As that calamity cascaded through the financial markets, however, an economic storm of unimagined scale broke over consumers the world over. And everyone, late last year, seemed to have woken up from a dream and asked themselves, “Do I really need any more stuff?” For many, the answer was simply, “No.” And here we are.

The defining theme of the 20th century was not the triumph of democracy over other competing political systems, as some commentators claim. It was the triumph of capitalism over competing economic systems. As China and Russia have amply demonstrated, capitalism is as compatible with authoritarian political systems as it is with democratic ones.

The question before us now, I think, is whether capitalism itself is a viable organizing principle for society in the 21st century and beyond. I am not an economist, but capitalism seems to require endless growth—in demand, in consumption, in population—and despite the claims of capitalism’s defenders, endless growth is, by definition, a physical impossibility. Planet Earth is groaning under the weight of the humans already here.

An ACS colleague said to me yesterday, “Recessions always end,” and he’s right, of course. Although we certainly have not reached, or perhaps even glimpsed, the bottom of this recession, it will end. I hope we emerge from it, as my parents emerged from the Great Depression, chastened and willing to embrace something new, not a lesser quality of life but a new definition of what constitutes quality—a definition that somehow provides for human needs within the limits of a healthy and vibrant planet Earth.

Thanks for reading.


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  • Feb 24th 200913:02
    by Robert Bird

    I guess I always wonder who gets to decide what the limits to acquisition are. People don’t, after all, value the same things in the same ways. The things they want, both in physical things and in nonphysical things, are different – even when we nominally have the same beliefs and desires, we don’t either go about getting them in same way or don’t quite have the same ones (lots of Christian sects in the US, for example).

    One advantage to capitalism is that it allows people to choose what they want, as long as they can pay for it. We try and correct for the fact that some things we believe are important can’t be afforded by all by themselves, but for most of what we want, we have to have the resources to get it. Part of what the changes in the last half of the 20th century have been (particularly with the environment) is to factor the costs imposed on others by the things we want – forcing people to pay for with all of the consequences of the things that they want, not just the ones that directly cost their producers money. It seems better to try to reflect the actual costs of the things we want in their prices and to let people decide whether they actually want it any more than to decide what others should want. If we need to prevent global warming (or minimize it and its effects), then we need to do so, pay for those who can’t, and split the costs according to what we’ve done to get us here – to factor our carbon emissions (and account for previous ones, probably) into the costs of the things we want, just as we do with the environment, unemployment taxes, property taxes, etc. We provide for others as best we can, but have to remain aware that everything we do costs.

    We don’t all want the same things, and we usually want more than we have – but the lesson of capitalism is that we can only have what we can afford. It seems a more applicable lesson than to assume that we should all want something else, because it seems there aren’t too many things we can actually agree on that we all want, and fewer desires that don’t come at others’ expense. We can provide in unison for what we believe is important for all, but also allow people as much liberty as possible to do what they wish without hurting others.

    I don’t know that any of people’s wants, both for physical and nonphysical things, have a limit.

  • Mar 3rd 200923:03
    by Neil Gussman

    Five weeks ago, I dropped out of our collapsing economy for a year to enter a large Socialist community together to defend Democracy. In this kind-of monastic community with no sex, no drugs and the worst of current Rock and Roll we live without all kinds of things that I took for granted until January. Believe it or not, there is no Barista in an Army Chow Hall. The lettuce is all iceberg. The vegetarian meal is macaroni and cheese with mixed (canned) vegetables. We stand in lines for medical care–even for the shots we don’t want.
    Yet after five weeks it is quietly liberating to know I have so few choices. I know what I am wearing every day. I have three great roommates–a treat in itself, because last year I had a couple of three-week training sessions with 39 roommates. If you never had the experience, 40 men are never quiet. We get along. We clean the common areas. We get each other through the training. The strong pull the weak along. The fast help the slow. We are done when all of us are done.
    The stunning array of choices capitalist life showers on us afflicts us with its own paralysis.
    In less than two months we will go to Iraq and have even fewer choices. Maybe I will feel differently then, but so far, I am doing just fine without the mall and Starbucks.

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