The Americanism that people will never voluntarily give up the consumption that is killing the planet represents the triumph of a long con. The problem that consumed (apologies) economists in the early twentieth century was how to get people to want the stuff that capitalism produces. Past the point of meeting basic needs, people really didn’t want consumer goods. Early on, capitalism was a method of economic production in search of a constituency.
In the present, this most likely reads as being wildly counterintuitive. China and other recent entrants into mass consumer culture prove the universal character of the desire to consume, goes the argument. But the Chinese development of a consumer culture has been driven by top-down economic policies, not ‘demand’ from below. As a strategy for maintaining political control, it is easier to satiate manufactured wants than to cede power to truly democratic inclinations.
In 1958 economist and advisor to presidents John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Societyas an explanation of post-War political economy in the U.S. Prominent in his theory of ‘dependence’ are corporations that use commercial propaganda (advertising) to create demand for the products they produce. Mr. Galbraith, a committed capitalist, understood that Western consumption is a function of what is produced, not ‘consumer demand.’