Confronting Consumption

Edited by Thomas Pricen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca
Copyright 2002
The MIT Press
$26.95, 392 pages

Reviewed by Richard Walthers


This book addresses the dark nemesis of the environmental movement whose name has been unspeakable until now. Confronting Consumption edited by Thomas Pricen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca tackles the issue of consumption head on with eye opening results.

Throughout their work leading up to this book the authors were struck by the consistent resistance encountered in trying to bring consumption-related concerns to the environmental debate. Consumption is such a deeply ingrained belief in all of our social and political institutions that it has been sacrosanct and beyond scrutiny. Western society’s answer to any problem is more production. As the authors state, "Goods are good and more goods are better." As they demonstrate in a series of essays satisfaction and sustainability cannot be achieved by buying more products even if they are proper "green" products.

The "sustainable development lens" through which the environmental debate has been framed, filters any political or sociological analysis of consumption. Michael Maniates go so far as to label it "the metaphorical AIDS of the environmental movement" because it has so seriously compromised the movement’s ability to recognize and respond to the essential threat that consumption represents to the environment. The topic of consumption has always been avoided because of its implications to the idea of consumer sovereignty, and to the idea of the economy, which at its foundation is wholly based on consumption.

The authors are to be commended for breaking the code of silence surrounding consumption and engaging the debate. This could be the opening salvo in what promises to be a very animated confrontation. Everyone with concern for the environment from government, NGO’s, academia, corporations, and the design professions should read this book because this issue has grave importance for us all and it influences everything we do in our jobs and how we live our lives. In the end however, they state that individual action won’t make the difference only political action on a wide scale will do when confronting consumption.