Richard Denniss: 'Every time we waste money, we count it as wealth'

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 15 November 2017

Landfills are filling up with discarded and broken stuff, houses and garages are groaning and edible food is routinely thrown away... Many of us can't seem to stop spending money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, to impress people we don't know.

To stem this tide of waste we need to become more – not less –​ materialistic, economist and author Richard Denniss says.

23062016 Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King. Busy streets in Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

In his new book Curing Affluenza, Denniss argues that materialism and consumerism are, in fact, quite different things. It is the follow up to his influential 2007 book Affluenza.

True materialism is taking pleasure in the things we own already and only buying things we truly value.

We should treasure, repair and find a new home for our belongings when we have no more need for them, he says.

Consumerism, by contrast, gives a hit much like a drug, he says.

“It’s the thrill people get from buying new stuff, whether it’s to impress themselves or impress other people or just to pass some time."

Like a drug high, it’s a temporary thing for the consumer, but not so for the environment.

“The problem is the incredible amount of natural resources that go into the exercise bike you never ride, the foot spa you never use.

“That temporary thrill has a permanent and adverse impact on our natural environment, but also it’s an incredible waste of economic resources to literally waste stuff we never use.”

This endless ‘buy it, bin it’ cycle doesn’t make for wealthy societies, he says.

“Countries can’t get rich importing stuff and burying it in the ground. It doesn’t make us happy and it certainly doesn’t make our economies strong.”

So if there is no real benefit why do we do keep doing it?

Culture, Denniss says.

“The largest irrigated crop in the US is lawn. More land is dedicated to the growing of grass in America than any other crop. It’s not getting grown because lawn seed is cheap, or lawn movers are cheap, it’s getting grown because people grew up having a lawn, the neighbours have a lawn ... But a lawn is a new idea, it’s about 60 or 70 years old and really only found in English-speaking countries.”

Culture shapes our behaviour and economists are often slow to recognise that fact, he says.

Case in point – bottled water.

“In the 7,000 years of recorded history there’s really no record of people dying of thirst because of some lack of bottled water ... Bottled water is a purely consumerist product, its alternative is available to us free of charge.”

This makes no sense from a rational economics perspective, he says. 

“We’ve created a culture where we spend ten dollars a litre on water, which is available for free if we plan ahead, and then complain about the price of petrol.”

Flow-on effects include the disappearance of public water fountains as shopping centres refuse to install them in order to encourage sales of the bottled product.

This behaviour has classical economists scratching their heads. 

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The idea that most of us make rational choices is a “weird and dangerous” assumption, he says.

“Why one brand of water would be more expensive than another does economists head in! The idea you throw away a bottle of water that lasts for 100 years after one use and then go buy another one tomorrow because we can't remember to carry a bottle of water with us, that’s cultural as well as sort of learned helplessness.

“Economists assume every time we spend a dollar it’s a dollar well-spent and it’s made not just you, but the community, a happier place. And that assumption means every time we waste money, we count it as wealth, not as waste.”

On a macro level, the idea that if we all keep spending it’s for the common good is a fallacy, he says.

“When we stop spending money on stuff and start spending it on something else we don’t shrink the economy, we reshape it.”

Politicians and business people using narrow measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has reduced public debate to a trite level, Denniss says.

“Countries were around doing their thing for a long, long time before GDP was invented and the economists that invented it implored politicians and others to not use it as an indicator of wellbeing.”

The economists who devised GDP made it clear it was only one of a range of measures that could be used, yet it has become shorthand for progress, Denniss says.

Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss.

Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss. Photo: Composite

“They said 'Please don’t use this as some measure of national progress, don’t confuse making more stuff with your country going in the right direction'.

“But of course we ignored the economists that invented it and non-economists, politicians and business people, for the last decades have told the public with incredible confidence that the one thing we have to do is increase GDP.”

This is nonsensical, he says, as it’s possible to increase economic activity in ways that does nothing to benefit society.

The proposed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland is being subsidised on the basis that it will increase GDP, Denniss says.

“[The Australian] government is determined to subside the construction of the world’s biggest coal mine and its argument is that it will increase GDP. And it will, but its owners have bragged the mine will be automated from pit to port.

“What would be the point in my country of digging a huge hole in the ground, subsidising the big hole, exporting a lot of coal, the coal will be owned by a foreign company, sales of that coal will count on GDP – but it’s not going to make any Australians rich.”

This one-track view of the economy has warped public discourse, he says.

“Democracy was invented well before GDP. It was impossible in 1935 to say 'Vote for me and I’ll increase GDP'.

“By just saying we want to grow the economy and everything will be all right, we’ve gutted our democratic debate.”

It’s the shape of our economy, not it’s size that should inform debate, he says.

And every individual can change the shape of an economy – despite being told external forces beyond our control are what matters.

“We’ve created this narrative of these existential forces: the global economy, the global markets when of course the minute individuals decide digital cameras are more fun and convenient than film cameras, the shape of the economy changes instantly.”

Kodak was predicting booming sales for film soon before the company collapsed and it’s time politicians realised just how quickly things can change, he says.

“What do we want to do more of? What stuff do you want to do less of? There’s no point talking about the size of a pie when no-one wants to eat that kind of pie.”

 A culture change towards buying what we value is the answer, he says.

“If we stopped spending thousands of dollars in the lead-up to Christmas on things we knew people wouldn’t use, if we didn’t do that but spent the money on other things – learnt to dance, get a maths tutor for our kids or we got a massage maybe?

“Consumerism, the love of the new, is the exact opposite of materialism, the love of the object. When you go and buy stuff, buy stuff you love.”

Richard Denniss is the chief economist of the Australia Institute. He writes for The Monthly, The Canberra Times and the Australian Financial Review.