Doing One’s Part

Lecture VIII: Doing One’s Part, from Kenneth Sayre's PHIL 30390

Lecture VIII:  Doing One’s Part



  1. Boiled down to bare essentials, our environmental crisis consists of the fact that human enterprise is generating more entropy than the biosphere can dispose of.  This excessive burden of entropy is due primarily to excessive amounts of energy consumed in the production and distribution of economic goods.  Extravagant levels of production are spurred by extravagant consumption.  And extravagant levels of consumption are stimulated by aggressive marketing enabled by the prevalence of consumer values like gratification, convenience, and acquisition.  The interaction among these factors is illustrated graphically by the figure displayed during lecture 6.  Let us return briefly for another look at that figure.

    Figure 13.1 Generation of Wealth in a market economy

    Generation of wealth in a market economy

  2. To the left we see negentropy from the environment entering the productive process which then converts it into consumer goods.  A by-product of production is the entropy shown exiting at the upper right.  To the lower right we see money flowing from the process of consumption which is either invested in capital improvements, expended in marketing efforts, or extracted as profit.  Part of this profit goes to auxiliary enterprises involved in production and consumption.  But a sizeable share goes into dividends for stockholders and salaries for top managers of the corporations overseeing the productive process.  A primary task of the managers is to apportion money flows into capital and marketing in a way that maximizes profits available for salaries and dividends.
  3. As noted previously, a merit of this graphic portrayal is that it shows how desire for wealth is related to ecological degradation.  Corporate managers generally are rewarded for their success in gleaning profits that can be passed on to investors.  Seeking lucrative salaries and bonuses, top executives attempt to manipulate market contingencies to achieve maximum corporate profit.  One technique available for this purpose is marketing.  Successful marketing results in greater consumer demand, which in turn leads to increased production.  And increased production brings in greater amounts of negentropy, which result in greater amounts of entropy discharged back into the environment.  The more wealth extracted from the system through profits, accordingly, the more entropy our hapless biosphere has to cope with.
  4. Mindful of the urgent need to curtail this discharge of entropy, we can see various points in the system where intervention might be possible.  One possibility is to impose limits on the amount of profit that can be extracted from the system.  But this probably would require harsh political regimentation.  Another is to eliminate marketing from the system, which again would require totalitarian measures.  A more realistic alternative under present circumstances is to restrict the influence of marketing on consumer demand.  And this is where consumer values come back into the story.
  5. In the previous lecture, we discussed the manner in which successful marketing depends on the support of certain values that can be engaged in efforts to stimulate consumption.  To the extent that these consumer values can be rendered inoperative, the overall effectiveness of marketing will be correspondingly restricted.  As just noted, the long-range effect of such restriction would be a reduced burden of entropy imposed upon the biosphere by human activity.  This final lecture is concerned with ways of rendering consumer values like gratification and convenience inoperative.


Value replacement reconsidered

  1. Anticipating this concern, the previous lecture suggested that rendering a give value inoperative might be thought of as a two-step process.  In the case of gratification, for example, the first step would be to eliminate general social approval of pleasure-seeking activity.  The next step would be to establish a countervailing value by which behavior that impedes unrestrained pleasure-seeking would be encouraged.  Moderation was put forward as one value that would have that effect.  In like fashion, and for similar purposes, the consumer value of acquisition would be replaced by the environmentally-friendly value of contentment, and so on for the other consumer values in question.
  2. Practically speaking, however, the idea of replacing one single value with another seems a bit simplistic.  This is so for various reasons.  For one, social values tend not to stand in simple one-to-one opposition as these examples might suggest.  Thus moderation is opposed not only to gratification but to acquisition as well.  Similarly, contentment can counter both acquisition and gratification.  Other values standing in general opposition to the values of consumerism include temperance, restraint, and forbearance. 
  3. Another over-simplification of the previous examples is that the image of one value simply eliminating another is too stark.  What we should be thinking about instead of simple replacement is shifting degrees of influence among competing values.  Take the competition between gratification and moderation as an example.  Even when the value of gratification is operative, there probably will be some people (albeit a minority) who view moderation in a favorable light.  And even if gratification yielded its operative status to moderation, there still will be people who value pleasure-seeking behavior.  Instead of one value simply replacing another, accordingly, we should be thinking of one value losing influence and the other gaining it.  Value replacement, that is to say, is a matter of degree.
  4. Simplifications of both sorts would be avoided if we started thinking in terms of alternative priorities among social values rather than direct opposition.  Continuing our illustration, imagine a situation in which gratification has substantially higher priority than moderation and restraint, although these later two have lesser degrees of acceptance as well.  Imagine further that moderation in turn has a somewhat higher priority than restraint.  In this case, the society in question is characterized by a hierarchy of interrelated social values, with gratification on top  followed by moderation and then restraint.
  5. Let us further flesh out this set of priorities by specifying (arbitrarily) that 70% of the population value gratification, 15% moderation, and 5% restraint.  (10% in this case value none of the three).  In this situation the former is an operative social value.  While the latter two lack operative status, they nonetheless are valued to a lesser degree.
  6. One further refinement needs to be added to this way of thinking about value hierarchies.  Although it is conceivable that 70% of the individuals in a given population value gratification to the exclusion of the other two, while 15% value moderation exclusively, and so forth, a more likely scenario is that most individuals in the population value all three but in varying degrees.  In this case the value priorities we should be thinking about pertain not to greater and smaller subsets of the total population but rather to relative preferences of individual members.  Some members value gratification over both moderation and restraint, some value moderation over restraint but value both over gratification, and so forth.  According to this model, then, the value of gratification is operant when a dominant majority value gratification over all other competing values.  Let us think in terms of this model for the remainder of this discussion.


The role of individuals in value replacement

  1. This way of thinking makes the goal of achieving an environmentally-friendly set of social values more tractable.  As matters stand, consumer society is characterized by a preponderance of people who value gratification over either moderation or restraint, who value acquisition over competing values including contentment, and so forth.  The value changes we want to bring about are typified by a transition from the status quo to a situation in which moderation and restraint are valued over gratification, or to a situation in which contentment is valued over acquisition rather than vice versa.  Put generally, the value shift we want to see occur is a transition from the status quo to a situation in which environmentally-friendly values have priority over consumer values in the estimation of most individuals in the societies concerned.
  2. The manner in which this model makes our goal more tractable is that it provides a distinct role for individuals like you and me.  By way of analogy, consider the role played by individual citizens in a national election.  No one individual can elect a new president.  But each of us can affect the tally by which the winner is determined.  Likewise, while no individual can establish a set of environmentally-friendly values, each of us can add to the plurality by which such values would be rendered operative.  With each person who shifts priorities toward a set of environmentally-responsible values, society is nudged a bit closer to a situation in which values dominate.
  3. Each of us can participate in the referendum by which our social values are determined.  Let us look now at various forms in which our votes might be cast.


Things to stop doing as individuals

  1. In the domain of social interaction, a person’s values are made evident both in what that person does and in what he or she refrains from doing.  One way of voting in the value referendum is to stop doing things that are injurious to the environment.  Another is to start doing environmentally beneficial things we previously have not been doing.  We begin with a few examples of the former.
  2. One thing an environmentally responsible person will avoid doing is purchasing items that aren’t really needed.  This applies to gifts purchased for others as well as to things bought for oneself.  In the latter case, the upshot is to avoid the temptations for recreational shopping.  This amounts to refraining from purchases made to “keep up with the Jonses,” or made to stay current with the latest fads.  Although society at large encourages buying things just to show that one can do it – the effect of the value attached to acquisition – one can cast a vote for the opposing value of contentment by opting out of that game.
  3. In the case of things bought for others, it should be stressed that the point is not that we stop showing love and consideration for other people by giving them gifts.  The point is that we do this in ways other than buying them plastic flowers and other gewgaws that waste useful storage space before being discretely carried out with the trash.  Most items found in the world’s many million gift shops fall into this category.  The environment would be better off if things of this sort were never made in the first place.  Far better to give gifts that serve genuine needs before being carted to the landfill. 
  4. Another thing to avoid is making oneself available to mass-media marketing.  To watch commercial TV, for example, ipso facto is to get hooked into the conditioning devices marketers use to sell their sponsors’ products.  The same may be said of Internet sites designed to serve commercial interests.  One effective way to undercut consumerism is to unplug oneself from the control mechanisms that marketers use to manipulate potential customers.
  5. Avoiding commercial manipulation of this sort does not entail throwing away your TV set or Internet connection.  Nor does it require foregoing media events that are educational, informative, or otherwise beneficial.  What it does entail is activating the screen only on carefully chosen occasions when you have more to gain than the corporate sponsor.
  6. Compared with TV and the Internet, avoiding solicitation by newspaper ads is relatively straightforward.  Ads for local businesses often come in colored sections that can be committed unopened to the recycling bin.  The same tactic is effective for unwanted mailings.  Who knows how many trees would be saved if people simply declined to let printed advertisements into their homes.
  7. Yet another example of things to be avoided is food produced by methods that are ecologically damaging.  Large portions of the food we eat today – fruit, vegetables, and meat – are industrially produced on factory farms.  Factory farming, or agribusiness, uses mass-production methods that rely heavily on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, most of which have environmentally-damaging side-effects.  Use of these methods enables factory farms to produce food at lower costs than are required by smaller farming operations, while maintaining high corporate profits.  In effect, factory farms are appropriating environmental resources they do not own to subsidize the cost of products they put on the market, and in the process putting smaller farms (often family owned) out of business. 
  8. A further problem with mass-production farming is that the large quantities of food it produces far exceed what can be sold on local markets.  This means that agri-business and long-distnce food transport go hand in hand.  It has been estimated that the average food item set before the typical U.S. consumer travels 1,300 miles before it reaches the table.  At an estimated 10 food items per day, this adds up to about 5 million miles per person per year, with all the toxic fumes, greenhouse gases, and other environmental degradation such mileage entails.  Thus the ecological costs of food that travels long distances to the consumer must be added to the other deleterious effects of factory-farming on the environment.
  9. Grocery shoppers can counter these detrimental aspects of agribusiness by refusing to buy factory-farm products.  A problem with this direct tactic, however, is that for most foods the methods used in their production are not indicated on the label.  This is the case with processed foods particularly, which more often than not contain factory-farm ingredients.
  10.  One way around this problem is to limit one’s food purchases, whenever possible, to organically grown products.  Although use of the organic label can be deceptive, as a rule organic faming avoids artificial pesticides and fertilizers, hormone additives, and genetic engineering.  A drawback of this tactic, unfortunately, is that organic food tends to be expensive and hence beyond the means of many people.  To the extent that your means allow, however, buying organic has the salutary effect both of avoiding complicity in the environmental outrages committed by agribusiness and of declining to contribute to its corporate profits.


Things to begin doing

  1. Buying organic is one way of avoiding factory-farm products.  In terms of our vote-casting metaphor, a vote in favor of organic food is a vote against agribusiness.  Let us continue our discussion of how an individual might respond to the environmental crisis by shifting emphasis from things to vote against to things worth voting for.  That is, let us shift focus to things we should begin doing, or at least try to do in a more environmentally sensitive manner.
  2. When travel is necessary, we should make an effort to go by public transportation rather than private automobile.  Public transportation in this context does not include airplanes.  As a ball-park estimate, trains and buses use 3 to 5 times less energy per passenger-mile than do airplanes and private conveyances.  Although private transportation is often more convenient, one can cast a vote for patience by choosing public transportation whenever feasible.
  3. When circumstances permit, however, the best alternative is to move oneself about by either walking or bicycling.  Over short distances, riding a bicycle can be quicker than driving.  And maintaining a bicycle to meet one’s transportation needs is far, far cheaper than owning an automobile.  Apart from obvious health benefits, the big advantage of bicycling is that it involves no direct expenditure of fossil fuel.  According to one estimate, bicycle travel in the U.S. alone currently saves about 700 million gallons of gas annually.
  4. Another move in the positive direction is to develop habits of recreation that do not involve motors.  Paramount among environmental nemeses are snowmobiles and other so-called “off-road vehicles.”  Snowmobiles in particular are noisy, emit noxious fumes, kill vegetation, and disturb wildlife, in addition to being very dangerous.  Individuals who like to use skis for winter sport should be encouraged to rely on non-motorized versions instead.
  5. In the same spirit one should favor use of sailboats over motorboats and use of sailplanes or hang gliders over motorized aircraft.  An additional merit of genuine skis, sailboats, and hang gliders is that they enhance one’s sense of dependency upon cooperation with nature.  Other recreational activities that do the same are trail hiking, canoeing, and even birdwatching.  A beneficial effect of activities like these is that they enable us to shift attention from ourselves to the world around us.  By so doing, they help us break the hold of consumer values like comfort, convenience, and gratification, all of which gain force when people are preoccupied with their own personal feelings.
  6. Yet another positive move worth considering is to frequent living spaces designed to conserve energy.  Many ways of energy conservation in housing are available today, and some are more expensive than others.  From an environmental perspective, however, the main motivation is not saving costs but reducing the amount of entropy produced in meeting one’s housing needs.
  7. Particularly effective in this regard are three separate methods of solar heating: passive, active, and photovoltaic.  The basic difference between passive and active is that the latter requires outside energy to move heat from the collectors into the living space, and hence tends to be less energy efficient. Advantages of the photovoltaic method are that the solar panels can be located away from the space to be heated and that their electricity can be used for purposes other than heating.  A disadvantage is that photovoltaic arrays are expensive, although less so than when they first became available. 
  8. With proper design, passive solar installations can also be used for cooling during summer evenings, as they radiate heat absorbed from living areas back into space.  Other natural cooling techniques based on evaporation are useful in dry climates.  Generally the most effective alternative to mechanical air-conditioning, however, is carefully planned use of shade and ventilation.  Building designs are available for most temperate climates that take advantage of air currents and ambient temperature differences to make living spaces habitable without mechanical assistance.  However managed in particular cases, making do whenever possible with natural cooling and heating is a vote for an environmentally responsible set of values.


Cooperative action

  1. While positive steps can be taken by individuals, the results are amplified when like-minded individuals act collectively.  Three kinds of cooperative action to be briefly noted are:
    1. boycotting businesses that exploit the environment,
    2. supporting environmentally friendly businesses, and
    3. sharing information on matters of environmental importance. 
  2. Economic boycotts in recent memory include Martin Luther King’s call (in 1955) to Americans of all races to stay off buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and Ceasar Chavez’s boycotts on the 1960s of grapes and lettuce produced by large growers in Southern California.  Another example is the effective boycott of General Electric products in the 1980s that forced this company to withdraw in large part from the nuclear weapons industry.  The time now is ripe for organizing boycotts against corporations and industries causing massive damage to the biosphere.
  3. A pace-setter in this regard is a boycott against Esso in Great Britain, launched by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which (temporarily) reduced Esso sales in that country by almost 25%.  Boycotts have also been staged recently against Coca-Cola for causing critical water shortages in India, and against Monsanto for the environmental effects of its herbicides and genetically engineered crops.  While boycotts like these for the most part have been geographically localized, the Internet now enables joint action against offending corporations on a multinational basis.  Here is one way world citizens can join hands to rein in the insatiable desire for wealth that is plundering our biosphere.
  4. Another useful strategy would be to organize groups of potential buyers capable of influencing the kinds of goods that are put on the market.  The effect would be opposite to that of a boycott.  Instead of withholding business from environmental transgressors, groups of this sort would bring additional business to companies that offer environmentally friendly products.  A common feature of such organizations is that they tend to supply products that people really need rather than products designed to turn a quick profit.
  5. Among commodities people really need today are household items made to last (usually not from plastic), appliances that are easy to repair, and word-processors that remain usable for decades like old-fashioned typewriters.  The reason merchandize like this is not readily available now is that manufacturers make higher profits on items that require frequent replacement.  To some extent, at least, lower profits from goods that are genuinely durable could be offset by large-volume sales made to self-selecting groups of consumers without having to rely on expensive advertising.
  6. There are many ways in which the Internet could be engaged in support of environmental sanity.  Beyond organizing boycotts and consumer support-groups, it has great potential as a clearing house for information of environmental relevance.  Various web sites focusing on specific environmental issues are already in operation.  Particularly useful would be a “universal” site (along the lines of Wikipedia) that people would turn to on a routine basis for relevant information.
  7. For example, one subdivision of this master web site might be devoted to information about political events, such as international conferences on global warming or on ozone depletion.  Another might provide updates on geophysical developments, like retreating glaciers, spreading deserts, and burning rainforests.  It would also be useful to have a section dealing with statistics and current trends.  Relevant here would be data on energy-consumption patterns, resource availability, and distribution of income among nations and social classes.  Other kinds of relevant data are easy to identify.
  8. Apart from the logistic challenges of a web facility like this, it would require financial backing to keep it in operation.  Given the need for objectivity, it could not accept commercial advertising.  One possible source of funding would be non-profit organizations with environmental interest.  Another would be subscription fees or donations from individual users.
  9. We have taken time to look at only a few ways in which like-minded individuals can join forces in opposing the dominant values of present-day consumer society.  Involved people will find many other ways corresponding to their individual circumstances.  Whatever the details, no one concerned with the seriousness of our current crisis will lack opportunity to “vote” for the establishment of an environmentally sound set of social values.


Economics geared to need rather than profit

  1. It should be starkly obvious by now that our environmental predicament can be alleviated only if we somehow learn to conduct our economic affairs in ways substantially different from the present.  We need somehow to break free from economic practices based on greed and consumption.  In the previous lecture, the changes needed were discussed in terms of alternative social values.
  2. But the needed changes can be discussed in other terms as well.  If the value changes we have been considering were actually to come about, our economic dealings with each other would follow quite different patterns.  Instead of being bound by an economic system geared to consumption and profit, we would do our buying and selling in an economy focused on genuine human needs.
  3. While there are obvious difficulties in drawing a sharp line between “real needs” and “mere wants,” it is enough for present purposes to distinguish three broad classes of goods an economic system might provide.  One includes the utensils, tools, and equipment needed for bare survival.  Included as well are clothing, basic food-stuffs, and simple conveyances like boats and wagons.  Second comes commodities needed to flourish in a given society.  Included here are comfortable quarters, nourishing food, adequate health care, and various amenities like education and social services that help make life worth living.  The third class is reserved for items produced to meet consumer demand that could go unsatisfied without significant decrease in quality of life.  Iconic examples from our own culture include designer clothes, carbonated beverages, greeting cards, and a seemingly unlimited variety of different automobile styles.
  4. With this provisional set of distinctions at hand, we may touch upon a few essential differences between economies geared to corporate profit and those geared to genuine human needs.  One obvious difference is that in an economy geared to genuine needs, products will be designed expressly to meet those needs.  This means that the economy will give priority to products of the first two sorts just mentioned.  In an economy geared to profit, on the other hand, emphasis will be given to products of the third sort which are designed primarily for their profitability.  In this case, products will be designed to serve the interests of the corporate producer while genuine needs of the consumer may go unsatisfied.
  5. This ties in with a basic differences in types of marketing employed.  In an economy focused on genuine needs, advertising will serve primarily to direct attention to products by which those needs can be met.  When an economy is focused on profit, however, advertising tends in the direction of preference management.  A familiar tactic here is the creation of new “needs” that will make a given product profitable.  Differences of this sort in marketing strategies were discussed in lecture 6.  What we may now note in addition is that marketing directed to genuine needs serves both consumer and producer, while marketing aimed at preference management benefits the producer more or less exclusively.
  6. A correlative difference is that products designed for profit often are fabricated without regard for the consumer’s well-being, which means that they do not meet genuine needs.  For example, many such products contain ingredients harmful to consumer health.  Thus products featured by fast-food outlets are among the major causes of obesity in current society.  While the producer chalks up substantial profits, the costs are borne primarily by the unfortunate consumer.
  7. Speaking of costs and benefits, we note also that economies geared to profit are organized for the gain of relatively small numbers of people.  Although wage-earners must be allowed sufficient income to function in their role of consumers, the economy overall caters to the advantages of investors and managers.  In effect, the economy is structured to channel most of the profit it generates into the pockets of those who supervise its operation.  In 1995, for instance, CEOs had incomes averaging 150 times more than their employees.  By 2000, their earnings were 500 times larger.  Thus the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
  8. So it goes with economies geared to profit.  What we need to bear firmly in mind, moreover, is that the profits gleaned by a few wealthy people are generated at the expense of our supporting environment.  A further difference between the two types of economy, accordingly, is that those geared to profit cause far more damage to the biosphere at large.  However accomplished, we need desperately to make an effective transition from our wealth-producing system to an economy geared primarily to meet genuine human needs.


A change for the better despite economic dislocation

  1. Let me end with a few cautionary remarks on the severity of the transition required.  A change in social values of the sort contemplated will entail fundamental alterations in the societies involved.  It will also entail traumatic changes in the lives of individual people.  To make contemplation of such changes more palatable, we should realize that such changes in the long run will be distinctly for the better.  Individual lives, that is to say, will be far more satisfactory in a society attuned to environmental health than in today’s society dominated by profiteering and wealth.
  2. To help make this apparent, compare what we will call the “contentment ratio” of alternative future societies.  A society’s contentment ratio is the proportion of its people who are content with their lives to those who are chronically discontent.  The two future societies we will compare in this regard are Society P, which perpetuates the values of current society, and Society S in which these values have been superceded by values congenial to a healthy environment.
  3. We will assume (optimally) that the value changes in question take place within the next five decades.  If no significant change takes place by then, Society P will be in dire straits indeed.  There will be widespread hunger due to drought, massive dislocation of populations due to climate change, and few natural resources bv which human suffering can be alleviated.  While a few pockets of wealth might remain, the vast majority of human beings will be living in poverty and destitution.
  4. In the worst-case scenario, the biosphere will be degraded to a point where it can no longer support human society as we currently know it.  In that case, the privileges of wealth will no longer be available and what is left of society will be in a state of desperation.  Worst scenario or not, the contentment ratio of society P fifty years from now will be much lower than what would be found if the measure were applied today.
  5. Alternative S is the social order that would exist five decades from now if our current social values were replaced by environmentally friendly values like those we have been discussing.  During the interim while these values were taking effect, the relationship between the biosphere and its human inhabitants would be gradually improving.  (If not, we have not located the right replacement values.)  At the 50-year mark, climate change would be abating, food supplies would be stabilizing, and gross disparities in wealth would be mostly eliminated.  On balance, most inhabitants of Society S would be better off than most people today, and their contentment ratio would be significantly higher.
  6. However this plays out in detail, the contentment ratio of Society S would be higher than today and that of Society P would be substantially lower.  This shows that a shift from present-day social values to a set of values conducive to environmental health almost certainly would be a change for the better.  Whatever vicissitudes you and I undergo in the process, we have no better choice than to commit ourselves to doing the best we can to help bring this change in values about.  The present lecture should be viewed retrospectively as an effort to identify specific contributions we as individuals might make toward this goal. 
Citation: Sayre, K. (2008, May 04). Doing One’s Part. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site:
2007, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License