32 Mutual respect: the way out of the consumption conundrum ?

Posted on November 26, 2011 by


Pamela MAR has posted this comment on her Fung Global Institute blog[1]:

“Our collective challenge is to look beyond the current economic model, to an economy in which people count for more than what they consume, and in which they consume according to need instead of according to an artificially constructed desire.

This is where Asia becomes important. Companies seeking refuge from stagnant demand in the US and Europe are looking eagerly to Asia to consume more, and Asian economies are also seeking to ignite domestic demand as a way out of the export growth model. If this happens without taking into account environmental sustainability, it could doom our planet.”

Ms. MAR is certainly correct in highlighting the problem of sustainability inherent in the current growth model. Jared DIAMOND has worked out, on the back of an envelope[2], that granting every person on earth a life style comparable with that of the US would correspond to increasing world population from 7 to 72 billion – with current consumption patterns.

Yes, world population is gingerly edging toward equilibrium: it may level out at somewhere between 7 and 9 billion. Women, by becoming educated and choosing quality over quality of offspring[3], have brought this about (some governments have meddled in this matter, and so have religious institutions). Has technology allowed us to escape the Malthusian trap? No, it only has granted us a short reprieve, in which to tackle the unsustainable consumption levels, which come with education.

The task is daunting: how to rein in such “educated” consumption? Economists have indications that such consumption above basics does not truly satisfy “needs”. We perceive well-being today not as absolute levels of material satisfaction, but rather relative levels. We are confronted with mutual ratcheting up of expectations: if my neighbor has a car, I’ll need a bigger car, or at least a home theatre. No equilibrium level is possible when my neighbor is my standard of satisfaction.

Despair? Wait a minute. We may have a useful approach under our very nose – so obvious, we don’t even notice it. One of the (few) glories of the XXIst century is the greatest assemblage of knowledge ever attempted – Wikipedia (and its clones in other languages as well as regional or thematic declinations thereof).

Currently, the English Wikipedia alone has over 3,804,619 articles of any length, and the combined Wikipedias for all other languages greatly exceeds the English Wikipedia in size, giving a combined total of more than 8 billion words in 19 million articles in approximately 270 languages.[2] The English Wikipedia alone has over 2 billion words,[3] over 50 times as many as the next largest English-language encyclopedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, and more than the enormous 119-volume Spanish-language Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana.

In 2005 the English-language Wikipedia more than doubled in size, and many smaller wikipedias have grown by a higher multiple.

Only in June 2011, there have been more than 11 million edits in all Wikipedias and 3.6 million in the English version.[2][3][4]

Wikipedia has emerged from a few process rules[5], and the voluntary effort of unpaid contributors. This is enshrined in the fourth rule:

Respect and be polite to your fellow Wikipedians, even when you disagree. Apply Wikipedia etiquette, and avoid personal attacks. Find consensus, avoid edit wars, and remember that there are 3,806,369 articles on the English Wikipedia to work on and discuss. Act in good faith, and never disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point. Be open and welcoming, and assume good faith on the part of others. When conflict arises, discuss details on the talk page, and follow dispute resolution.

Respect among Wikipedians is the “currency” of Wikipedia – and so far the voluntary system seems to work.

Let’s reflect for a minute: the most gigantic effort of gathering knowledge has emerged without prodding, and without reward, just on the basis of mutual respect.

Wikipedia grew from contributions of participants that reflected their abilities: some provided substance; others polished style, corrected grammar, and did the necessary and often tiresome work of improving quality. Readers are now asked to provide feedback, and suggestions. Asymptotically Wikipedia will become the best and timeliest general-level assembly of knowledge humanity is likely to achieve[6].

The participants’ material needs are being met elsewhere and otherwise. We have a gaping chasm between their contribution and material reward. This gap is filled by mutual respect.

Spontaneity and lack of link between contribution and material reward are mediated by respect. Is there a lesson here we should ponder?

Two world-views square off against each other here. One is built on the “top-down” approach. Command and control is linked to material reward: it’s the age-old “carrot and stick”. The élite sets the goals, and manipulates the levers of power, the rest follows. This model has worked wonders in the past. Sustainability of this model is predicated on two conditions: (a) the goal must be “right” (or the élite will lose Heaven’s mandate) and (b) the stick be wrapped in ideological silk, resp. the material rewards be plentiful. Ideology and reverence replace respect in this model.

The other is the “collaborative” approach, which is built on emergent social cooperation, spontaneity, and mutual respect – what we have seen in the instance of Wikipedia. Adaptation by trial and error replaces goal-setting, and respect replaces constraint. This model has also met with success in the past, but has mostly succumbed to predatory, and then tributary, behaviour initiated by an élite. We are beginning to recover success stories from the dust heap of history[7].

Each generation is confronted with the existential choice: “top-down” or “emergent” systems? The first runs on spoils, the other on respect. Pragmatically I’d argue that a “spoils system” is no longer sustainable.

So we are left with the task of building more and more on mutual respect – and to adapt accordingly, if we want to survive. The Axial Age has created across the Eurasian Continent value systems built on respect (moving with the sun, we encounter Confucius, Buddha, Jeremiah, and Socrates). The vaule systems were co-opted into the “top down approach”. The common task ahead of us would be to recover these value systems. After so long, this is not an easy way: more like turning a super-tanker on a dime. But then, humanity is extraordinarily mutable.

[2]           What’s Your Consumption Factor? The New York Times – Wednesday 02 January 2008 “If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

[3]              See: COURBAGE Youssef – Emmanuel TODD (2007) : Le rendez-vous des civilisations. Seuil, Paris.

[6]           Wikipedia has chanced on one of the brain’s great specificities. It is able to work – one may even say it prefers to work – with imprecise and general, even generic knowledge. While a computer is stumped by the smallest input mistake, our brain is tolerant of much error (consequently, alas, gullible). Surprisingly, I’ve discovered that I have a knack for discovering troubled passages in Wikipedia entries, and I’m feeling confident that I can discern Wikipedia’s strengths and flaws.

[7]              An example might be the complex society of the inland Niger River Delta. Bambara millet farmers, the Fulani and Tuareg herders, and the Bozo and Somono fishermen lived together there for 1’600 years – on the basis of peaceful and reciprocal relations. These were acephalous societies, based on complexification of settlement, rather than centralization. See: John READER (1999): Africa, A biography of the Continent. Vintage. London; Chpt. 23 – Cities without citadels.