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Consumer Choice, Market Forces and the Economy

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It is really convenient as a society to assume that no action is required on the part of individuals to change their habits outside of market driven forces, but the economy (and associated markets) as we know it is a recent invention that has been fuelled by the very energy it seeks to control the sale of. Relying on consumer preferences in the markets to change energy consumption behaviour is like trying to steer an oil tanker by sticking your iPod into the wake as a rudder – the impetus is slow to react, and driven by selfish assumptions that believe that someone else is working to solve the problems. Is anyone actually working to solve problems, or are the agendas of each group getting in the way?

  • Big business is looking for opportunity and profit.
  • The government is looking for political stability.
  • Economists are looking for growth.
  • Scientists are looking for technology.

The argument that “every small step counts”, only goes as far as that step and not beyond the current comfort zone/payoff point. Essentially, the question is, “will I receive an immediate or tangible benefit for behaving a certain way?” This works when gas prices rise, people drive less, or if the price of natural gas went up, people might heat their house less, or take shorter showers – the idea of money lost is effective in changing behaviours like little else. The successes seen in the  conversion of many people to using reusable bags rather than plastic ones at the checkout follows this idea closely as well, although the pain or reward for a behaviour  in this case is predominantly social, even though some stores have taken to applying a 5 cent levy per bag purchased.

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The decisions we can make as consumers, and their relative effectiveness in being “green” are complex, and there is always someone out there who’ll tell you the opposite of the advice you received yesterday. Marketing departments understand this and seek to penetrate through the chatter to make their product stand out – claiming (and occasionally acting) green is a tactic that is paying off for everything from car manufacturers to online hosting companies.

But are these little acts of green going to make a difference? Or has our middle-class bourgeois mentality, and it’s suburban sprawling landscape eaten away at the chance to make a real change to social and environmental sustainability?

I’m betting on the likes of Transition Towns and similar grassroots programs that deal with the big picture impacts on the local level as a means of educating and changing societies and their consumerist tendencies – the groups outlined above may be part of society, but they are not necessarily acting in the long term best interests of that society, and neither is the consumer choice that is fed information from each of these groups in one form or another.

Just some thoughts, no real conclusions today.

Mike [easy-retweet]

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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