Follow the Buyer
by Tom McCarthy
(Special Forum What's Next for Environmental History?)
EVER SINCE I read Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, I've been thinking about those Plains farm families as they looked at the Sears Roebuck Catalog. How could we understand Chicago and everything that city represented about the extraordinary transformation of the North American continent without knowing more about the hopes, dreams, motivations, and behavior of these people? How do we explain the unprecedented amount of human energy that they expended in pursuit of their personal and family agendas? If human economic activity—especially what people did as workers to feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise entertain themselves—has been the major reason for human-caused environmental change, Cronon's farmers also brought to mind that old business school cliché that it takes a buyer as well as a seller to make a market. The folks out there changing the natural would not be out there for very long if customers were not paying for the work. More often than not, what those customers wanted had nothing to do with the transformation of the natural world. Yet that world changed nonetheless.
Cronon urged his readers to "follow the seller, follow the buyer." Good advice. He also argued that the stories of the city and the country are best told together. I believe that stories of consumers and producers are best told together and must be told together if we are to better understand human-caused environmental change. So I've been following the buyers. Let me share some observations from the field. First, there is plenty of evidence about the behavior of consumers. While few people confided their innermost thoughts to diaries when they went out and bought something, by the twentieth century a veritable army of interested people observed and tried to explain consumer behavior. The evidence that these people left behind in mass-circulation periodicals, general business publications, trade journals, memoirs, the occasional open company records, and academic studies allows historians today to look over their shoulders and discern patterns in consumer behavior and even peak into that black box of motivation, the mind of the consumer. There are challenges to interpreting this evidence (often explained by the frustrated sales and marketing professionals who were paid to make sense of it in the first place), but no shortage of material.
Second, literature in the three historical fields most relevant to tracing connections between consumers, producers, and the environment is expanding rapidly. The creative ferment over the past quarter century in consumer and environmental history is pretty well known, although as yet there have been relatively few explicit attempts to connect the two. The reason for this is undoubtedly that much of the impact of the consumer on the natural world is mediated by the actions of producers, so that making the connections requires working in a third field, business history. But even that stodgy old field is in the midst of a creative revolution, thanks in good measure to the folks associated with the Hagley Museum, who have been encouraging and funding scholars who are "pushing the envelope." Historians interested in exploring connections between consumers and the environment now have a solid and growing body of scholarly work to build on in the relevant fields.
Finally, there is a growing literature on the psychology of human decision-making to help historians make sense of patterns in the evidence. Based on well-conceived social-science methodologies and new technologies like brain-imaging, this literature suggests several insights that are worth quickly sketching here. Creating and maintaining self-images—note the plural—are important motivators when it comes to consumer behavior. The identities that make up a self-image include, but are by no means limited to, race, class, and gender. Indeed, identities are often less as well as more encompassing than these. Emotions play an important role in economic decisions. Choices that we make today are heavily influenced by our predictions of how we will feel in the future as a consequence of these decisions. Positive and negative predictions are usually exaggerated by hope and fear respectively. Advertising, even that which is most acutely attuned to these insights, is not as persuasive as we sometimes imagine (and, in some surprising instances, like automobiles, seems to have little impact). What is important is what other people are doing, not so much the rich and the famous, but those close to us, especially those we perceive to be like us and those in contiguous groups that we aspire to join. When we buy something, any positive feelings that we experience do not last. We revert back to a neutral emotional set point, which explains the many studies that show that acquiring wealth or material possessions beyond what is necessary to make our lives comfortable and secure does not make us happier. If we want to feel good again, we need to buy something else, but, again, the benefit, if any, will be temporary. Because we do gain serial emotional satisfactions from buying things, we have great difficulty learning from experience and training ourselves to act in ways that can be shown to be more in our own self-interest—let alone the interest of others and the planet as a whole.
When we place what we learn about consumers in the larger democratic and free-market context that is America (and increasingly other parts of the world), certain questions take on greater salience. Consumer behavior often can seem shallow, diffuse, and manipulable—more dependent than independent variable. But I think we need to ask whether it is not also much more deeply rooted in human psychology and our experience of modernity than we commonly recognize. For example, are consumer goods (and the environmental changes that make them possible) an essential raw material of identity creation? Do consumers use goods to communicate emotionally important things to others that cannot be put into words? How well does a free-market economic system accommodate these deeper aims? Does the accelerating rate of change encouraged by the interaction of free-market producers and consumers stimulate and reward consumer emotions (hope, envy, anxiety, etc.) that intensify this dynamic? Do consumers like this stimulation and reward, so that the personal emotions experienced by consumers in connection with goods outweigh the unintended consequences and suboptimal outcomes, even when these negatives are made known to consumers? If so, there are implications here for people who would like to change consumer behavior to moderate its impact on the environment. How much reform can be expected from dispassionate expertise alone in a democratic and free-market setting where counterarguments advanced by the opponents of reform often are designed to arouse and enlist emotions against reform? Is emotion a necessary ally in a successful reform movement? Questions like these have helped me to rethink things I thought I understood. In the meantime, our emotion-laden reactions to modern life, when they involve consumer goods whose manufacture, use, and disposal contribute to environmental change, continue to literally remake the planet.
As an environmental historian, I see the connection between consumer behavior and environmental change as an opportunity to do some important explaining. But tackling big connections is not for the faint-hearted. Environmental historians have been among the least reticent scholars when it comes to crossing disciplinary boundaries. Yet, if we have crossed boundaries into many other fields, we often have limited ourselves to single forays into contiguous areas. There are practical scholarly reasons that argue against attempting more. It is hard enough to be an expert in one area and harder still in two. While most peers and grant-makers readily recognize the merit of making broader connections, when it comes to actually judging our work, the familiar standards of the monograph still prevail.
The obvious connection between consumer behavior and environmental change, regularly pointed out by environmentalists and readily recognized by all, poses a standing challenge to our scholarship. Consumer spending now accounts for two-thirds of global economic activity, making it one of the great levers for change in history. Yet most of us view a set of broad connections, not as an opportunity to make a useful contribution to better understanding how change has come to unfold as it has, but from the perspective of the high standards of the narrow historical monograph. With this frame uppermost in our minds, we beg off, pleading that we do not have the time to find and master all the sources relevant to the connections. (See preceding section on how emotions influence decision-making.) But if our professional standards make us reluctant to tackle important relationships, perhaps we need a separate standard for projects of this nature. Cronon was right. More big stories need to be told together, which means that more of us need to take the risk and give it a go, while trusting in the extra encouragement and support that our fellow environmental historians have always provided and that make our field emotionally rewarding as well as important.
Tom McCarthy is an assistant professor in the History Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale and an MBA from Columbia. His book on Americans, automobiles, and the environment is forthcoming from Yale University Press.