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The Interdisciplinary Science of ConsumptionReview - The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption
by Stephanie D. Preston, Morten L. Kringelbach, and Brian Knutson (Editors)
MIT Press, 2014
Review by Jesse Butler
Jun 9th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 24)

Amidst the world’s oceans are massive swirling vortices of plastic debris, striking relics revealing the global scale of human consumption. The largest of these trash vortices, dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is at least the size of Texas, if not double or more, and the millions of tons of plastic pieces it contains appear not only in the Pacific Ocean itself but also as deadly ingredients in the digestive systems of albatrosses, sea turtles, whales, and likely many other forms of marine life. It does not take a scientist to realize that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its consequences are a result of human consumption, but the fact that it exists is one vivid and compelling example among countless others as to why we humans ought to apply our knowledge gathering practices to our own material consumption and ecological citizenship.

How are the basic consumption drives and behaviors that we share with other animals transformed into the large-scale consumption practices we see across contemporary human societies? What psychological processes drive and modulate consumption in human behavior? Are our consumption processes adapted to an environment and population level that we have outgrown? How can humans who have no knowledge or intention of littering the world’s oceans with plastic nevertheless make decisions and engage in systematic economic behaviors that result in doing so on a massive scale? What are the consequences of our current consumption patterns, both for ourselves and others who inhabit the world with us? Can we alter or curb human consumption to create more ecologically sustainable human practices?

Considering the importance and significance of such questions, The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption is a welcome and needed contribution to knowledge and insight into the nature and mechanisms of consumption. This edited collection of sixteen chapters exhibits a variety of scientific approaches and research agendas concerning consumption, with emphasis on evolutionary and neurobiological perspectives from psychology. While there is some comparative attention to other species, such as the food-storing behaviors of birds and food reciprocity among chimpanzees, the focus is largely on human consumption behaviors, along with the psychological and economic factors behind them.

Overall, the articles are informative and complementary, adhering together as a collective quite well. The content is often mutually supportive, with a number of cross-citations throughout the book, resulting in a coherent and insightful perspective on human consumption. General considerations and views about consumption are also applied to more specific topics and problems, from personal finance strategies and savings development to hoarding behavior, obesity, and pollution.

As a philosopher accustomed to academic anthologies centered on debate and disagreement, I found the collegial mutuality in this book refreshing and insightful. These authors are collectively engaged in the important task of understanding human consumption as well as possible, emphasizing mutually supportive considerations across areas of expertise. In addition to providing some insight into the core topic of consumption, the primarily psychological orientation of this book provides a nice window into the current state of the psychological sciences and their relationships to other aligned fields, with contributions across evolutionary psychology, social psychology, personality theory, decision theory, heuristics, neuroscience, behavioral economics, life history theory, psychopathology, and ethology.

On the flipside, the dominance of psychology in this particular volume puts a damper on the truly interdisciplinary nature of the topic. While there is certainly some interdisciplinary plurality in this book, there are notable disciplinary deficits as well, the fulfillment of which could dramatically increase the scope and significance of interdisciplinary approaches to consumption. For a truly interdisciplinary science of consumption to flourish, we should have contributions from not only psychology, biology, and economics, but also ecology, anthropology, environmental engineering, agriculture, and perhaps myriad other disciplines and perspectives.

Among other things, more investigation into the role and mediating effects of culture on consumption would be interesting and valuable. This book occasionally attends to the effects of media in mainstream Western consumer culture, such as the impact of advertisements on consumer choices and expectations, but there is no attention to or comparisons with other cultural frameworks, say for example the diverse array of consumption practices across non-Western cultures and the kinds of East-West cultural comparisons that Richard Nisbett and others are finally bringing to light in contemporary psychology. Given the global significance of consumption and the diversity of human cultural practices surrounding it, more direct and sustained attention to culture and consumption would significantly increase the scope and significance of an interdisciplinary science of consumption.

Equally importantly, we need normative reflection and guidance concerning our consumption practices, applying what we know about consumption to the cultivation of viable practices that can sustain good human lives into the future, without leaving a legacy of toxic vortices in our wake. Perhaps this extends beyond the proper scope of science itself, merging into the fields of ethics and public policy, but direct focus and attention to what we ought to do as consumers ourselves is surely a viable component of any interdisciplinary investigation of consumption.

Of course a more diverse spectrum of disciplines and perspectives would be difficult to achieve within a single book, so the lack of optimal interdisciplinarity here should not be seen as a problem with this particular book but rather as a need for further and more diverse work in continuation of its core aim. The editors and authors of this volume have made an important and viable first step toward an interdisciplinary science of consumption. I encourage others to explore the considerations they have brought forth, and also to further investigate the nature of consumption along with its myriad effects both upon ourselves and the world upon which we and our fellow species depend.

 

© 2015 Jesse Butler


Jesse Butler is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Arkansas, where he conducts research and teaches courses on epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, logic, and philosophy for living. He is the author of Rethinking Introspection: A Pluralist Approach to the First-Person Perspective.https://sites.google.com/a/uca.edu/jessebutler/


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