December 12, 2006
Reduce, reduce, reduce
Environmentalists use the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" to indicate the different ways that we can lower our consumption of resources in order to save the world. It is true that recycling has become more popular now, which is a good thing.
But we must remember that recycle is merely the third item on the descending list of actions to save the world's resources. The most important one is 'reduce' and I think we not paying anywhere near enough attention to that. If we really want to save the world, we have to focus our attention on the first item in the list: reduce.
Ever since I started reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed I have been increasingly aware of how much we consume for just no reason. His book (which I will discuss in more detail in later postings) warns that when you look back at societies that have undergone collapse in the past (see, for example, my posting on the fate the befell Easter Island), one of the factors at play is that during times of abundance, people get in the habit of consuming resources that are in excess of what the environment can sustain during average or lean times.
The unusual abundance was usually because of two reasons. One was that they experienced a period of good climate, with a nice mixture of rain and sun that enabled them to have exceptionally bountiful harvests and made them forget what it was like when things were not so good. This encouraged them to consume at a high rate and maintain high rates of population growth. Then when bad weather of other types of problems struck, they were not prepared to deal with the resulting deprivation, and the social structure collapsed.
The other situation was that when people discovered a new and lush land, they thought that the lushness was because the soil was very fertile. In reality, the soil and climate was quite inferior but the lush vegetation they encountered was the result of slow growth over a very long time, and not due to the land's ability to replenish itself rapidly. Hence once the new arrivals had cleared the land and harvested a few good years of agriculture, the land went barren. He points to Australia as an example of poor soil that fooled the early European settlers into thinking that the soil was highly fertile, leading to the current environmental problems there.
In the case of the Earth, what we are doing is more like the second case, except on a much longer timescale. The Earth has tremendous resources that have been generated over billions of years during which the resources were not consumed but were allowed to accumulate, like interest in a bank account. These resources are either finite or replenish themselves at a very slow rate. We are like new settlers that are living off the benefits of billions of years of acquired wealth that is stored in the Earth. But we are simply consuming it as if the good times will last forever.
A good financial metaphor is that we are not treating the Earth's resources as capital that should be invested wisely so that it can be preserved and even grow over time so that our children and grandchildren can have an even better life than we have. Instead, we are treating the Earth's resources as if it were income. The way we live is like that of heirs to a fortune who are spending their inheritance on a wild binge of partying. We are simply running through the Earth's capital, living beyond our means. And in doing so, we will reach a time when 'we' (by which I mean the human race) become broke.
As Diamond points out, the fate of past societies that treated their natural resources as income and not capital is not pretty to contemplate. The only advantage that we have over them is that we have the knowledge of what caused those collapses in the past and if we take those lessons to heart and are wise custodians of those resources, we can avoid their fates. The choice is ours. But do we have the will, let alone the wisdom?
One problem that we encounter is the inherent conflict between reducing consumption and the voracious needs of capitalism. It seems to be an article of faith of capitalism that society benefits when people spend more money to buy more stuff. The massive advertising industry is there to manufacture fake needs and drive up consumption. The holiday season we are currently in is a good example of this madness. The media actually celebrates when the shopping season breaks previous records for expenditures. This is supposed to be 'good for the economy.'
This feature of constantly increasing consumption cannot be part of a sustainable economic system. I suspect that it happens to be a peculiar manifestation that has evolved and taken deep hold, like a weed infestation in a garden, but that societies can function perfectly well with a model that emphasizes reduced consumption and increased conservation. It seems to me that we should be designing our economic systems to serve the very long-term needs of society, and not tailoring our society to meets the needs of present day economic systems.
To emphasize the importance of reducing our rate of consumption, perhaps we should start by taking a cue from real estate agents. When asked what are the three most important things about a property, they say "location, location, location" in order to emphasize the importance of this one thing that dwarfs all other factors. We should similarly change our environmental slogan from 'reduce, reuse, recycle' to 'reduce, reduce, reduce'. That way we might stop deluding ourselves that our recycling efforts alone, worthwhile though they may be, are sufficient to prevent a future global ecological collapse.
POST SCRIPT: The paradox of choice
There is no question that in the affluent industrialized first world, people have a wide array of options to chose from for almost all aspects of their lives, whereas in many parts of the third world, people have almost no choices. Barry Schwartz argues that this abundance of choice in the western world has actually lowered the quality of life for the people who have all these choices, and that everyone would be better off if some of the options were shifted to the poorer countries.
It is an excellent little lecture, worth watching.