Blog Response 5: Homo Economicus
Standard of living is simply a measurement of quality of life. In order to maintain a certain level of standard of living, while simultaneously reducing consumption, one only has to change the metrics by which he measures quality of life. If GDP (or consumption) is currently used as the metric to define quality of life, we must turn towards a different metric, say instances of depression and anxiety, to avoid the need to grow our economy in order to meet a set standard of living.
Essentially, I am proposing the need for a value system where goods and well-being are mostly separate. However, in reality, goods and well-being will never be completely separate; after all, food items are still goods and everyone needs a certain level of nutrition to survive. Rather, a system that defines quality of life by happiness removes the need for consumptive growth and disconnects well-being from exploitation. This system would allow consumption to reach a constant level representing basic needs and if resources permit, basic wants. A basic need would include things like food, clothes, water, and shelter. A basic want might include things like a community pool, a cellphone, or a yearly trip into the mountains if you live by the beach.
However as I have mentioned, consumption can never be totally eliminated, so in order to maximize standard of living worldwide (and permit basic wants), population needs to be minimized. Since the world’s resources are finite, we must find the exact combination of population size and consumption level that permits the earth to continually renew itself, while becoming less reliant on goods that utilize non-renewable components. I believe that these standards can be set globally, with some variation to account for different cultural practices and beliefs.
While nuclear energy promises virtually endless supplies of energy, while producing a fraction of the greenhouse gases compared to coal or oil, it cannot be considered a sustainable energy source until we discover a reasonable way to deal with toxic, nuclear waste. In a growing world, energy demands will continue to increase while fossil fuels dwindle to nothing. If we turn to nuclear energy as our primary energy source, we will have way more nuclear waste than we know what to do with. Inevitably, this waste will have to be stored somewhere, until it is no longer harmfully radioactive (a process that can take generations). Assuming that we are unable to develop technology within the next 50-100 years that can deactivate the radioactive properties of the waste in an efficient manner, we are left with the decision of who gets to bear the burden of toxic waste. However, America has clearly expressed a strong sentiment of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). In this scenario, a Cost-Benefit Analysis could work ONLY if all of the true environmental and health costs are internalized. However, if these costs are internalized, nuclear power would likely be too expensive to be feasible. In the end, until we develop better disposal technologies, nuclear energy is not a sustainable, ethical, or economical answer to our energy demands.
Going into our lecture on Thursday, the only thing I knew about permaculture was a general definition gleaned from a glance at a Wikipedia webpage. Essentially, permaculture is applied sustainability. This sounded great in theory, but I wasn’t convinced; I wanted to hear the details from someone who had actually done it. And I think part of me doubted that sustainable agriculture was really practical. After all, if someone had already figured out how to sustainably grow food, shouldn’t world hunger be a non-issue by now?
Enter Joe, a real live example of agriculture done right. Here is a man who actually seems to be practicing what he preaches (unlike myself who regularly eats non-organically grown apples shipped from Chile). Joe presented permaculture’s basic ideologies and applications, but still, I wasn’t entirely ready to hop on the permaculture bandwagon. In particular, Joe mentioned that if we were to feed the world’s population using only permaculture, we would have to reduce our numbers from 7 billion to just 4 billion people. A reduction of that magnitude would surely create its own series of problems. So where and when do we draw the line? Do we make the switch over to permaculture and risk the economic problems inherent to negative population growth? Or do we stand by our current system and pillage the environment until there is nothing left to pillage, or technology advances and saves us all? I am reminded of Malthus’s paper: our food supply can only grow arithmetically. Even with huge advances in technology, our advances in population will be larger. If we continue on our current path of resource abuse, we will eventually extract all that we can from the earth, potentially resulting in a mass starvation. In order to avoid this fate, we have to choose between reducing our population, changing our extraction methods, or more likely, a combination of the two. If we can successfully reduce our population size, then permaculture could provide a sustainable alternative to current agricultural methods.
While the example of gassing in Syria can certainly be applied to Hardin’s principle of tragedy of the commons, I think there are two factors preventing it from being a great example. First nerve gas isn’t polluting the air in the same way greenhouse gases or ozone-depleting chemicals do. Most of the major components of air pollution are byproducts of industrialization and once accumulated in the atmosphere can have catastrophic global effects. However, nerve gas is purposely released into the atmosphere to have catastrophic local effects. There is a specific target in mind and the pollution does not extend far past this target. Thus, the pollution is not extending to the global commons. My other issue with this example is that the purposeful killing of hundreds of people outshines the fact that nerve gassing could potentially be an example for Hardin’s tragedy. I’m less inclined to focus on “wow, someone is really polluting the global air supply with this nerve gas” and more likely to think “wow, how could someone kill so many people in such an atrocious manner”.
The most obvious example of Hardin’s tragedy is the heavy reliance on coal in countries like China, USA, India, Russia, and Japan, which account for 76% of world coal consumption. These countries don’t just contribute to localized increases in smog, particulate matter, and CO2, (among other gases),they are increasing these levels on a global scale. These five consumers continue to burn coal in an effort to increase their economic benefit, while ignoring the cost that burdens the almost 190 other countries around the world (not to mention, themselves); textbook tragedy of the commons.
By definition, an instrumental value system separates humans from their environment in a hierarchical fashion. A better question would be whether or not this value system can be used to preserve or conserve the environment in a sustainable manner. That is, can an instrumental value system treat the environment in a way that does not reduce the quality of life for the next generation? By itself? Maybe, but the obligation to provide a world equivalently great for the next generation would need to be strong enough to overcome the developing world’s hunger for a type of progress that is unattainable without the overexploitation of the Earth’s resources.
On the other hand, an intrinsic value system provides that humans are an integrated part of the environment in which we live. This value system breeds a natural respect for the world and its limited resources, which can be an invaluable perspective for preservation and conservation. However, intrinsic values can only exist if we have personal experiences and connections with nature. As time has progressed, so has our technology, resulting in an ever-increasing gap between humans and their natural environment. Technology has robbed many people of this connection; how often have we spent a Sunday glued to the Internet instead of taking a trip to a local park? However, the remedy is simple: education and exposure. By increasing the awareness and access to of our natural world, we can start to develop stronger connections to the Earth that sustains us.
While I believe strongly in the power of an intrinsic value system, it will not be enough to create a sustainable planet. If we hope to provide a healthy planet for generations to come, we must combine an intrinsic respect for the planet with the knowledge that without it’s resources we will cease to exist.