Like a lot of people, I think about the problems of our economy and what “growth” (the supposed prescription for the economy) does to our environment. I’m entirely too old to believe in the utopian fantasies of us all living collectively on a kibbutz. And given the natural gravitational pull all civilizations have had towards income/wealth disparity, I don’t have much faith in humanity solving that equation.
But there are a couple fundamental truths/trends, that when lined up correctly, could at least get us to take a step forward.
We must help the bottom 5+ billion people on the planet get to a basic standard of living. I’m obviously not suggesting they get to the standard of living the top 2 billion have now because that would wreck the planet even faster. But I do believe it’s a fundamental moral imperative that the poorest in the world have access to clean drinking water, basic medical care, etc. To do that, they need some sort of job.
The top 2 billion, and I’m really talking about the top 10% of them, consume the vast majority of resources on the planet. Yes, I’m one of them, and so are you if you have electricity and access to the internet. And we simply need to consume less. If you don’t believe that, I’ve already lost you…and you’re probably a selfish asshole. So, there.
There are promising signs the affluent on the planet want to have a smaller footprint. Sure, there will always be some jackass who will build a 20,000 sq ft house, buy a jet bigger than he needs, etc., but it’s encouraging to see the trend among the “liberal” affluent recycling, putting solar panels on their homes, purchasing Prius/Fisker/Tesla’s, trying to buy food in-season in their region, etc.
The problem with affluence isn’t so much the things themselves, it’s the fact that the things are a mode of “keeping score.” If everyone has the $200 model, you need to the $1000 model. It’s in us. It’s in our DNA somehow - maybe 50,000 year old mating rituals or something. Again, I don’t think that’s going to change much in the near term.
However, there’s a way to manipulate that in a moderately simple way. Redefine luxury. Luxury should not be scarcity of some morally / environmentally suspect un-obtainium (fur, diamonds, platinum, etc.) Two months salary isn’t luxury for your bride to be. It’s stupidity that funds wars and child soldiers. If you’re going to spend more money than you have to, at least invest the money in something that gives some benefit back.
Luxury should be about how many jobs the thing created. It should be an affluent person’s snob appeal. “Oh, you have the $500 model, the one built by robots oversees. Mine cost $8,000 because it takes 9 guys in a workshop down the street two weeks to hand build it.” Keeping score and creating jobs.
We spend so much time trying to appeal to our better instincts. I think playing to the base ones might do us more good.