We can consume less without sacrificing well-being
Something I meant to mention last week: Jared Diamond, author of the much-lauded book Collapse, had an op-ed in The New York Times making some simple and important points about consumption rates (along with some rather silly side arguments).
The basic idea is that per-capita consumption in the West is very high; per-capita consumption rates in developing countries is very low; and for the globe to sustainably accommodate the coming 9 billion people, those rates are going to have to meet somewhere in the middle. It’s all but axiomatic. (Contra Ari Fleischer, the American way of life is not "a blessed one." It’s historically contingent like everything else.)
But this is the point I wish everyone (including me) would do a better job spreading:
Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.
Exactly. We in the U.S. spend a lot more on stuff and consume a lot more stuff, but our excesses in those areas do not buy us any additional well-being. We could be just as well off consuming less.
A couple weeks ago, Gregory Clark made a similar point in the Sacramento Bee:
Many people think mistakenly that modern prosperity was founded on this fossil energy revolution, and that when the oil and coal is gone, it is back to the Stone Age. If we had no fossil energy, then we would be forced to rely on an essentially unlimited amount of solar power, available at five times current energy costs. With energy five times as expensive as at present we would take a substantial hit to incomes. Our living standard would decline by about 11 percent. But we would still be fantastically rich compared to the pre-industrial world.
That may seem like a lot of economic hurt, but put it in context. Our income would still be above the current living standards in Canada, Sweden or England. Oh, the suffering humanity! At current rates of economic growth we would gain back the income losses from having to convert to solar power in less than six years. And then onward on our march to ever greater prosperity.
A sustainable, comfortable, fulfilling future is possible. Don’t believe the doomers.