As usual, Joel Makower has got the good stuff. The Journal of Industrial Ecology that he points to is, in a word, fascinating. It’s full of great articles, all tied together with the theme of “sustainable consumption.”

I haven’t had time (yet) to read all of the articles, but there is one that jumps out as a real jewel, Tim Jackson’s piece, “Live Better by Consuming Less? Is There a Double Dividend in Sustainable Consumption?”

When it comes to sustainability, Jackson notes that

Purely technological approaches fall short of addressing the crucial dimension of human choice in implementing sustainable technologies and changing unsustainable consumption patterns.

With that, Jackson is off and running. I think he’s absolutely right. We can have all the technology in the world to make living more and more efficient and low-impact. But it won’t do any good if people don’t use it.

The two elements of technology and choices, production and consumption, are intertwined, and I think that improvements have been made in both respects. For example:

  • I would say that people have shifted values (choices) to place a very high value on order, or organization, or lack of entropy, or whatever term you’d like. Economically speaking, it is now possible to rack up huge amounts of GDP by sitting in front of a computer punching keys if you are doing it in a highly ordered way; society places a high value on, say, a flawless computer program or a sophisticated data model.
  • Society also has evolved the infrastructure (technology) necessary for these endeavors to be sustainable; someone can now write the program without commuting at all even though her colleagues are half a world away. So in terms of the impact that someone actually needs to have in order to live, we are quite rapidly minimizing this impact to such an extent that we might be able to fit all 6 billion of us on this planet sustainably.

That may be overly optimistic, and there are reasons to believe that materialistic choices are somewhat necessary and ingrained in human nature, which Jackson discusses in depth. The article is extremely well-researched and just peppered with references.  I challenge anyone to get through it without being taken off on at least one tangent (one of my own tangents resulted in an addition to my list of books to read).

Update [2005-6-11 8:7:2 by Andy Brett]:
Some excellent further reading on the subject, with some surprising answers, courtesy of Jon Christensen:
Are We Consuming Too Much?” from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, by Paul Ehrlich and others
Are We Consuming Too Much?” by Jon Christensen

The first paper is somewhat technical, but very worth it. Christensen’s article is less technical and has some valuable points about the role and value of “natural” systems such as wetlands.