Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Happiness and Resources

Does happiness truly depend on the fraction of available resources consumed, or on the absolute amount of resources consumed? In a closed, interconnected system like the Earth, where the people reporting on their happiness are aware of how well others might be living, the question is virtually meaningless (the two are practically the same). But if we were to increase the resource base, for example by opening up another planet for emigration or reclaiming the 95 percent of materials and energy that goes into the products we use, would everyone’s quality of life be perceived as worse than it was before?

It is reasonable to assume that human biology imposes a limit on how much an individual can physically gain from the environment, but psychology is another matter: The more we could potentially have, the more we want. There are several options for what to do with the excess, if we can acquire it. We could use the excess to grow larger families (a biological need that results in an increase in the population); we could distribute it to others (giving does make some people happier); or we could create more “stuff” that ends up underutilized (“waste”).

While we might experience a brief reversal in knowledge about how to improve our lives (while we learn how to make use of the new resources), thus reducing adjusted power as I’ve suggested, the long term impact would be an increase in population, possibly higher ideality (assuming an ideological shift that promotes giving), and ultimately more waste.

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