Thursday, November 1, 2007

Replacing Capital

From an economic perspective, cutting consumption is a reduction of demand, which has the effect of extending the time that the supply can be consumed. Unfortunately, we are strictly speaking no longer depleting supply; we are depleting capital, the means for creating supply. That capital takes several forms, among them other species and naturally usable air, water, and land.

In an ideal world, we would not only cease our destruction by consuming less, we would repair and rebuild what we’ve already damaged and destroyed (including isolating dangerous toxins so they will not do harm in the future). This would take a concerted effort (thus my suggestion that the world unite) and probably require much of our remaining fuel reserves.

There is great resistance to this idea. As I’ve empirically discovered, reducing consumption carries the real threat of reducing happiness and life expectancy (ideality), which would be a reasonable thing to avoid if consuming more wasn’t likely to result in far worse consequences. A knee-jerk reaction I have personally experienced is to reject the whole notion of a disastrous future based on current trends and to instead have faith in our ability to increase the supply of resources or more efficient use of the ones we have.

While conservation may be reasonable, people’s feelings about their lives are unlikely to prompt them to action until they feel a change in their lifestyle. My consumption model shows that if we reduced consumption by four percent for forty years, the population would peak in 2040 but we would see a peak in lifestyle (IP index) as early as 2020. By contrast, with business as usual, lifestyle wouldn’t peak until 2029 (at the same level as with conservation), even though population would have started to fall. If people knew that not conserving (thus making less change in their lives) would increase the amount of time that their lives were improving, they would probably be less likely to conserve. In short, the demand for change wouldn’t exist until it was too late to do anything meaningful about supply (investing the “capital” saved by conservation in restoring Nature’s ability to provide for the future).

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