Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Revaluing the Free

It seems like everywhere you go these days, you’ve got to pay.

Natural areas are being bought up by neighborhood groups so that only residents can experience them. Almost all water is either owned or so polluted that we must fork over money to someone to drink it or use it (either by having it piped into our homes or buying filters for use in the woods). If we want to see the stars (more than the few commonly visible in urban areas), we must pay dearly for the gasoline it takes to find a public, unobstructed view. Even breathing the air isn’t free, as companies and governments pass on the cost of equipment that allows their vehicles and factories to conform to environmental regulations.

For most of human history, Nature supplied everything for free, provided that it remained reusable. Even people, when they died, were recycled into the system. Most estimates indicate that if we were to successfully replace Nature’s products and services today, we would need to more than double the size of the world economy; and the vast majority of what we produced would not be reusable and eventually become waste. If we ever do figure out how to make everything totally reusable, then we will very likely end up with something close to what we started with, namely Nature.

If Nature is so efficient, and everything except human labor is free, why do we insist on keeping people involved in producing what we use and therefore paying for it? The most probable answer is that Nature is trying to limit our growth. Over the last couple of centuries, thanks largely to science, technology, and increased access to both (due to social and economic development), life expectancy has roughly doubled and our population is more than six times larger. By displacing Nature, we’re buying more life in years and people.

Unfortunately we’re not necessarily getting happier in the process. Statistical studies of happiness, personal longevity, and resource consumption indicate that we have now reached what economists might call a “point of diminishing returns” where more consumption does not necessarily increase (and may actually decrease) one’s satisfaction with life. There are, however, some of us who have learned how to live well, long, and efficiently. So perhaps there’s a chance that the rest can compromise a bit with Nature, and recycle more of our stuff then ourselves.

Some of us actually like Nature at least as much as our artifacts, and would rather that it stick around a while longer without someone (like us) paying through the nose for the privilege. Those who are really fed up with the culture of perpetual payment tend to move closer to the object of their affection, and end up both paying and inadvertently destroying what they’re trying to reconnect with.

Like it or not, the only practical (if difficult) way to give Nature a chance and stop heading down the path of paying for everything is to convince everyone to stop trying to replace Nature with something else, while avoiding a decrease in how long we all live.

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