Sunday, July 6, 2008

Changing Focus

Capitalist economics, for all its apparent complexity, can be simply described as a system for creating and distributing goods and services by assigning value to them in terms of a common unit of exchange (money) that is proportional to their scarcity and how many people want them. The focus of the system is the balancing of utility that end-users perceive for a given product or service with the amount of resources (including their own labor) they will have to trade to acquire it.

For transactions where end-users are not intimately familiar with the processes involved in creating the products and services they acquire, the impacts of those processes do not enter into the purchasing decision. Even direct effects such as poisoning will not be considered if it takes a long time for them to be felt by the buyer. I contend that this narrow focus is largely responsible for many of the ills we now face as a society and a species.

What can we do about it? As I’ve argued elsewhere (joining a growing chorus), enforcing honest dissemination of accurate information about these impacts is critical, especially at the point of purchase. The practical difficulties of including this information in labels (for products) and contracts (for services), coupled with human limitations on information processing (our inability to simultaneously comprehend more than seven things at a time), ensure a high degree of failure in this endeavor, and potentially catastrophic consequences when this error is applied to complex and globally affecting industries. Still, large error is better than total ignorance.

Alternatively, we could simplify our lives to the point where we can adequately get and verify the information we need to make responsible decisions about what we use (as well as what we trade). This alternative is yet another reason for energy descent: lowering the amount of input energy required for our activities. The more direct experience we have with the production of what we consume, the more accurate will be the basis for our choices. In the process we are likely to reduce consumption and waste, the proximate causes of our destruction of Earth’s biosphere and the greatest threats to our survival as a species.

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