Monday, January 21, 2008

Voluntary Control of Consumption

If we are to keep per capita consumption constant as a requirement for a better future, we must not only control our extraction of materials and energy from the environment, but the lifetimes of the things we create. The reason is that consumption of resources does not always take place over a year’s time. For example, after a house is built, its resources are typically “consumed” over several years, until it is torn down. Thus “consumption” includes the use of resources that have already been extracted from Nature in their raw form, but still have costs in terms of maintenance and unavailability for any other use.

How could such control be done on a totally voluntary basis?

Many people have chosen to join the so-called “sustainability movement,” which is devoted to increasing efficiency (getting the most use out of resources, especially fuel) and encouraging the use of renewable resources. Recognizing that such changes by themselves will not necessarily limit consumption over the long term (and may possibly increase it), some proponents of sustainable living have also encouraged “voluntary simplicity” – the equivalent of a diet, where people decide how much stuff they really need to make them happy, and then work toward consuming no more than that. Capitalism, one of the world’s greatest tools for increasing standard of living, is considered a key component of this strategy: If demand for efficiency and reusability grows sufficiently, so the theory goes, someone will provide products and services that will meet that demand (gaining, as an incentive, the ability to purchase more things).

Given unlimited resources, producers under capitalism will compete to provide the least costly products and services for the maximum demand (as “producers” I’m including all of the people involved in getting products and services to the customers). This evolutionary process will inevitably include many failed attempts, involving a considerable use of resources as different solutions are tried and discarded. Increased profits demand increasing demand, which encourages producers to try out new products and services that people are more likely to buy (thus the routine “improvements” to soap that appear on store shelves that are only marginally different from their predecessors or their competition). As the new, related versions are tried, more resources are used, thus exponentially increasing the total consumption involved in the enterprise.

Limiting per capita consumption would limit the amount of resources that could be used for trial and error, as well as the number of “new” products and services that producers could introduce over time, because per capita consumption includes the related resources. Any additional use of resources would need to be compensated by a corresponding reduction of consumption somewhere else in the economy. No such limitations are currently in place, nor to my knowledge are they included in plans for sustainable products and services (their focus being instead on reducing the resource stream for the end results of the economic process).

For resource limits to be voluntarily observed may require some special incentives for producers and the customers they support: a perceived value that offsets the value of additional material inputs. The sustainability movement often promotes the value of “saving the planet,” assuring that future generations will live no worse than this one; but for many people this is a luxury, more suited to charitable donation than products whose main uses are interchangeable with less costly alternatives. Some other incentive will likely need to be dreamed up to stoke demand if we are to avoid the next best solution, which is decidedly involuntary but much less draconian than public ownership of resources: consumption based taxes.

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