Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Legitimate Profit

My recent writing might lead readers to conclude that I am against all profit taking, with some suggesting that communism is the only alternative, which I must therefore favor. None of these statements is true. I am simply arguing that if we value everyone, believe that we must all be able to at least meet our basic needs over the course of a reasonably long lifetime, and accept the fact of ultimate limits to accessing and replacing resources that enable our meeting those needs, then there will be a loss of life (unacceptable by definition) associated with attempting to endlessly increase our rate of consumption. The urgency and judgmental quality of my writing follows from growing evidence that we are rapidly approaching an access limit and have already passed the replacement limit, thus making our relentless pursuit of growth imminently suicidal.

I and others have argued for increasing replacement without increasing access to compensate for the apparent addition of resources. Others have argued for decreasing access as well, at least to the point where people's needs can still be met; this would be the physical equivalent of communism, which I believe is both impractical and ultimately would cause the same loss of life we face with unrestricted growth. It is likely that waning energy reserves and the non-renewable resources needed to distribute and use it (“accessing” it) may cause access to decline necessarily, which is why I support altering our culture as fast as possible to value more what we can expect to be able to consume in the future – that which can be replaced.

On a personal level, there is a minimum amount of resources we would want to keep in reserve for the years when we can no longer produce what we need on our own. If, for example, we consume a constant amount per year as adults, live to age 90, and work from 18 to 65, then we would need (90-65)/(65-18) = 53% extra. For a comfortable (if not extravagant) future, then we should consume no more than two-thirds what we are able to access, and if we have a child then the fraction is about half (adding effectively another 18 years, we need to access nearly twice the amount we use). In this light, it is quite reasonable to try to acquire as much as we can, especially if we want more children. Since conservation can only contribute a limited amount to our savings, convincing others to give us more for the same amount of work (profit) is an option we can hardly dismiss.

If we had no waste, saved as much as we used (which at least met our needs, however those needs are defined), and kept the total consumption less than the amount of resources that could be replaced, then we would have a sustainable economy serving a roughly constant population whose members lived to a decent old age. Subject to the values I listed earlier, this is the most desirable goal to strive for. If we want a larger population, more comfort, or both, then we need to increase the amount of replaceable resources without adversely affecting health (which may be mostly helped by not using non-replaceable resources, which are currently those that can't be biologically processed). If we have less replaceable resources than we consume, then we must increase the amount of replaceable resources or find a way to reduce our consumption of them without killing people.

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