Sunday, May 2, 2010

Relative Choices

One of the many empirically disproved economic assumptions discussed in Dan Ariely's eye-opening book “Predictably Irrational” involves the way people choose between multiple options. Rather than comparing the benefit per unit of cost for each option, and picking the one with the highest value, most people will compare only the options they have some experience with (or that are similar to each other) and discard the outliers.

This fact may explain why the most successful groups in the United States that promote sustainability are hard to distinguish from non-profits, stores, and manufacturers dealing in other issues and products, and thus fall far short in creating real sustainability. Alternative materials, fuels, and gardens are a lot more comparable to what people are used to, than, say, communities of people who practice giving more than they take from each other and the world. To make a transition to truly sustainable living, the convenient alternatives offered by our current economy will need to become completely unavailable.

It is reasonable to expect that the transition won't occur quickly, and our now ubiquitous conveniences will likely become more and more limited to the rich among us. Class warfare along these lines has already started, and is likely to only become more pronounced as the non-renewable resources that enable those alternatives become more scarce. Most people won't give up their cars, mass-produced groceries, and electronic appliances very easily.

In 2005 (based on the ecological footprint reported in the Global Footprint Network's “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2008”) people in the United States consumed more than 18 times as many ecological productive resources as people in Haiti, which even before the recent earthquake was among the poorest – and barely surviving – countries in the world. Cubans, who use permaculture techniques that some believe will be civilization's salvation in the wake of peak oil, consumed only about three times as much as Haiti. For comparison, the world average was five times that of Haiti; and the total amount available could support 25.2 billion Haitians, or 7.6 billion Cubans. With the world population due to exceed seven billion people this year, we are likely within five years of reaching the point where we could all (theoretically, at least) live at least as well as Cubans. Beyond that point, we would have to increase the planet's bio-productivity or decrease population to live even that well.

A sizable fraction of the global population (I estimate at least 44%) would be gaining in consumption to live as well as an average Cuban. For them, the choice between what they have and what they could have would be easy. The remaining half of us who consume more (what I'll call “hyper-consumers”) would need to reduce consumption to meet this average, which most of us will probably resist as long as any of us can afford to consume something close to what we are now familiar with.

If permaculture is our best hope for providing a decent (if not decadent) lifestyle, and can live up to its promise of potentially increasing the world's bio-productivity by adding arable land, then it will need to become a choice comparable to the lifestyle available to hyper-consumers over the next five years, or risk the considerable turmoil caused by business-as-usual in the years ahead that will probably lead to a population crash like that predicted in several mathematical models (including my own, which does not empirically detect any capacity to rely on).

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