Thursday, September 8, 2011

Redefining Loss

In our personal lives, it's practically a given that we need to do everything we can to at least preserve what we have: our possessions, our consumption (starting with energy, food, and water), and our relationships with other people. Our present situation is the baseline for the future; to have less or to use less would be to “go backwards,” to “lose something.” We would be “failing.” As creatures who are sensitive to trends, it is natural and reasonable to be concerned if we have less stuff or capability today than we had yesterday or the day before. If this experience continues too long, we could end up with nothing, which would truly be disastrous.

The same logic applies to growth. If we are uncertain about the variables affecting what we have and what we are using, we will rationally attempt to gain more as a cushion against that uncertainty; and that gain then becomes part of the new baseline. If the uncertainty goes away, we will have become accustomed to having the additional amount. To gain less will therefore be considered a loss, which, if we extrapolate it, could at some point reach zero growth and continue into negative growth – a real loss. Thus we are forced into a pattern of exponential growth, which is inherently doomed to end by reaching a resource limit, sabotaging what we have by not devoting enough resources to maintain it, and by creating waste or competition that interferes with it.

Where a limit exists for what we can safely use, this analysis points to the need to redefine the baseline acceptable amount at a value less than the limit, which could very well be less than what we are currently using. We must therefore be able to redefine “loss” in such a way that it does not trigger attempts to avoid or reverse it.

Several related approaches include “redefining happiness”; calling attention to the diminishing returns in happiness of additional consumption beyond an “abundance” limit; scaring people with potential worst-case scenarios for business-as-usual; and using addiction therapy. Each approach has some success, but none is fully effective, probably because of the uncertainty triggered by new behavior and ideas – uncertainty which tends to have an effect opposite to what is intended.

Another strategy, used by the green movement, involves disguising the loss as a gain that more than offsets its accompanying uncertainty. Unfortunately the strategy risks higher consumption, as growing numbers of people may use more of products they like that individually have less embodied resources. To the extent that these products have an inherently limited consumption rate that is already being reached by the current, wasteful products, then this strategy could work. For products that do not have such limits (or whose limits are too high to benefit adequately from replacement), it likely will not.

These considerations suggest that the majority of us are more likely to approach a limit than to seek out a value below it. The mechanisms of competition, unhealthy waste, and sabotaging what we have in our pursuit of eternal growth may force us toward such a lower value, but we won't seek it out voluntarily.

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