“If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”
This comment by another has since remained with me – even inspiring its own cartoon.
Because, of course, bigger is better. Provided we can eradicate this pesky climate concern, we’re onto something great (please note my sarcasm).
The trouble with such a linear, dare I say blinkered, perspective is that sustainable energy is not our only concern. If the Nine Planetary Boundaries are taken as a fair indicator of the state our planet, climate change is actually in fourth place, with biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biochemical flows and land use changes all more heavily modified and/or eroded.
With climate change included, these four represent the major threats to long term prosperity. All are the result of the “bigger is better” mentality.
Bigger cities and farms, and more produce and energy use, equal greater economic activity.
When efficiency is improved, we don’t make savings, we simply make more, exploiting resources more quickly.
Stocks up! GDP up!… up, up, up!!
Growth is the modern god, more tangible than any other before it.
The blessed, after all, are showered in fortune. Those who doubt it deserve their meager station. Oh, how wonderful is the union of neo-liberal individualism and meritocracy.
But how big can a city get before the term “city” loses all meaning? How many hectares can be converted from ecosystems to monocultures before we lose all bio-services (that underpin so much of our economic activity)?
And we openly scoff at the loss of biodiversity when the compounds found in plants, fungi and animals (especially venom) have probably saved each of our life at one point or another.
With another species lost, so too could a lifesaving compound.
But we need to be bigger to stay afloat!
When will we exhaust the resources we dig up in wild places – the metals, minerals and hydrocarbons – and be forced to turn our mining activities to sifting through yesteryear’s junk yards for the same resources?
When will we remove the white lines down our roads, merging two lanes into one to fit the colossal SUV’s just waiting for a primed market?
I’m personally uncomfortable with such naive economic philosophies we broadly celebrate. And I fail to see how we can even start to talk meaningfully about taking action on biodiversity loss, land degradation or climate change, while still holding out on “endless growth”.
Just because it is, doesn’t mean that it should be.
We need to start thinking differently about how we interact with our common natural resources.
Some years ago, Michael Tobis suggested that we encourage much more economic activity towards non-material (or renewable) sources, such as art and entertainment. Given that higher density cities can achieve greater efficiencies, that automation is reducing the need for full time work and the concerns mentioned above, this could develop into hubs of economic activity while reducing such sources of stress.
And then there’s the thinking of people, such as Epicurus who said, “To become rich, do not add to your account, but subtract from your desires.”
Materialism brings loneliness and anxiety. We feel a strong want for so many things we don’t actually need and, moreover, are only momentarily fulfilling once they are obtained.
Learning to quiet the inner voice of trivial want makes us richer on a number of fronts: Of course, without spending, one has additional income to spend on more meaningful things (or to work less). And then there is the other side as well; if you desire less, you already have most of what you need and want.
This is the proper outcome of having wealth – the amount accrued to subjective and trivial, the outcome (i.e. contentment with one’s lot) more objective.
We may think we want to be a millionaire, but that is just the tool used to quench our desires. The same thing can be achieved, for a fraction of the cost, through the taming of want, while at the same reducing our anxieties, pointless efforts and vanities.
With our death, material stuff and wealth pass on to others or erode to nothing. We don’t own any of it, but borrow it for a brief speck of time.
The only thing we do own is our time. It’s ours to spend however we see fit. Unlike wealth, once it’s gone, it can never again be reclaimed.
We could waste our fleeting moments, stressing over our desk and work floors on how we can acquire a bigger SUV, house and other soon-to-be-forgotten goods (made more so by planned obsolescence). Or we could treasure the moments we save to hold our loved ones, laugh with old friends and build bonds with new friends.
Before bigger meant better, it was often defined by greed and gluttony.
Spend your time preciously and, in turn, tread a little lighter on our limited resources.