Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Against Anti-Consumption

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Over the last few weeks at the Breakthrough Blog, there has been some discussion and debate over consumption and anti-consumption (see my post "Is Consumption Evil" here and Michael Shellenberger's post "The UnGandhi Generation" here). This post is intended to be a continuation of this discussion.

The History of Consumption

Consumption was probably invented thousands of years ago by one of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who figured out that he was better at making stone tools than at hunting deer and decided to set up a business supplying stone tools to hunters. Over the centuries, as division of labor has become more and more complex, so too has consumption become ever more intricate and elaborate.

Here is a 1776 quote from the "father of economics" Adam Smith describing this phenomenon.

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor....To take an example, therefore, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business, nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it, could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches ... One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head.

This miracle that Adam Smith calls the "greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor" has enabled mankind to achieve the high standard of living that we see around us today in the developed world. It is based on the idea of division of labor supported by consumption of labor. Non-pin-makers consume the pin-makers' labors, and when pin-makers consume food, they consume the labor of farmers.

Agrarianism Versus Wilderness Environmentalism

Consumption does involve use of natural resources (humans being part of nature, human resources are also natural resources, but I have used "natural resources" here to specifically mean non-human natural resources). There are also by-products of consumption - emissions from machinery, for example. It is this use of natural resources, and undesirable byproducts of consumption that form the basis of environmentalists' objections to consumption. This is certainly a valid point. Up to this point I agree with environmentalists. However, I do not agree with them that the solution lies in abandoning the idea of technological and economic development and instead adopting the "grow your own food", "make your own stuff", "live off the land" model - a localized self-reliant low-tech small-scale subsistence agrarian system.

The Earth has a total land area of approximately 36 billion acres and a human population of some 6 billion, which works out to about 6 acres per person. Now, considering that there are large parts of the Earth that are impossible to farm (Antarctica, Siberia, the Sahara, etc.), if everybody on Earth was to adopt a "grow your own food" approach, I think pretty much every farm-able square inch of land on Earth would have to be converted to farmland just to sustain the human population.

In light of today's environmentalists' championing the localized small-scale low-tech agrarian system as the answer to the world's environmental problems, it is interesting to compare this approach with that of John Muir, one of the architects of modern environmentalism, and the founder of the Sierra Club. Though he lived in a much more agrarian age than today, Muir never advocated the small-scale low-tech agrarian system as environmentally friendly. Instead, he was a strong proponent of preserving pristine wilderness areas. He was as much against converting wilderness areas into small farms as he was against industrial-scale projects in Yosemite or Hetch Hetchy. Muir had such great antipathy towards the small-scale low-tech agrarian system that he characterized farm animals as "hoofed locusts". In Muir's vision, large parts of the world are to be kept aside and protected as pristine wilderness areas. Unsaid, but implied in Muir's approach is the assumption that most human beings will not live directly off the land, but rather will fulfill much of their needs and desires with the help of other resources - human resources.

Human Resources and Natural Resources

In a modern economy like in the U.S., most people live largely off human resources rather than natural resources. Most of us earn our living off our education, our talent, our labor, rather than from crude oil, lumber, etc. The bulk of consumption in a modern economy consists of human resource consumption rather than natural resource consumption. Consider, for example, this blog. When you read this blog, you are in effect consuming my ideas. But you and I are also consuming computers produced by Dell and HP, network connectivity provided by AT&T and Comcast, and software and servers provided Google and Microsoft; web advertisers are consuming your "clicks"; and so on. This consumption does indeed involve natural resources. Computers need to be manufactured from raw materials. Energy is needed to power the computers and run the giant power-hungry server clusters over at Google and Microsoft. But this natural resource consumption pales in comparison to the human resource consumption that is involved - the ideas, the innovation, the software and hardware design, the logistics, and so on. I would say that when you read this blog, more than 90% of the consumption is human resource consumption and only 10% or less is natural resource consumption.

I do realize that we have serious problems with the 10% of consumption that involves natural resources. Even though the percentage is small, it is still large in absolute terms. And greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming is a huge issue. In fact, not only does natural resource consumption threaten the environment and all the world's inhabitants, in my view, it can distort human society as well. Consider Saudi Arabia. While the economies of most countries are powered primarily by human resource consumption, the Saudi economy is driven mostly by natural resource (crude oil) consumption. Dependent on human resources, most countries realize that it is in their interest to fully develop their human resources - by improving education, for example. Not so Saudi Arabia. Valuing human resources, most countries try to provide opportunities to all citizens including women, who represent fully half the available national talent. In Saudi Arabia on the other hand, with human resources counting for very little, women are kept locked up and denied even basic rights and opportunities.

Consumption as a Tool to Advance Environmentalism

Considering that indiscriminate consumption of natural resources is environmentally unsustainable, causes greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially perverts human society, I am fully in favor of changing our natural resource consumption patterns so as to make it more environmentally friendly and sustainable. However, I do not believe that the solution lies in drastically reducing our overall consumption. Since the bulk of our consumption consists of human resource consumption (which is good), the absolutist anti-consumption approach risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Moreover, given that there are six billion people on Earth, all desiring a decent quality of life, I believe that promoting the low-tech small-scale agrarian model is neither necessary nor sufficient to solve problems like global warming.

Instead of promoting an anti-consumption ideology, I think we should use consumption as a tool to encourage new and innovative technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address other environmental problems - technologies like solar energy, wind energy, electric vehicles, biotechnology, etc.