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J U N E 1 9 9 7
by Mark Sagoff
N 1994, when delegates from around the world gathered in Cairo for the International Conference on Population and Development, representatives from developing countries protested that a baby born in the United States will consume during its lifetime twenty times as much of the world's resources as an African or an Indian baby. The problem for the world's environment, they argued, is overconsumption in the North, not overpopulation in the South.
Consumption in industrialized nations "has led to overexploitation of the resources of developing countries," a speaker from Kenya declared. A delegate from Antigua reproached the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population for consuming 80 percent of the goods and services produced from the earth's resources.
Do we consume too much? To some, the answer is self-evident. If there is only so much food, timber, petroleum, and other material to go around, the more we consume, the less must be available for others. The global economy cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet. As populations increase and economies expand, natural resources must be depleted; prices will rise, and humanity -- especially the poor and future generations at all income levels -- will suffer as a result.
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Other reasons to suppose we consume too much are less often stated though also
widely believed. Of these the simplest -- a lesson we learn from our
from literature since the Old Testament -- may be the best:although we
satisfy basic needs, a good life is not one devoted to amassing material
possessions; what we own comes to own us, keeping us from fulfilling
commitments that give meaning to life, such as those to family, friends, and
faith. The appreciation of nature also deepens our lives. As we consume more,
however, we are more likely to transform the natural world, so that less of it
will remain for us to appreciate. |
The reasons for protecting nature are often religious or moral. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin points out, many Americans believe that we have an obligation to protect species which goes beyond our own well-being; we "think we should admire and protect them because they are important in themselves, and not just if or because we or others want or enjoy them."In a recent survey Americans from various walks of life agreed by large majorities with the statement "Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it." The anthropologists who conducted this survey concluded that "divine creation is the closest concept American culture provides to express the sacredness of nature."
During the nineteenth century preservationists forthrightly gave ethical and spiritual reasons for protecting the natural world. John Muir condemned the "temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism" who "instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty dollar." This was not a call for better cost-benefit analysis: Muir described nature not as a commodity but as a companion. Nature is sacred, Muir held, whether or not resources are scarce.
Philosophers such as Emerson and Thoreau thought of nature as full of divinity. Walt Whitman celebrated a leaf of grass as no less than the journeywork of the stars: "After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,"he wrote in Specimen Days, and "found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear -- what remains? Nature remains." These philosophers thought of nature as a refuge from economic activity, not as a resource for it.
Today those who wish to protect the natural environment rarely offer ethical or spiritual reasons for the policies they favor. Instead they say we are running out of resources or causing the collapse of ecosystems on which we depend. Predictions of resource scarcity appear objective and scientific, whereas pronouncements that nature is sacred or that greed is bad appear judgmental or even embarrassing in a secular society. Prudential and economic arguments, moreover, have succeeded better than moral or spiritual ones in swaying public policy.
These prudential and economic arguments are not likely to succeed much longer. It is simply wrong to believe that nature sets physical limits to economic growth -- that is, to prosperity and the production and consumption of goods and services on which it is based. The idea that increasing consumption will inevitably lead to depletion and scarcity, as plausible as it may seem, is mistaken both in principle and in fact. It is based on four misconceptions.
Misconception No. 1: We Are
From the archive:
"The reforestation of the eastern United States -- thanks partly to conservationists and mostly to accident -- can show the developing world how to make room for people, farming, industry, and endangered species of plants and animals, which have been returning. We can give the rest of the world a better example if we address the problems that even this fortunate region still faces. "
The transition from hunting and gathering to farming, which is changing the
fishing industry, has taken place more slowly in forestry. Still there is no
sign of a timber famine. In the United States forests now provide the largest
harvests in history, and there is more forested U.S. area today than there was
in 1920. Bill McKibben has observed in these pages that the eastern United
States, which loggers and farmers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
nearly denuded of trees, has become reforested during this century (see "An
Explosion of Green," April, 1995, Atlantic). One reason is that
reverted to woods. Another is that machinery replaced animals; each draft
animal required two or three cleared acres for pasture.|
Natural reforestation is likely to continue as biotechnology makes areas used for logging more productive. According to Roger Sedjo, a respected forestry expert, advances in tree farming, if implemented widely, would permit the world to meet its entire demand for industrial wood using just 200 million acres of plantations -- an area equal to only five percent of current forest land. As less land is required for commercial tree production, more natural forests may be protected -- as they should be, for aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual reasons.
Often natural resources are so plentiful and therefore inexpensive that they undercut the necessary transition to technological alternatives. If the U.S. government did not protect wild forests from commercial exploitation, the timber industry would have little incentive to invest in tree plantations, where it can multiply yields by a factor of ten and take advantage of the results of genetic research. Only by investing in plantation silviculture can North American forestry fend off price competition from rapidly developing tree plantations in the Southern Hemisphere. Biotechnology-based silviculture can in the near future be expected to underprice "extractive" forestry worldwide. In this decade China will plant about 150 million acres of trees; India now plants four times the area it harvests commercially.
From the archive:
"A survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations: an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or raw material or capital, is the key resource; a social order in which inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge; and a polity in which government cannot be looked to for solving social and economic problems ."
The expansion of fish and tree farming confirms the belief held by Peter
Drucker and other management experts that our economy depends far more on the
progress of technology than on the exploitation of nature. Although raw
materials will always be necessary, knowledge has become the essential factor
in the production of goods and services. "Where there is effective management,"
Drucker has written, "that is, application of knowledge to knowledge, we can
always obtain the other resources." If we assume, along with Drucker and
others, that resource scarcities do not exist or are easily averted, it is hard
to see how economic theory, which after all concerns scarcity, provides the
conceptual basis for valuing the environment. The reasons to preserve nature
are ethical more often than they are economic.|
Misconception No. 3: We Are
From the archive:
"Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America's leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment, and limit our costly, dangerous dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf Region ."
Last year Joseph Romm and Charles Curtis described in these pages advances in
photovoltaic cells (which convert sunlight into electricity), fuel cells (which
convert the hydrogen in fuels directly to electricity and heat, producing
virtually no pollution), and wind power ("Mideast Oil
Forever?" April, 1996,
Atlantic). According to these authors, genetically engineered organisms
used to ferment organic matter could, with further research and development,
bring down the costs of ethanol and other environmentally friendly "biofuels"
to make them competitive with gasoline.|
Environmentalists who, like Amory Lovins, believe that our economy can grow and still reduce greenhouse gases emphasize not only that we should be able to move to renewable forms of energy but also that we can use fossil fuels more efficiently. Some improvements are already evident. In developed countries the energy intensity of production -- the amount of fuel burned per dollar of economic output -- has been decreasing by about two percent a year.
From 1973 to 1986, for example, energy consumption in the United States remained virtually flat while economic production grew by almost 40 percent. Compared with Germany or Japan, this is a poor showing. The Japanese, who tax fuel more heavily than we do, use only half as much energy as the United States per unit of economic output. (Japanese environmental regulations are also generally stricter than ours; if anything, this has improved the competitiveness of Japanese industry.) The United States still wastes hundreds of billions of dollars annually in energy inefficiency. By becoming as energy-efficient as Japan, the United States could expand its economy and become more competitive internationally.
If so many opportunities exist for saving energy and curtailing pollution, why have we not seized them? One reason is that low fossil-fuel prices remove incentives for fuel efficiency and for converting to other energy sources. Another reason is that government subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy amounted to many billions of dollars a year during the 1980s, whereas support for renewables dwindled to $114 million in 1989, a time when it had been proposed for near elimination. "Lemon socialism," a vast array of subsidies and barriers to trade, protects politically favored technologies, however inefficient, dangerous, filthy, or obsolete. "At heart, the major obstacles standing in the way [of a renewable-energy economy] are not technical in nature," the energy consultant Michael Brower has written, "but concern the laws, regulations, incentives, public attitudes, and other factors that make up the energy market."
In response to problems of climate change, the World Bank and other international organizations have recognized the importance of transferring advanced energy technologies to the developing world. Plainly, this will take a large investment of capital, particularly in education. Yet the "alternative for developing countries," according to José Goldemberg, a former Environment Minister of Brazil, "would be to remain at a dismally low level of development which . . . would aggravate the problems of sustainability."
Technology transfer can hasten sound economic development worldwide. Many environmentalists, however, argue that economies cannot expand without exceeding the physical limits nature sets -- for example, with respect to energy. These environmentalists, who regard increasing affluence as a principal cause of environmental degradation, call for economic retrenchment and retraction -- a small economy for a small earth. With Paul Ehrlich, they reject "the hope that development can greatly increase the size of the economic pie and pull many more people out of poverty." This hope is "basically a humane idea," Ehrlich has written, "made insane by the constraints nature places on human activity."
In developing countries, however, a no-growth economy "will deprive entire populations of access to better living conditions and lead to even more deforestation and land degradation," as Goldemberg warns. Moreover, citizens of developed countries are likely to resist an energy policy that they associate with poverty, discomfort, sacrifice, and pain. Technological pessimism, then, may not be the best option for environmentalists. It is certainly not the only one.
No. 4: The North
From the archive:
"The two axial principles of our age -- tribalism and globalism -- clash at every point except one: they may both be threatening to democracy."
Writing in these pages, Benjamin Barber ("Jihad vs. McWorld," March, 1992,
Atlantic) described market forces that "mesmerize the world with fast
music, fast computers, and fast food -- with MTV, Macintosh, and
pressing nations into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld
tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce." Affluent
citizens of South Korea, Thailand, India, Brazil, Mexico, and many other
rapidly developing nations have joined with Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and
others to form an urban and cosmopolitan international society. Those who
participate in this global network are less and less beholden to local customs
and traditions. Meanwhile, ethnic, tribal, and other cultural groups that do
not dissolve into McWorld often define themselves in opposition to
it -- fiercely
asserting their ethnic, religious, and territorial identities.|
The imposition of a market economy on traditional cultures in the name of development -- for example, the insistence that everyone produce and consume more -- can dissolve the ties to family, land, community, and place on which indigenous peoples traditionally rely for their security. Thus development projects intended to relieve the poverty of indigenous peoples may, by causing the loss of cultural identity, engender the very powerlessness they aim to remedy. Pope Paul VI, in the encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967), described the tragic dilemma confronting indigenous peoples: "either to preserve traditional beliefs and structures and reject social progress; or to embrace foreign technology and foreign culture, and reject ancestral traditions with their wealth of humanism."
From the archive:
An Atlantic Unbound interview with Robert Kuttner, author of Everything for Sale.
The idea that everything is for sale and nothing is sacred -- that all
subjective -- undercuts our own moral and cultural commitments, not
just those of
tribal and traditional communities. No one has written a better critique of the
assault that commerce makes on the quality of our lives than Thoreau provides
in Walden. The cost of a thing, according to Thoreau, is not what the
market will bear but what the individual must bear because of it: it is "the
amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it,
immediately or in the long run." |
Many observers point out that as we work harder and consume more, we seem to enjoy our lives less. We are always in a rush -- a "Saint Vitus' dance," as Thoreau called it. Idleness is suspect. Americans today spend less time with their families, neighbors, and friends than they did in the 1950s. Juliet B. Schor, an economist at Harvard University, argues that "Americans are literally working themselves to death." A fancy car, video equipment, or a complex computer program can exact a painful cost in the form of maintenance, upgrading, and repair. We are possessed by our possessions; they are often harder to get rid of than to acquire.
That money does not make us happier, once our basic needs are met, is a commonplace overwhelmingly confirmed by sociological evidence. Paul Wachtel, who teaches social psychology at the City University of New York, has concluded that bigger incomes "do not yield an increase in feelings of satisfaction or well-being, at least for populations who are above a poverty or subsistence level." This cannot be explained simply by the fact that people have to work harder to earn more money: even those who hit jackpots in lotteries often report that their lives are not substantially happier as a result. Well-being depends upon health, membership in a community in which one feels secure, friends, faith, family, love, and virtues that money cannot buy. Robert Lane, a political scientist at Yale University, using the concepts of economics, has written, "If `utility' has anything to do with happiness, above the poverty line the long-term marginal utility of money is almost zero."
Economists in earlier times predicted that wealth would not matter to people once they attained a comfortable standard of living. "In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level," wrote Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century English advocate of the free market. In the 1930s the British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that after a period of great expansion further accumulation of wealth would no longer improve personal well-being. Subsequent economists, however, found that even after much of the industrial world had attained the levels of wealth Keynes thought were sufficient, people still wanted more. From this they inferred that wants are insatiable.
Perhaps this is true. But the insatiability of wants and desires poses a difficulty for standard economic theory, which posits that humanity's single goal is to increase or maximize wealth. If wants increase as fast as income grows, what purpose can wealth serve?
Critics often attack standard economic theory on the ground that economic growth is "unsustainable." We are running out of resources, they say; we court ecological disaster. Whether or not growth is sustainable, there is little reason to think that once people attain a decent standard of living, continued growth is desirable. The economist Robert H. Nelson recently wrote in the journal Ecological Economics that it is no longer possible for most people to believe that economic progress will "solve all the problems of mankind, spiritual as well as material." As long as the debate over sustainability is framed in terms of the physical limits to growth rather than the moral purpose of it, mainstream economic theory will have the better of the argument. If the debate were framed in moral or social terms, the result might well be otherwise.
Making a Place for Nature
From the archive:
Excerpts from the journals of a young amateur naturalist who changed our relationship to the land.
"Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light, -- to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. "
CCORDING to Thoreau, "a man's relation
to Nature must come very near to a personal one." For
environmentalists in the tradition of Thoreau and John Muir, stewardship is
a form of fellowship; although we must use nature, we
do not value it primarily for the economic purposes it serves. We take our
bearings from the natural world -- our sense of time from its days and
our sense of place from the character of a landscape and the particular plants
and animals native to it. An intimacy with nature ends our isolation in the
world. We know where we belong, and we can find the way home.|
In defending old-growth forests, wetlands, or species we make our best arguments when we think of nature chiefly in aesthetic and moral terms. Rather than having the courage of our moral and cultural convictions, however, we too often rely on economic arguments for protecting nature, in the process attributing to natural objects more instrumental value than they have. By claiming that a threatened species may harbor lifesaving drugs, for example, we impute to that species an economic value or a price much greater than it fetches in a market. When we make the prices come out right, we rescue economic theory but not necessarily the environment.
There is no credible argument, moreover, that all or even most of the species we are concerned to protect are essential to the functioning of the ecological systems on which we depend. (If whales went extinct, for example, the seas would not fill up with krill.) David Ehrenfeld, a biologist at Rutgers University, makes this point in relation to the vast ecological changes we have already survived. "Even a mighty dominant like the American chestnut," Ehrenfeld has written, "extending over half a continent, all but disappeared without bringing the eastern deciduous forest down with it." Ehrenfeld points out that the species most likely to be endangered are those the biosphere is least likely to miss. "Many of these species were never common or ecologically influential; by no stretch of the imagination can we make them out to be vital cogs in the ecological machine."
From the archive:
"The best way to save endangered species may be to help them pay their own way. "
"Because the government doesn't have the means to preserve endangered species, let alone a coherent plan its decisions are haphazard -- and private landowners often find themselves paying for the preservation of species they've never heard of. "
"Conventional wisdom has it that the way to avert global ecological disaster is to persuade people to change their selfish habits for the common good. A more sensible approach would be to tap a boundless and renewable resource: the human propensity for thinking mainly of short term self-interest. "
Species may be profoundly important for cultural and spiritual reasons,
however. Consider again the example of the wild salmon, whose habitat is being
destroyed by hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River. Although this loss is
unimportant to the economy overall (there is no shortage of salmon), it is of
the greatest significance to the Amerindian tribes that have traditionally
subsisted on wild salmon, and to the region as a whole. By viewing local flora
and fauna as a sacred heritage -- by recognizing their intrinsic
value -- we
discover who we are rather than what we want. On moral and cultural
grounds society might be justified in making great economic
sacrifices -- removing hydroelectric dams, for example -- to
populations of the Snake River sockeye, even if, as critics complain, hundreds
or thousands of dollars are spent for every fish that is saved.
Even those plants and animals that do not define places possess enormous intrinsic value and are worth preserving for their own sake. What gives these creatures value lies in their histories, wonderful in themselves, rather than in any use to which they can be put. The biologist E. O. Wilson elegantly takes up this theme: "Every kind of organism has reached this moment in time by threading one needle after another, throwing up brilliant artifices to survive and reproduce against nearly impossible odds." Every plant or animal evokes not just sympathy but also reverence and wonder in those who know it.
In Earth in the Balance (1992) Al Gore, then a senator, wrote, "We have become so successful at controlling nature that we have lost our connection to it." It is all too easy, Gore wrote, "to regard the earth as a collection of `resources' having an intrinsic value no larger than their usefulness at the moment." The question before us is not whether we are going to run out of resources. It is whether economics is the appropriate context for thinking about environmental policy.
Even John Stuart Mill, one of the principal authors of utilitarian philosophy, recognized that the natural world has great intrinsic and not just instrumental value. More than a century ago, as England lost its last truly wild places, Mill condemned a world
with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up; all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture.The world has the wealth and the resources to provide everyone the opportunity to live a decent life. We consume too much when market relationships displace the bonds of community, compassion, culture, and place. We consume too much when consumption becomes an end in itself and makes us lose affection and reverence for the natural world.
Copyright © 1997 by Mark Sagoff. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1997; Do We Consume Too Much; Volume 279, No. 6; pages 80-96.