Thursday, April 14, 2011

Further thoughts on choice

I have written about the issue of choice in a couple of contexts, including "political consumption" (here, here, inspired by Ethan), doing things just because we can, Pareto optimality, and just the choices available to us in an ecologically sustainable world. I would like to expand a little bit more on these choices that may (should) or may not (should not) be available to us in an ecologically sustainable world.

As with everything, I want to bring this down from a macro-scale issue to a micro-scale issue. At yesterday's Student Sustainability Initiative Roundtable, the last one of the year, Ryan talked about the successes in reducing waste and trash from athletic events on campus. There is hope then that these successes will be built on, and maybe a day will come in which people may be able to bring their own water bottles to Michigan American football games, because plastic bottles of water will just not be allowed to be sold there. In response, someone said that she would rather allow people the option of bringing in their own bottles, rather than banning outright plastic bottles. She felt that limiting choice is not the right approach; rather, we should add choices.

I can see what she is trying to say, but I would have to totally disagree with her. Some things just don't exist in an ecologically sustainable University of Michigan campus. Plastic bottled water is one of those things. The only way to make that happen is through either phasing them out, or banning them. If we think about this issue a little more broadly, it isn't as if we have all of the choices available to us right now.

Much of the clutter of the world has come through a continual expansion of choice, as I've elaborated on previously; at the same time, many choices just are not available to us. Whether I like it or not, if I live in Michigan, when I charge my phone, electricity that has been generated by using coal is something I have to deal with and accept. If you don't live next to a Farmers' Market, and don't have a way of growing your own food and don't have a place where you can buy things with minimal packaging, highly packaged food or fast food may be your only options. This raises some complicated issues of how we've invested so much in making sure that we degrade our environment and health, but I don't want that thought to distract me here.

I believe that our current choices need to be replaced, and current choices just should not be available to us if we want to tread lightly on this planet. If you think in terms of "free-market capitalism," that would mean that the price of doing something ecologically degrading would just be so high that you wouldn't be compelled to do it. But say you did have enough money to do something bad to the environment. Well, we can make it a "criminal activity" of sorts to do something like that, i.e. the social norm encourages us to think otherwise. The choices for us to have Hummers, to degrade the health of individuals and water and air by citing an incinerator next to where they live, and to be able to freely trash the environment just don't exist in an ecologically sustainable world. No amount of "monetary compensation" can be used to justify those actions. Those choices must be taken away.

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