Friday, February 11, 2011

How much choice should we have in a sustainable world?

What our "competitive" economy has done has offered people a lot of choice. If someone is making a product or a good for a certain amount of money, other people may try to enter that business and try to produce the product for cheaper, thereby taking business away from the other producer. The first producer may then try to cut their costs, and drive their prices down. Once their prices are fairly equal, you end up with two businesses making similar products. Then they might get into the business of differentiating their products, and sometimes this differentiation may make the price of one of the products go up. What we end up with then are two businesses, making two slightly different products, that may offer you slightly different services. Regardless, we now have two enterprises making two things. We have now two choices. It is not so difficult to see how this may result in several choices. All the while, resources are extracted, in higher and higher amounts, at higher and higher rates, resulting in environmental degradation. (Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, we have a monopoly, that of course, has its negative social implications, too.)

We live in a world in which we can choose between modes of transportation. I can fly to Chicago, drive there, or fly there. We feel (and it is justifiable) that it is important to give people the choice of these options. We now have the choice of eating tomatoes in the middle of winter, and oranges thousands of miles away from where they were grown. But what I think is that it is very easy to take choice to an extreme, and we end up doing things just because we can (you can read more thoughts about this here, here and here). This results in trash, waste, degradation and downright violence, against other people and the environment. What the problem of sustainability throws in our way is the issue of limits to consumption, which necessarily will limit the choices available to people. I concede that I do not have the answer to what the choices we have should be pared down to, but I do know that this is probably not the right direction to look in, macro to micro. Rather, we should look at ourselves first, and see what it is that we think constitutes a happy and meaningful life, given the constraints the natural world puts on us. I think this is a more tractable approach.

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