Saturday, May 21, 2011

On the unsustainability of tradeoffs

We're always faced with situations in which we have to choose one or the other. Many times, especially in politics in the US, we choose between two politicians. More often than not, these choices are between two options that are both terrible, and we end up in a bind in which we guarantee a bad outcome, no matter what.

It seems to me that when culture existed in a much different state (say, groups of thirty or forty humans truly living off of the land and in tune with nature), tradeoffs were likely not a problem at all. I may be completely ignorant to the tradeoffs that they were making, but the scale of tradeoffs they were making were nothing like the tradeoffs we deal with today - going to school at a large public university or a small liberal arts college, building a publicly-owned bridge across the Detroit River by displacing many residents or having another privately-owned bridge that won't displace residents. I wonder what the first tradeoff that was ever made was. The most ecologically-impactful tradeoffs probably began when man sought to modify nature in ways that would make things "efficient" for himself. Tradeoffs are complicated issues, and are, to me, one of the fundamental features of decision-making today that leads to unsustainability.

When we say tradeoff, what we are really saying is we are willing to make the choice of doing one thing at the expense of another thing. Take mountaintop removal, for example. Many people have decided that coal is the way we want to power ourselves. What we are doing is powering ourselves, our lives, at the expense of the mountain, the river, the atmosphere. We do this because, to put it in neoclassical (cartoon) economic terms, the "benefits" of powering ourselves through coal are much "higher" than the "costs" of ecological harm. What this necessarily entails, however, are costs, regardless, and someone, some nature, somewhere, is going to feel the negative effects of this choice. There is no skirting this issue, I think we can all agree with that. 

As I have continually written about in the blog, what we do then is we address the "costs," the negative outcomes of our choices, with the very same tradeoff mentality, which results in other "costs." Indeed, it seems like the costs of every decision then have some sort of asymptotic character (basically, the costs are never fully addressed), in which any proposed remedy to those costs has its own asymptotic character. 

How can we live in a world in which the decisions we make don't require tradeoffs? I want to live in a world in which spending time with my friends or family doesn't require nature to be harmed. Here and now, I can make choices in which I respect the existence of nature and the people around me. I feel as though rather than exclude things like trees and rivers from my ethic, my bubble of stakeholders in my decisions, it is easy to include them in my ethic, and make decisions accordingly. What this translates to is meaningful, impactful choices that respect both nature and people. If I want to spend some time with my friend, I can choose to drive out of town with that person, or choose to walk along the river right outside of my home with that person. What I would do in the first instance is pollute the atmosphere, at bare minimum, while spending time with my friend. I will have chosen to spend time with my friend at the expense of the atmosphere. What I would do in the second instance is respect the atmosphere, not pollute it, while at the same time spending time with my friend. These are small choices that each one of us can make, that are easily expanded in scope, easily extrapolated, that truly do have immeasurable, yet profound implications for our world.

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