Thursday, February 26, 2009

Conservation and Economic Collapse

The core of my pessimism about long-term economic recovery is summed up by this Times article, blaming conservation in Japan for that nation's continued stagnation.

Today, years after the recovery, even well-off Japanese households use old bath water to do laundry, a popular way to save on utility bills. Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak. And the nation is losing interest in cars; sales have fallen by half since 1990.

So conservation kills economies. If this is true, we have two choices:

A. Consume to the end of time, use up all our resources, have a relatively brief period of economic growth, and then experience a complete collapse of our economy and civilization.

B. Conserve our resources and end up in a long-term recession like Japan.

Are these really our only two options? While I'm rarely comfortable with such stark choices, in this case, it may be true. People talk of the profits we can make on a green economy. No doubt there's a lot of truth to that, but only so long as those projects promote "green consumption." We still have to use lots of energy so those companies make money. We still have to buy new cars. We still have to buy shade-grown coffee and organic vegetables and free range beef. Cutting consumption, i.e., the real way to be green, is the worst thing we can do if we want the economy to expand.

Capitalism is predicated on unrestricted use of resources. We might conserve timber in this nation, but without a slackening of demand, it just leads to trees being cut in some other country's forest. We benefit locally, but globally the resource consumption has to grow if the economy is to flourish. We now face a situation where we simply don't have the resources to continue on this path. We are at peak oil, peak coal, peak rare minerals that go into computer, peak timber, peak everything. Commodity prices have fallen in the face of the recession. Theoretically, this should spur consumption, but if consumption reached the levels of 2 years ago, prices would again skyrocket.

So what do we do? How do we escape these twin disasters? How do we not destroy the Earth and also not live in poverty? Is there a way out?

I don't know. But if there we want to save the planet and live a decent life, we need to make major changes.

The first step has to be reorienting our economic standards. We need to rethink what a healthy economy means. This is hard and painful, as we are finding out during this recession. We need to find new ways of thinking about economic success that are separate from unrestrained resource use, personal consumption, and raw profit.

Take housing. Housing is at the core of our economic crisis--bad loans, inflated prices, etc. But even when the housing market was at its peak, many were crying out over the massive problems this causes--uncontrolled suburbanization, air pollution, use of oil, climate change, the paving over of America. These are terrible things. Yet our society privileges housing starts as the gold standard of success. Measuring economic growth through housing starts is a terrible idea--it encourages single family units, unsustainable sprawl, and climate change. Moreover, what do housing starts mean in terms of satisfaction in life? Wouldn't other measurements do a much better job of measuring people's satisfaction and the overall health of society? Instead, we need to promote multifamily housing, small spaces with community gardens, parks, and green space, and vibrant urban centers and then find a way to take their measurements to judge how we are doing.

The Japanese people interviewed in the story don't seem unhappy, though unemployment problems persist that cannot be ignored. If people want to conserve, regardless of the reasons why, shouldn't society promote that instead of calling it a problem that threatens to undermine the future?

That our addiction to unrestrained consumption means constant growth of unsustainable products to survive makes me extraordinarly pessimistic about our future. If the Japanese doing crazy things like not buying new cars every 3 years and reusing water is a disaster, then I just don't know where we are headed as a society. People need jobs and we as a society need to conserve. I feel the only way out is to completely reconsider our values as people and work to make people happy in local communities, working together to ensure a decent standard of living, good health care, safe food, and strong communities for all.

To choose otherwise means complete disaster for civilization within a century at the outside.