Tag Archives: Economics

Ethical Living, Personal Choices and Political Change

I recently read Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change by Derrick Jensen. He argues that that individuals making environmentally appropriate choices as consumers is problematic for a range of reasons. He is particularly hard on the concept of simple living as a political act. I’m going to look at the reasons he gives, and then take the argument a little further. Many people, either explicitly or not, see simple living as a more ethical (or sometimes moral) choice of behaviour. I will show that this individualized concept of ‘ethical living’ is itself ethically problematic, though this conclusion depends on accepting at least some of Jensen’s premises.

So why does personal change not produce the results we might want? Jensen notes several instances where individual consumers, even taken together as a group, are not the major users of a resource or the major contributors to a problem. An example given is that consumers take shorter showers in reaction to water shortages, but that residential water consumption is only a small percentage of the total used – most going to industry and agriculture.  His article does not cite sources as such, but this seems consistent with the figures supplied by the USGS here. A similar situation exists here in Australia with agriculture  (if not manufacturing) using significantly more water than domestic consumers.  The point is that the actions of an individual, in this case, how long your showers are, are not what is causing the problem, directly at least. So in one sense, certain forms of individual action might be just plain ineffective at achieving their stated aims.

I think there is a bit more to this that it seems. In terms of effectiveness, and depending on what conditions you place on a hypothetical scenario, very different outcomes might be likely. Consider the idea, that personal change on that part of individuals can’t affect certain changes because it isn’t individuals who contribute to the bulk of the problem, whereas industry or corporations does. In a nutshell, even if all consumers cut back, industry rolls on and the destruction continues. However, I think this is a problem of degree rather than anything else. I have to ask, what is industry making and who are they selling it to? If enough individuals stopped consuming certain products, then surely the industries that support the manufacture of those products must either adapt or ultimately fail. So why don’t they? A large part of this in the cases mentioned above is that not enough around the world people stop consuming enough different products. Consider water use in the US. To reduce overall water usage, not only do consumers in that country need to use less water, but consumers everywhere need to stop buying products manufactured/grown using that water. Hypothetically, if everyone in the world had shorter showers but still consumed like crazy, we would still face water shortages. Alternatively, if enough people everywhere stopped consuming to a great enough extent, then maybe our showers could be as long as we liked. Where water use in agriculture is concerned, there is a possible Malthusian factor though – maybe we have too many hungry mouths to use less water. I would dispute that this is necessarily the case as it is at least possible that agriculture in the US could make more efficient use of water. A similar situation might obtain for problematic areas such as carbon pollution.  What should be noted is the sheer enormity of such a change in behavior and massive unwinding of our current economic system that it might entail. As I’ve speculated elsewhere though, degrowth does not have to be such a bad thing. Clearly if enough people stopped consuming enough different things, then something would change. So what is exactly is Jensen getting at?

Jensen presents further reasons why the approach of simple living as a political act fails.

The first is that it is based upon the idea that humans inevitably damage their environment. Now, I’m not an expert on whether or not this is, as Jensen states, a ‘flawed notion’. But I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that it isn’t necessarily true.This notion certainty assumes a very one dimensional and non-dynamic conception of ‘environment’ – as if it s a separate thing from us humans.

The second reason is that “it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual”. This is, I feel, at least slightly contentious, because while individuals are not directly responsibly for certain things, they do play a role in maintaining the political status quo. Yes, individual choices as consumers don’t lead to social change – but many people making these choices are quite happy with that arrangement and thus should bear some responsibility.

The third reason is that accepting the definition of ‘consumer’ as a political choice cuts off other legitimate avenues of social and political resistance. I am not sure if it is the case that if people think of their ethical and environmental choices in terms of them being one sort of consumer or another, that this leads to them eschewing other forms of political expression. But if it is the case that you think that your choice of bottled water or footwear makes a bigger difference to the environment than who you vote for, I’m intuitively inclined to say that you are mistaken.

The fourth reason given is a little more complicated. If every action in an industrialized economy is destructive and the best we can come up with is non-participation in this economy, then the ultimate form of non-participation must be death. (That’s my reading of it anyway). I’m not sure how to call this one. But I do appreciate that for some, the symbolism would seem quite compelling.

Jensen’s claim is that simple living cannot produce broad and deep social and political change. I think that if enough people everywhere lived simply enough, that profound changes would occur. In the context of a finite system, this must be at least likely. The point that Jensen is driving at, is whether or not simple living as one’s only political act will lead to widespread change. I’m not sure I can properly test this claim, but offer the following observation. Unless your choice to live simply, in and of itself and without any further political or social action on your part, convinces a lot of other people everywhere to live simply, then the answer must be that your act will not.

If your aim in living simply is to follow something like the Categorical Imperative, then it can seem like your choice is nonetheless justified. This is because if we universalize the choice to consume less, we have (for those who believe in degrowth at least) an acceptable outcome. However, if we universalize the idea that individual choices in consumption would be the only political act one would undertake, then we have a situation where adverse political and social outcomes are possible. Simple living does not, in and of itself, negate the possibility of fascist or feudal political systems – even if it did somehow achieve the desired environmental ends. And that is before we even include the possibility of the choices we make as consumers being subject to duress, structural restriction or manipulation. The disconnect between patterns of consumption and the political situation is a key weakness with the idea that if everyone just buys less everything will be OK. If you do not address the politics, then things might not be.

Likewise, a simplified utilitarian analysis of simple living  as the sole political act indicates that it is possibly problematic (even if we leave out the possibility of problematic politics). If we assume that the this act does not lead to positive changes, then surely it does not do much for ‘utility’, however you want to measure it. The utility of an individual act of living simply is different to the hypothetical utility of everyone living simply.

This is where the other key mistake in reasoning regarding simple living could be. If you live simply enough, then yes, it might well be the case that if everyone did it, that the environmental outcome would be positive. But they don’t, and they won’t just because you do. Unless there is reason to think that your choice will lead to many people making the same choice, you are not actually achieving much at all and it is a form of ‘magical thinking’ to believe otherwise. If you thing you have an ethical or moral obligation to hep the environment and this is the only thing that you do, I would argue that you have not met this obligation.

So there you have it.  If simple living – the act of an individual deliberately consuming less – is the only political act this individual undertakes, there is no guarantee that environmental, social or political changes will follow. This is because a reduction in consumption has to be very widespread to even have a chance at achieving these aims and it is unlikely to become widespread without additional political or social action. In addition, cutting oneself off from political participation, except for choices in consumption, even if it were widely adopted, would be no protection against adverse political and social outcomes. The effects of your choice as an individual, or even a large community, should not be confused or conflated with the hypothetical effects of everyone living as you do.

None of this means that there is no point to living simply and sustainably, and being more mindful of what you consume – it’s a choice that many people enjoy and it does help. But, by itself,  it only helps a little. If you desire political or social change, or if you think you have a deeper ethical or moral obligation to the environment, then (at a minimum) you need to convince more people everywhere to live as you do. This means that your choices as a consumer are no longer your sole political act. And this, I think Jensen would agree,  would be a good thing.


Degrowth, Innovation and ‘Big Stuff’

There have been a range of responses to Dr Samuel Alexander’s recent article on The Conversation: “Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it”. This post started off as my comment, but it got a little longer than anticipated. I think that I can appreciate why some people are worried about the concept of ‘degrowth’ – it’s not necessarily for frivolous reasons. Here are my doubts, and my assessments of them.

Without really thinking about it, I almost instantly nurtured a concern that a degrowth or steady-state economy might curtail the likelihood of societies reaching, or even aiming for, certain future technological or intellectual achievements. Perhaps the world might never have truly global high-speed broadband. Fusion power stations? Unlikely. Forget about the space elevator, moving to Mars or holidays on the moon. In fact, forget about space pretty much altogether. There will be no quantum home-computing, miraculous nano-tech, radical life-extension, mind-uploading, strong AI, cyborgs, vat-grown replacement organs, gene-tailoring, or full-sensory VR/sim-stim.

Intellectual and scientific achievements, or more precisely, the people and institutions who enable them, would seem to require certain amount of resources. Having people study full-time for eight to ten years and then spend the rest of their working lives thinking, researching, doing experiments with specialised equipment and/or really hard sums etc. must cost quite a lot, both in terms of money and energy. In a situation of scarce resources, academia might not look like a good investment to everyone. And if we do exist, are we going to have to make do without whiteboard markers? How am I to run a lecture if I can’t do a PowerPoint presentation (and then post it online so that students don’t have to attend anyway)?

The more I thought about this though, the more I began to suspect that my fears are at least slightly misguided or without the ethical weight that I had subconsciously attached to them. My responses to these worries fall roughly into 3 categories.

1. We are not really working towards these technological achievements in a meaningful or effective way in a ‘growth’ economy. So it’s possible that degrowth would not be the relevant causal factor that would stop them from happening.

2. We might still do these things still anyway and could if we really wanted to.

3. There might be some things that, for various reasons, we shouldn’t do, so not doing them would be a good thing anyway.

Response #1 stems from the concern raised by Neal Stephenson in his 2011 article, Innovation Starvation (and that Project Hieroglyph seeks to address). “Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?” asks Stephenson (2011). Likewise he (correctly in my opinion) points out the stagnation and vacillation that has limited progress in moving the U.S. to non-oil energy sources. (The same observation could quite plausibly be argued with coal in Australia.) The point here is that many of these innovations are not even on the drawing board and if they are, they are subject to the fickle nature of short-term commercial considerations. If we accept that economies that are both wealthy and growing do not necessarily “execute on the big stuff” (Stephenson, 2011), then we have less reason to think that less materially ostentatious steady-state societies will fail to deliver. The idea that we can only send rockets to the moon if the economy is both growing and strong does not necessarily stack up.

A similar thesis regarding academia might be defended as well. This is a bit less well developed and does not apply everywhere, but it is basically that having a wealthy, growing economy does not translate into more resources for higher education and research. In fact, depending on the government of the day, it can sometimes produce a reduction in spending on these areas.

If growth isn’t helping, then degrowth might not be such a problem.
Response #2 follows from this. An economy with less resources is not an economy with no resources. We just might have to be selective about what we try to do. It might also be that there has to be a change in how the economics of certain grand projects are construed. If we cannot borrow against the future and wait for our debt to be inflated away, then a different approach will probably be needed. There is a limit – obviously. But we would still have a lot of people, knowledge and a planet full of resources, and that has to count for something.

Similarly, academia and research need not be curtailed. We can probably still find the money if we really want to. And who knows, if there are no more PowerPoint presentations, perhaps our lecture halls will be packed with students once more. It should also be noted (if I wasn’t making it obvious enough already), that intellectual achievement and material wealth are not necessarily linked. True, that’s easy for a philosopher to say – I just need something to keep the weather and wildlife away from me and to be fed at regular intervals. But the same is likely to be true for at least some other academic disciplines. Activities that are more resource intensive (regardless of their nature) are going to require a correspondingly high level of political/societal consensus. This will mean convincing people that we need to channel a large chunk of their real resources (directly or not) into these projects. People will need to appreciate why this is important. So, somewhat radically, we might have to have a population that is better educated than it is now in order to convince them to support the building of a supercollider or space-station. Importantly, people will need to be able to see the potential benefits and accept the potential risks. If you cannot convince a society to support your project, you can always fall back on the observation of ‘givens’ as Stephenson’s ‘avout’ do in Anathem.

Response #3 is a bit more complicated and does not apply to academia so much. What I’ve put here is just a sketch and does not address the full nuance of such an idea. What I am not doing is passing judgment on space exploration or any of the other potential future technologies that I mentioned earlier.

In one sense, to say that there are some things we shouldn’t do is a bit of an over-simplification. Rather, I would say that there are some things that we really should think very carefully about before we commit to doing them. Now, if we were in a steady-state economy, we could not avoid this as easily as we do now. I think that one of the results of present-day economics and politics is the ability, both individually and collectively, to not think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and where these decisions might take us in the future. So we still might have fantastically advanced but dangerous nano-tech. But only if enough people so convinced of the risk/benefit balance that they will materially support it.

There is another stronger and broader sense in which #3 can be construed though. It is that the appeal of some of these technologies are symptoms of our individual and collective inability to deal with the fact that we are short-lived, unfulfilled, irrational, passionate and sometimes unpleasant animals, living on one isolated planet (that we seem intent on ruining) in an uncaring and absurd universe. My worry is that space exploration, for example, might be appealing because it allows us to avoid thinking too hard about difficult subjects like the economy that mysteriously grows forever, or what sort of environment we are leaving for future generations. It isn’t totally implausible that sufficiently advanced space travel and habitation technology could allow (some) people to avoid the reality of these problems, carrying our maladaptive ideologies and economics along with us as we go. This is a concern of some space-exploration detractors – we might simply end up making a mess of other places. So maybe this is a case where we just need to develop a better attitude to how we relate to the universe. Dan Simmons’ Ousters perhaps? I would argue that we could do worse than Peter F Hamilton’s Edenists as well.

Please note that I cannot rule out that some technologies or achievements are ethically or morally problematic in a way that is independent of their ability to allow us to avoid dealing with (or thinking about dealing with) certain problems. Thus, it is possible that they might turn out to be no great loss, because they were a bad idea in the first place. The arguments for other technologies and projects are probably going to be different for each. For example, radical life-extension has different ethical complications to immersive VR or colonising space. What these things do have in common is that they are worth thinking about and involve choosing certain values.

Response #3 is the one that has the least amount of potential easy answers. It’s necessary to consider whether or not we should do something rather than simply asking whether or not we can do it. The answers are rarely a straight yes or no affair. Many things fall into the category of ‘Yes, if certain conditions are met’. For example, we might be that we could ethically colonise space if we preserve and integrate into the environments we find there, rather than exploit and degrade them as we have done on Earth. It would be OK to build a space elevator, if certain environmental, social and economic conditions are met. Some things might seem too dangerous or otherwise just too unethical to pursue. But I am willing to speculate that there would be a lot of ‘big stuff’ that we could do with a clear conscience if we put some serious thought into it.

Would a de-growing or steady-state economy stop us from expanding our knowledge, stifle innovation and education and stop society from ever creating and completing the kind of grand projects that Neal Stephenson has in mind? Not necessarily at least. Would our approach to these things have to be different? Definitely, but as Stephenson (2011) and I have observed, our current economy isn’t really enabling these projects anyway. Our approach might have to be much more inclusive at a political and economic level. Because of this, we might have to think really hard, at a collective level, about what it is that we really want to achieve. There might be some projects and technologies that we ought to avoid. But if we have to carefully consider our options, we might be able negotiate a path that is environmentally/economically sustainable, reasonably ethical, and still have room for the great innovations and ventures that Stephenson would like to see.