Sunday, November 23, 2008

A collective action problem, aka sustainability

A couple days ago I made the rather libertarian assertion that people should be free to spend their own money on whatever stupid thing they felt like spending it on, including humongous gas guzzling SUVs (e.g., that triumph of marketing over common sense, the Hummer) and sports car pecker extenders like Vipers. I just don't want to hear any whining from the buyers about the cost of fueling those vehicles once they've got them. Then Lisa administered a dope slap in a comment and reminded me about the elephant in the room, the thing we materialistic, shopping mall worshipping Americans keep trying to ignore: Sustainability.

The cold hard truth is that the typical American lifestyle is not sustainable. Collectively we're resource hogs. We live in houses that are too big, drive cars we don't need, eat foods that are farmed in ways that are destroying the planet, and do most of it in blissful ignorance. We've managed to convince ourselves that if we just switch our incandescent lightbulbs to fluorescents, haul newspapers to a recycling bin, and occasionally shop at a thrift store instead of Dillard's we're doing our part to save the planet. We're kidding ourselves.

In fact, in one of the great ironies of our times, we buy magazines like Real Simple that tell us that the way to simplify our lives (and, by implication, live more environmentally sustainable lives) is to buy more stuff to organize the stuff you've already got. Places like the Container Store exist solely to sell us containers in which to stash the stuff we don't need and never use but seem to believe we have to have anyway. If alien archeologists exist they're going to have a field day picking through the ruins of our society.

In philosophical terms, what we have is a collective action problem. If I ignore a do not walk on the grass sign one time, my foot prints on the lawn have minimal impact. If I walk across the lawn the same way every day, over time a path develops. If dozens of people ignore the sign, the social path shows up faster, the soil is compacted, the grass dies, the path widens, becomes a rut, encourages run-off and soil erosion. In short, my individual selfishness may not have much of an impact, but multiply it by a zillion other people cruising along in their own bubbles, all ignoring the world around them and thinking environmental awareness consists of buying a free range heritage turkey at Whole Paycheck and using a stainless steel water bottle instead of a plastic one, and we've got a planet that's in a death spiral.

Would it make a difference if we all switched to fluorescents? Yes. Will that difference will be totally negated if we then turn around and get a 50-inch plasma television for the "media" room? Can you say understatement? We all keep saying we need to use less energy while adding gadget after gadget that eats more. And I'm as guilty and short-sighted as everyone else. What keeps my life relatively simple and low impact (smallish carbon footprint) isn't heightened awareness; it's lack of money.

I could go on, but I'll just suggest you take a look at the November/December issue of Mother Jones. It's devoted to the economy and the environment. Read it, especially the piece by Bill McKibben, and weep.


  1. Yikes! I try to limit my dope slaps to my kids.

    You are so right, though. We are living an unsustainable lie. We're being forced by lack of funds to limit our consumerism and, frankly, I am glad for it.

    Now I'm off to read Mother Jones and cry.

  2. I'm with I'm going to turn the lights out and feel bad for awhile. Thank heavenes I don't have extra $$$ to invest in the stupid right now - at one time I was quite guilty - not anymore.

  3. i have 'green' light bulbs all through the apt. i recycle paper. I reuse aluminum foil. I would recycle more but west,texas doesn't have it available to us..which pisses me off.
    i turn lights out when i leave the room, turn off tv, computer etc. when not in use. I limit my trips to the big city of waco to no more than one trip a month sometimes once every 2 save on gas..once i didn't go to waco at all and drove on one tank of gas for 3 months in west...but some times i feel like im the only one in town who gives a shit.

  4. I use fluorescents and led's. Try to make a tank of gas last a month. I've recycled all my life but doing to is doing little to change the world.

    It's living the good life that everyone seems to want that is killing the planet. Few are willing to live in a little place like I do.

    And buy as little as I do. Making things in plants is very hard on the planet.

    I just have a 19 inch TV that I seldom turn on, and I've never bought a new car and drive the ones I do get until they are dead and have to be recycled.

    These days I drive less than 5000 miles a year so my current rig should last the rest of my driving days.

    It hasn't went anywhere for the last three days, I walk a lot.

  5. I replaced all light bulbs with fluorescents over a year ago. Every light. I keep the thermostat set at 60 degrees at night and during the day when no one is home. I wear layers in the winter to keep warm with the lowered thermostat. I do all my errands one day a week and take a neighbor with me. A full tank of gas my last me all winter, since my errands are all within a ten mile radius. I try very hard not to eat processed foods, unless I'm baking cookies or piecrust. I turn light off when I leave a room. At night I turn off my computer, microwave and anything else with a little light burning--all but the phone. I recycle. I don't use pesticides, I gather the fruit and share it with my neighbors, who share their tomatoes with me. I'm sure I could do more, and will as I become better educated about options. I do pay more for electricity because I invest in wind farms with my electric company. I'm proud that we have a wind farm to invest in. It's a start.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.