We, mankind, have to change our ways or else perish. It's that cut and dried. We're confronted with a number of existential threats. Our continued existence is imperiled by three main factors - climate change, overpopulation and over-consumption.
We are living well outside the limits of our survivability. We have passed the threshhold of sustainability and crossed over into the perilous realm of survivability.
Our consumptive habits endanger us every bit as much as the future ravages of climate change. While we are just one of millions of life forms that share this planet, we, mankind, already consume more than 1.5 times the supply of our planet's renewable resources.
When we're taking 150% of our planet's resource carrying capacity what does that leave for all those other life forms? Precious little which is a main reason why we have lost half the life on our planet over just the last 30-years. That revelation came and went and was flushed straight down the news hole by week's end. For most of us it's all but forgotten already.
Not only are we devouring 150% of our planet's resource carrying capacity but we're dependent on it. Mankind has grown mortally dependent on something that simply doesn't exist and never will. We have been deluding ourselves by conjuring tricks, by having at our planet's dwindling reserves. We've been clearing our forests, draining our aquifers, exhausting our farmland and wiping out our fisheries - all to keep production and consumption at what have become unsurvivable levels. This does not end well.
This came to mind as I read report today about a German government study on our electronics buying habits. The study found that the usable life span of electronics products is getting shorter.
The environment agency asked Öko-Institut researchers to examine consumers’ reasons for replacing electrical and electronic appliances with a view to establishing whether manufacturers are purposefully shortening product life spans to prop up sales, a phenomenon known as built-in obsolescence.
The researchers did not draw a firm conclusion on built-in obsolescence but noted that the proportion of all units sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012, in what they deemed a “remarkable” increase.
And the share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years of use grew from 7% of total replacements in 2004 to 13% in 2013. This too was largely due to an increase in the proportion of recently purchased appliances replaced following a defect, which may point to an obsolescence problem.
However consumer preference is also playing a role. A third of all replacement purchases for products such as refrigerators and washing machines were motivated by a desire for a better unit while the old one was still functioning.
Consumers are also increasingly keen to swap their flat screen televisions for better versions with larger screens and better picture quality, even though more than 60% of replaced televisions were still functioning in 2012.
Policymakers are increasingly concerned about inefficient use of resources in resource-poor Europe, and about the environmental impact of this. The EU is looking to regulate product resource efficiency by including new standards such as durability and repairability in requirements under the Ecodesign Directive, a law that is currently focused on energy efficiency for the most part.
An integral element in the school of Steady State economics is the regulation, rationing if you like, of access to resources. Instead of resources going to the highest bidder, resources would be allocated according to the utility and enjoyment of the product to be manufactured. The longevity of service life and the ability to upgrade the product would be critical. The idea, for example, envisions home computers that would last at least five, six or more times longer than the junk that amasses at our recycling yards today.
Growth, the misunderstood curse of our modern life, would likewise be transformed. Instead of growth in production and consumption, growth would focus on knowledge and development needed to make life more comfortable and enjoyable.
A third element of Steady State economics is population stability by which birth rates are kept in line with death rates and overall population levels well within the planet's carrying capacity with regard to all the other life forms essential to maintaining all and any life on Earth.
Yet as this German study reveals we're still heading in the wrong direction along the unsurvivable path. This begs the question whether we'll come to our senses in time.