Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Path of Self-Destruction. Consumerism.

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.


karen said...

I totally agree. Here is something to make you feel like you are not alone in your horror: The Restart Project

It's about fixing what we have and making things last longer, because our disposable everything is wasteful and destructive in every way imaginable. It's pretty cool I think. Young people are doing great things Mound. I swear they really are.

Hugh said...

Yet the Bank of Canada seems to insist on GDP growth of 2 or 2.5% every year.

It's blatantly unattainable so why try?

Ponzis have to grow or they collapse.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Karen. Thanks for the link. It's both an interesting and essential idea and I hope it catches on. Government should be assisting this sort of thing.

Hugh - Suzuki and others demonstrate with very simple math how perpetual exponential growth - 2 to 3% - is ultimately suicidal. Even free market capitalism demi-god, Adam Smith, in his pre-industrial revolution writings concluded that our growth-based economic model could last no more than two centuries after which we would have to revert to a Steady State system.

At times it's almost overwhelming to realize that our global civilization has become absolutely dependent - it cannot function without - access to more renewable resources than the Earth can provide. This is our one and only biosphere, it's all we get and yet we have chosen to build a global civilization that's based on living far outside its very finite limits.

We're so swept up in this that educated, powerful people are slavishly devoted to its perpetuation. It explains the astonishingly lethal power of human denialism. They're defeated on the math alone.

Go to a compound interest calculator like this one:

Plug in a value of 1 dollar for Year 1 GDP. Use 3% for the interest. Run it for 50, 100, 150 and 200 years. By the end of the 2nd century that 1X GDP has grown by more than 369 times. That's 369 times the resources, 369 times the production, 369 times the consumption and 369 times the waste problem.

Add one more century, make it 300-years of 3% growth. The factor now stands at 7,098 times Year 1 GDP. 4-centuries grows the economy 136,423 times Year 1. That's not growth, it's a malignancy.

Obviously the resources, renewable and non, don't exist to get anywhere near those insane figures. That doesn't matter much because today we're already well past maximum sustainable GDP. We're way past the limit and we need only look at today's species extinction rates to see the proof.

The trouble with these conjuring tricks is when they abruptly cease to operate. Once an aquifer is dry, all you can get from it is its recharge, the rate at which nature refills it. If that recharge rate is 5% of what you need to survive, you've got a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

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.

NO we wont

Anonymous said...

Mound, we have only 1.25 of problems: overpopulation (=1) and overconsumption (=0.25). My take is that overpopulation increases consumption of goods to a greater degree that a "greedy" overconsumption. Anyone with more than 2 kids is contributing to the problem. Anyone with 4 or more kids is a villain. Folks with 3 kids get "stupid" grade for being careless.
The first 'problem" you are mentioning is directly caused by the other 1.25 of problems.

Hugh said...

We hear about GDP growth in China slowing down to 7%. But even this amount is nuts - it means China's GDP would double in about 10 years.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 6:46. You're right, they're symbiotic, although I'm not sure about the ratio.

@ Hugh. A year ago, perhaps more, I did an online course in global food security. In exploring China's position part of the assigned reading was a study conducted by three leading Chinese academics. What I found interesting was a small section of the study discussing China's projected growth in per capita GDP.

They foresaw a China which, in 2000, had a per capita GDP of about $1,800 that would see that figure grow to $16,000 by 2030. It is already well past $7,000. That's an eight fold growth in just 30-years, barely one generation. During that same interval they foresaw a population growth spurt from 1.3 up to 1.5-billion, an additional 200-million new mega-consumers.

Obviously accommodating that sort of dual growth will be difficult. Another paper I came across was from a leading Chinese economist. He concluded that, in an infinite world, the sort of growth discussed would indeed be possible but not in the real world. His view was that, resource limitations alone would break China's (and India's) societal cohesion, causing the emergence of two new classes - the haves and the have-nots - in which governments, to safeguard their new entrepreneurial classes, would have to create "islands" of the prosperous floating atop the sea of somewhat better off yet still poor peasants.

The problem he failed to address is how these islands of prosperity would function when it came to allocation of a dwindling supply of "necessaries of life", especially freshwater. Can the poor be made to accept potentially deadly water shortages so that the wealthy can indulge themselves in jacuzzis?

This sort of thing is happening today in the Sao Paulo region of Brazil. The affluent may have to live with water cutoffs for a number of hours each day but, for the poorest, their water access can be lost for several days at a stretch. There have already been water riots in major Brazilian cities yet the drought situation is expected to continue worsening.

Curious that these are the emerging economic superpowers, the BRIC countries - Brazil, India and China. Are we going to see them collapse under their own weight?

Hugh said...

I do know that China has big problems with air and water pollution. Growing their economy, ie. more coal plants, is not the way to go.

It seems to me that society in general is at odds with governments and central banks, who want GDP to keep growing.

In BC and Canada the government's strategy for dealing with all their massive growing debt is to keep growing the GDP.

The natural tendency now, I would think, is that economies should be shrinking, not growing.

I think that this disconnect is our central problem globally.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're quite right, Hugh. We have evolved a mode of leadership that traces back to the late 40s and our post-war economic miracle. Even as just about everything changed over the decades, leadership remained largely in lockstep with their immediate post-war predecessors.

We will reach some permutation of the steady state system eventually but probably not out of choice which means not on our own terms. If we initiate it, we can at least somewhat control the transition from the growth to the steady state paradigm, imbuing it with the principles of democracy and limited inequality that can serve as the building blocks of a new society.

The alternative is to stagger to the departure point that shifts from growth-based to allocation-based economics of a sort that will probably be much less democratic and excessively inequitable, something eerily like a neo-feudalism.