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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, June 13, 2011

how many is too many?

"The earth is full." Or so the NYT writer suggests, citing a new book from Paul Gilding about "Why Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World," as well as work by the Global Footprint Network suggesting that current consumptive rates require 1.5 times the earth's resources (i.e., 1.5 earths) to be sustainable. there are two major points from this article on which I'd like to comment.

first, this excellent point:

We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”

right on. this is not the first commentary to suggest that the growth-based capitalist approach is simply not viable. I do appreciate, however, the suggestion of an alternative, an (economic) model based on happiness, or perhaps on joy or fulfillment. there are a couple challenges here, though.

first, happiness or (or self-actualization or what have you) are not easily measurable in a traditional quantifiable manner (gross national happiness meter not withstanding). this nice thing about money is that you can count it, and it's much harder to build a model, economic, or otherwise, based on something that's difficult (if not impossible) to count.

second, I appreciate the vision of a "happiness-driven growth model." even if it were clear what such a model looked like, I wonder, how do we get from here to there? that is, how do we effect the transition from a consumption-driven model to a happiness-driven model? visions are nice, but actionable incremental steps seem, at least to me, vital to any real social change.

third, I wonder about the ways in which knowledge, and wisdom and understand, about how to be happy (or joyful, etc.) gets passed on. while the article linked above seems to suggest that the change will come rapidly and wholly, I suspect this kind of a socio-cultural-economic shift may instead take many generations to occur. modern society has done a fantastic job of passing on certain types of knowledge, mostly those that can be explicated in writing (scientific, technical, academic, etc.). however, we're not as good, at least it seems to me, at passing on experiential, tacit, or lived knowledge. in some ways, this is reminiscent of Quinn's argument about takers and leavers, but I think it cuts very deeply to fundamental questions not only about how we know that we know what we know (i.e., epistemological questions, questions of knowledge production), but also questions about knowledge transference and understanding. perhaps, a change to a happiness-driven model might be predicated on a change that incorporates and appreciates multiple ways of knowing into modern society.

the second major point on which I'd like to comment is this question of the number of earths required to sustain current practices. it seems as if most work along these lines asks, essentially, given the number of people and our current ways of living, how many earths would it take to sustain us? when the answer is greater than one, the response is often that we should change our ways of living. that is almost certainly the case, but is it the whole story? is it possible that we should perhaps also entertain the notion that the reason we need more than one earth's worth of resources is because there are simply too many people for one earth? this is a very difficult (if not impossible) question to answer. however, sometimes answering the question is not as important as asking it, and I often wish that this question were asked more often.

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