Simple living is important given the environmental crisis. The human impact on nature is colossal and threatens all life on the planet, including eventually us, and we need to lessen that impact as much as we can. But in the United States, it is easy to consume and hard to live with less, just because of the way our society and our economy are structured. Why is this?
There are at least three problems here: (1) advertising, (2) infrastructure, (3) the economy.
There’s an obvious obstacle to simple living that you can see as soon as you turn on the TV, get onto your computer, or ride down the highway. It is reinforced with name brands emblazoned on clothing, “rewards cards,” and discount coupons.There is a continual stream of advertising, telling us to buy this or do that — constant messages not to live simply. The psychological effects of advertising in shaping the way we think and what we do are immense. Advertising bombards us with constant messages encouraging us to buy things to insure some favorable outcome — healing from a disease, love (and everything that implies), rapid and stylish transportation, a new toy, a new form of entertainment.
Advertising, in turn, swims in an ocean of social assumptions. We assume that the more things you consume, the happier you will be, the more pleasure you will have, and the more socially worthwhile you are. It is very rare that you will be able to impress anyone by virtue of the things that you do not have. Advertising is a continual, massive campaign against simple living.
There’s nothing wrong with building infrastructure to support any particular technology. You want cell phones, you build cell phone towers. You want cars, you build roads and gas stations. The existing infrastructure doesn’t stop anyone from adopting a new approach, but a single individual can’t create infrastructure all on their own. Even at the level of society, if there are any infrastructure costs associated with this new approach, there is always a bias towards a technology that already has a developed infrastructure.
Today’s suburbs and cities constitute a huge infrastructure, both public and private, which essentially presupposes massive use of fossil fuels and other materials to power cars and heat homes and businesses. The house and the car have co-evolved. People have built up businesses, cultural or entertainment centers, schools, and other houses, under the assumption that you will have a car and the car will get you there. The design of cities and zoning codes presuppose all of this transportation and other supporting infrastructure. It also presupposes a job to support your housing and your car. Houses are also typically not insulated very well, and thus require energy to heat or cool. It will be a major project (if it can be done at all) to find an inexpensive, small, well-insulated house in a neighborhood where you can get to your job, to shops, and to your friends’ homes by walking or by bicycle. Such neighborhoods are few and far between and often are quite pricey.
Changing the infrastructure of our society would be a massive undertaking at the social level. In the meantime, we are stuck with the infrastructure we actually have, which encourages consumption.
The economics of natural resources is quite complicated, and hard to understand even for specialists in the area. Unlike many market goods, there is no cost to create natural resources; they are just there, at no charge, courtesy of Mother Nature. Sometimes resources (such as air, unprotected forests, or some fisheries) are literally “free,” because no one owns them — the problem of the “open access regime.”
An “open access regime” is a resource that anyone is free to exploit, but can be depleted. Open access regimes are especially insidious from an environmental point of view. If you have a natural resource accessible to everyone, but not specifically owned by anyone, that is an invitation to pillage the resource until it’s gone. Garret Hardin called this “the tragedy of the commons,” although this is a slight misnomer — the resource is not owned in common, it is owned by no one.
A resource subject to an open access regime can be quickly depleted. In the nineteenth century, ivory from elephants, whale oil from whales, the open range in the American West, and buffalo were all classic examples of open access regimes. The North Atlantic cod fisheries are a 20th century example. They were all rapidly destroyed. No one had any economic incentive not to exploit them until they were gone.
But the most famous example of an “open access regime” is the atmosphere, as a dumping ground for fossil fuel and agricultural wastes. Carbon dioxide and methane can be dumped into the atmosphere with only minimal regulation or costs varying from country to country. The climate change discussions have tried to alter this dynamic, without any real success.
Even when a natural resource does belong to someone, the economics of depletion often does not reward conservation for complicated reasons. There is often little or no price “feedback” on a rapidly depleting resource that would encourage conservation. Oil and water are two good examples. In theory, they are both privately owned and as they are depleted, the price should rise, encouraging conservation. In practice, though, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t always work that way, and both resources function pretty much like open access regimes. So much for the free market.
There are huge obstacles to simple living in the 21st century. The machinery to promote consumption is massive, institutional, and entrenched. But it’s not sustainable, either — it is like a runaway train on the track heading over a cliff. Simple living means more than just changing individual behavior; it means changing society as well. How do we do this? That’s a question for part 3.