Raise a Little Green

Must Have More

Why is it that no one in the mainstream talks about the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources?

By Darren Kaulback
Published May 07, 2009

I don't get it. I know we're in the middle of an economic crisis, global recession, depression - whatever you want to call it. And like many, I have a basic understanding of what's gone down. Everyday, I read and watch the experts hashing it out, throwing out theories and predictions for what the future may hold. Yet a few greener-types are the only ones that ever question the core assumption of the our current economic model.

The global financial system is predicated on the need for perpetual growth. Companies often lay off employees, not because they're losing money, but because they haven't made "more" money. But growth requires more and more resources and, in turn, more people to purchase more products.

Why is it that no one in the mainstream talks about the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources? It doesn't take an economics degree to determine that this high speed train is eventually going to derail. We will eventually run out of non-renewable resources. In this century? In the next? Whenever that is, it's inevitable.

Diminishing Returns on Fulfillment

But do we really need more?

The "fulfillment curve" suggests that after we obtain a few luxuries, fulfillment is achieved. And the more we consume, the less fulfillment we will have.

Our bodies also attest to this simple theory. If I overeat, I will gain weight. The food consumed on a full stomach never quite tastes as delectable as those first few bites.

Fulfillment Curve: fulfillment increases with spending until a maximum is reached, after which fulfillment goes into decline
Fulfillment Curve: fulfillment increases with spending until a maximum is reached, after which fulfillment goes into decline (Image Source: Treehugger)

Will the great minds that hold our economic fate in their hands consider our planet's limitations? When you look at The Big Three auto makers, you can see that this is not the first time "those in charge" have failed to see the broken track in front of them.

For the last decade, I've wondered how the North American auto industry could be so slow to respond to the obvious direction our society and culture are headed.

Obviously, my "obvious" and their "obvious" were two separate things. While they were making Hummers and vehicles built for more power, I was at the Toyota dealership, getting my Corolla, complete with $1000 green cash back from the feds.

So why is it then that there is no mainstream dialogue on the issue of Earth and its fixed assets? Is it simply human nature to avoid questioning the status quo? Is it greed? Shortsightedness? Or simply a lack of courage?

I think only thing we do need "more" of right now is conversation on the subject.

(This was originally published on Darren's blog, Raise a Little Green.)

Many of us have our own take on what it means to be green. For Darren, "green" goes beyond just the mechanics of living lightly on the earth, to a more soulful understanding of ourselves as part of nature. He authors a weekly blog, Raise a Little Green, where he highlights the "mis-adventures of turning green," challenges our cultural ideologies and assumptions, and asks the deeper questions of purpose and fulfillment. Darren is a TV director and filmmaker who lives in downtown Hamilton with his wife and two children.


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By David (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 09:54:03

I've often wondered if the competing interests of economic growth and sustainability could be reconciled by a consumer shift away from material consumption to that of services and human 'skill commodities' (for lack of a better term). What I mean is, instead of directing disposable income towards the accumulation of more stuff, bigger houses, etc, we might choose immaterial luxuries based on different types of human expertise, for example, dining, the arts, patronage of household services, recreational instruction, weekly shiatsu massage, whatever. I'm sure my rational isn't perfect (and I doubt this is a truly original idea), but it seems that this pattern of consumption would exact less of an environmental toll than the accumulation of material 'stuff' and offer the pleasant side benefit of increased demand for local human capital.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 09:54:19

I would recommend this chart (life of metal reserves at current consumption) http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/...

It treats everything as static, but gives a good idea of amount remaining at current usage levels.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 10:18:37

JonC, thanks for sharing an interesting chart. I understand that it regards consumption rates as static in terms of the amount of material needed for a given industrial process (i.e. it doesn't assume that manufacturing will become more materials efficien); but do you know whether it calculates years remaining based on recoverable reserves at current prices? For many commodities, the total recoverable reserves increase as the market price goes up, because otherwise marginal or low-quality sources suddenly become economically viable - e.g. Alberta Oilsands oil, which is only economically viable when oil trades for more than around $50 per barrel.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:39:46

My understanding is that the numbers are strictly total reported reserves divided by current rate of consumption. The inner (lower value) is the time left if the entire world consumed at half the rate of the US. I'm not sure what purpose of that figure is, but there it is.
The values on the right indicate the current amount of supply met by recovery/recycling. The graphic is a little cluttered and I dislike circular graphs in general, but the data is there.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:51:13

Here's the link to the actual article. It is two years old... http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19...

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By haaa (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 15:32:45

I'm not sure that I buy that curve.

For example, my consumption of air follows a stepped curve, where under a certain consumption I get zero fulfillment, followed by a nice flat area of total fulfilment.

This curve may be true for beer and chocolate, but not doctor visits, poems, sunshine, smiles, leisure time, sex and many other consumables.

As more and more of our economy's production grows into intangible, non physical items, physical constraints diminish. I don't see the inevitability for humanity to stop programming computers, writing books, and shuffling papers. We will certainly reach the maximum utilization of physical resources eventually, but we will continue to grow forever.

Growth isn't a sin of humanity, it's the root motivator for all life.

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By fulfilled (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 15:40:05

"my consumption of air follows a stepped curve, where under a certain consumption I get zero fulfillment, followed by a nice flat area of total fulfilment."

Obviously you've never experienced hyperventilation...

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 19:10:49

"Why is it that no one in the mainstream talks about the f- act that we live on a finite planet with finite resources?"

Because it always becomes a tactical analysis of population reduction techniques used to maintain limits within the finite. War is hell and death by disease is metered for less heated degrees.

"So why is it then that there is no mainstream dia- logue on the issue of Earth and its fixed assets?"

IT might upset the sponsors.

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By stuck in the middle again (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 11:41:39

Economists have long recognized that markets mature and eventually fall away. That is the basis for soap marketing. Soap is soap. It hasn't changed in hundreds of years. People buy a lot of it, but every new soap brand is advertised to sound like a new nirvana, cleaning and maintaining everything in the home without any work from the homeowner. Eventually this pitch wears thin and the market plateaus. That is when the soap becomes "new and improved," driving another round of marketing growth. Eventually these pitches too wear thin. Time to introduce a new brand. Mass advertising drives mass marketing.

What many media-savvy economists appear to have missed is that entire industries or even economies can plateau and go into decline, as the auto industry or even the entire mass-production economy appears to be doing right now. Perhaps it is because advertisers have long survived by dreaming up new pitches to stimulate buying. Perhaps it is because mass media are vital components of mass advertising and mass marketing which drives mass production and consumption.

But as the mass production of reliably durable goods improves, the decline of economies based upon manufacturing them is inevitabe. This is hastened by the apparent fact that rates of human reproduction fall as economies improve. The world's richest economies have long relied upon immigration for market growth as much as for cheap labour. Now it relies on foreign trade, and that will have the same limits.

Over a decade ago mass media were agog over demographics as the driver of economic growth, but you don't hear about it much now that Boomers, who have driven economic growth for decades, are entering retirement. Boomers have already bought tons of shit, and now need to downsize, but they do require services. They are part of the move back to urban centres where medical and other such entertaining services are close to hand. More importantly, Boomers are gradually giving up their cars, first reducing the numbers they own, then the size of the ones they drive. Eventually they will become passengers and inevitably not even that.

Not surprisingly, some parts of the economy are not in decline. They may be slowed somewhat, but thus far advanced, post-industrial communications businesses and services still seem to be doing reasonably well. Mr. Balsillie still seems to have the money to buy an NHL team. The problem is getting someone to sell him one. And despite the layoffs and downsizing in the manufacturing sector there is increasing demand for medical and educational services that governments are slow to fund as they hand out billions to declining manufacturers.

Mature economies become service economies. Manufacturing won't disappear of course, but it won't drive economies as it has. It is not a matter of choice, but if I were choosing a life-time career now, I'd become and stay educated in finding more and more ways to enhance the lives of my fellow citizens. Even a robot can wind a nut onto a bolt for less money than I'd want to do it.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted May 09, 2009 at 16:00:17

Darren, I share the sentiment, but have to concur with WRCU2 on this: Eventually, if humans do not limit their reproduction to keep the earth's population static (or work to lower it), life will either cease to exist outright, or become, in Hobbes' words, "nasty, brutish and short".

I agree to some extent with the optimists as well, however: Resource shortage drives innovation, and, to the extent that the need for gainful employment encourages the maturation of the service sector in highly developed economies, one can perhaps foresee an ongoing improvement in standards of living as we all fall over backwards trying to better our fellow man's circumstances.

What I wonder is the following: When will the innovation curve plateau, owing to finite essential resources (ie. not metals, but food, oxygen, water), and how long will it take for us to shift our way of thinking to accommodate this?

Perpetual growth theories must eventually run into this problem.

HAAA writes:
"Growth isn't a sin of humanity, it's the root motivator for all life."

HAAA, unless you wanted to abstract the notion of "growth" to include growth in personal fulfillment, at which point the word becomes practically meaningless, there are plenty of human beings to whom your maxim does not apply - ie. those who choose not to have children or accrue material wealth, but who dedicate a large portion of their lives to improving human existence. The existence of people like these bodes well for an eventual (though hopefully not too distant) sea-change in our current fascination with growth. At any rate, it proves that your maxim is not by any means universal or inevitable.

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