On Conservation and consumption

There is a reason why we need to make conservation a legislative matter and why free market solutions don’t work to lower waste and overuse. That reason has to do with  how conservation and consumption work. The two are quantitatively different, even though qualitatively they are similar. Conservation and consumption behave in inverse ways. Not to mention all the incentives of our economic system directed toward more consumption.

Here is my description of this issue, and I think it makes sense. The range of consumption per capita is quite large in this country. I would say that range may be as large as a factor of 50, and not in the fractions as it might seem. Lets take my new neighborhood for example. My family consists of 2.25 people and we use about 5 units of water which is about what a single person uses, we drive a Prius, and a small pickup and don’t put many miles or our vehicles. We compost and recycle most of our household waste.  Nearly every electronics product we have is energy star rated, and we don’t use anything other than our computers (mostly laptops) for any length of time on most days… OK you get the picture, we are near bottom of energy/resource usage.

Our neighbors are on the other extreme for the same demographics of course (this means we are only looking at middle class home owners, not the very rich, or the poor.) They are 3.75 people I would say (parents, adult child and teenager.) They have 3 vehicles, two of which are SUV’s, a house more than double the size of ours, a garbage can more than double ours, AC unit  (which runs in the winter sometimes!), massive entertainment system in their garage that gets used heavily every day, etc.

So if you start to add things up, you start to see that they use double and triple what we do instead of the 3.75/2.25 ratio that you might expect. What I am saying, is that family culture and individual lifestyle, because of the consumerist freedom we share, can allow people of similar means to have wildly different impact on our greater society and environment through resource usage.

If we need people to use less in order to save ourselves, common sense and market incentives won’t get people to change. We must be faced by unwavering certainty of an outcome, whether it be fines and jail time for breaking the law, or  an unwavering core value that is backed by drastic consequence (i.e belief in the wrath of God, or understanding of climate science, or a vindictive relative, etc.). Humans have to be forced to change, like any other animal on the planet.

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