How To Save Humanity From Destroying Itself By Using Made Up Numbers

Problem: Industrialized nations, whose population make up a relatively small proportion of all of humanity, consume vastly more resources than the rest of the world. In addition, significantly large populations, generally in Asia, are beginning to enter a more consumptive phase of national development and could potentially drive more overconsumption. Resource-driven wars are looming; some say they have already begun.

Solution: Use less, and teach others how to use less.

This may seem simplistic, but hear me out. People can live with less – they probably would even choose to live with less if you taught them how to do so, because hey, who doesn’t want to save some money and preserve the world for their children/relatives? What I’m getting at here is that the root cause of overconsumption is not that people explicitly choose to overconsume; the problem is that people have no understanding of what or how much they are consuming.

We live in an extremely opaque world. Look around the room you’re sitting in. How did all that stuff get there? Who made it? What’s it actually made out of? Where did the resources come from that make up all the pieces and parts that stuff is made of? The machinery of mass production and corporate-induced consumption has completely insulated all of us from the details of the production of a water bottle or computer monitor. Armies, literal legions of people worked all over the world to create and assemble those things for you. Vast, complex machines spit out millions and millions of copies of things, tens of thousands of components go into things like cars and cell phones. We take it all completely for granted because we don’t understand it and we don’t SEE it. We don’t see how things get to us from end to end, from a mine in Africa to a factory in China to a plant in Mexico to UPS to your door. And who cares anyway?? We just want to buy a thing and live our lives – and you know what, that’s okay! It’s not inherently evil to want stuff and want to use it and live our lives. But people should be able to make informed decisions about the things they buy, and right now that is just not possible in any way.

So, without further ado, here it is, the solution that saves the world:

Every product will come with a label that has a number on it indicating how many resources of all kinds it took to produce – and thus, how many units of resources you are going to consume.

We do it for food; you’ve got a nutrition label and ingredients that tell you what is inside the box and what you’re actually consuming. The concept is exactly the same; there are just different formulas that need to be made up to standardized the numbers so that they’re relative and make sense. And people also need to decide what is “enough” to consume, but we already have some good idea of what those numbers could be (or the corporations do, anyway).

Here’s the straight analogy: You should consume no more than 2000 calories a day, or you’ll get fat.

Ergo: You should purchase no more than 400 Consumption Units (CU) worth of products in a day, or you’re overconsuming.

If everything on a shelf or a parking lot had an easy to read number on it, and people knew that there was a limit each day, they would be able to make truly informed choices about their consumption. They could also “save up” their CUs over time and use those to buy up “big ticket” items later.

Now I can hear you saying: “Isn’t that what money is? Isn’t the price equivalent to what I’m consuming?” Sadly, that’s not the whole picture. Price doesn’t truly count the human capital that went into producing a thing; it doesn’t count the cost to the environment; and price is subject to the vagaries of the marketplace and the desires of other people – it doesn’t represent the thing that you are actually consuming! Money is not an actually representation of the materials and energy and time and opportunity and other resources that went into producing that thing. Whatever that number is, it’s a finite and absolute number, it doesn’t change based on economics – it’s some tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s resources, and you are consuming it.

This is a completely doable thing, and it would change the world. Imagine if people looked at a conventionally produced apple and saw that it cost 3 CU to produce, and that an organic apple cost 0.5 CU. Yes, organic is more expensive, but the cost to the environment is less, and you can safely consume more things! Or you could look at a food dehydrator in the store and see that this complex device costs 32 CU; and it turns out that a box fan and four air filters only cost 10 CU total – maybe it makes more sense to just put those things together and make your own dehydrator instead of buying that silly thing. Even if the numbers were totally rough and almost completely made up… it would still give people some kind of a guideline!!

It’s important to note that as wealth increases, population controls naturally set in. So if we can better share what we have, we’ll eventually have more to go around when the world reaches a stable (zero growth, i.e. sustainable) population number.

Am I basically asking for rationing of the world’s resources? Perhaps. But you must realize that we live on a finite world, and there is only so much oil and water and arable land and copper and gold and so on. There are other worlds out there, and asteroids and comets and other celestial bodies we can likely mine for additional resources like metals and even water; but until we have the technology and the political will to get to work at harvesting those resources, we can only live off of what we have on this planet. It’s all we’ve got.

Lastly, please refer to Annie Leonard for more info: http://www.thestoryofstuff.com/

7 Comments

    • mik3cap

      Excellent to see people thinking on the same lines.

      I believe sane people will make the right choices when they are presented with them. Recycling is now a commonplace thing, people recycle at their home all the time and major cities are collecting items to recycle from public trash as well.

      I think the world can transition to a sustainable existence. The simple fact is that there is no other choice.

  1. It would be nice if something like this could be put in place without being *enforced*. It smacks of a slippery slope to little brotherhood, rationing would have to be enforced by someone, and who better than the government? More government intrusions into private lives, because resource rationing would have to encompass every aspect of life. It would work if the government could work free of corruption, which it can’t, in any society. It is made up of groups of individuals, all of whom are prone to error or maleficence, and too much of a hand in every individual’s life would inevitably lead to societies like Orwell told us about. It happened to Russia, it shouldn’t happen to us. We should be able to pursue a healthier path for the planet, but that route would lead to even more trouble.

    • mik3cap

      Everything is a slippery slope to authoritarianism, unfortunately. But I think that proposing this solution now could potentially save a lot of human suffering down the road, when resources are insanely scarce and people resort to cannibalism and Soylent Green.

      It’s kind of like how Tony Stark had to start the Civil War and do supers registration in order to prevent war between baselines and superheroes…

  2. purly

    Have you heard about the cradle to cradle initiative? I am a fan of that approach.

  3. Story of Stuff

    There is a wonderful profile of Annie Leonard, Story of Stuff, in the Sept/October 2008 issue of Women’s Adventure Magazine. Check it out.

    • mik3cap

      Re: Story of Stuff

      I see you are a fan of Death Note, as am I. Thanks for the article suggestion!