Will sustainability make us better off?
Posted December 3, 2008on:
An important question raised by the writers in NewScientist’s feature is whether we will be less happy living sustainably. This is the part of the series I felt was weakest. The general consensus amongst them is that we will actually be happier if we live sustainably because we will live healthier lifestyles. David Suzuki claims that ‘we would go out and walk around because there would be shops, musicians and people out on the street that we’d want to meet’. Kate Soper thinks we’d ‘…enjoy healthier modes of transport such as walking, cycling and boating’.
The authors appear to be projecting their own lifestyle preferences onto others here. It is this element of the environmental rhetoric that bothers me most: the idea that we would all be happier people if only we were more like them because they know what’s best for us better than we do. That thinking is reflected in NZ in the Greens affinity for direct regulation.
Economists like to think about these things in terms of revealed preferences. If people really wanted to get out and walk, bike and boat everywhere they could. If they wanted to work part-time so they had more opportunities to get out on the streets, dance and meet people they could. If they currently don’t then it’s unlikely that they’ll do that in future. If they currently choose to drive around in an air-conditioned SUV and exercise in a gym then it’s probably because they’d rather do that. When the price of an SUV skyrockets with the price of carbon then they’ll be worse off.
What’s so difficult about acknowledging that achieving a sustainable planet will force us to do things that we’d prefer not to and close off options? By reducing our enjoyable consumption today we allow future generations to also enjoy the planet, rather than condemning them to pay for our current excesses. That’s a more realistic pitch than the pretense that we’ll all be better off, and it conveniently grabs even more of the moral high ground!
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