“We have been convinced to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.” This is the wonderful and concise sentence used by an English economist named Tim Jackson in his talk at a TED conference in Oxford, England. I watched it on my computer.
As much as I admire that sentence for its ability to sum up our economic problems, I worry about the main message in his presentation. He believes that the very things we need to do in the short-term will deteriorate the economy even further in the long-term. It boils down to the end of consumerism – or at least the need for a major modification.
He says, and I’ve made the same point, our economic problems are structural, not cyclical as usual. If they were cyclical we could have just waited out the slump. As we know, not this time. The economic structure that evolved during the last sixty years has brought us to this point with almost free and easy credit for everyone.
We’ were convinced to consume, consume, consume – and charge it to our credit cards. Jackson’s point was that we can’t kick consumption of the same products and services into high gear even if we had the same easy credit. If we do, we’ll run the planet out of resources by consuming stuff we all seem to think that we can’t live without. And the ironic part is that most of what we consume has nothing to do with what we can or cannot live without.
In fifty years we will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion people on a planet that can support 1 to 4 billion people and stay healthy. The delusion is we expect infinite growth from finite renewable resources.
Jackson’s solution is we need to reassess what it is we need in order to live a good life while we have lots of neighbors who want the same thing.
Here’s the trap in our current thinking. So far we have depended on our cleverness and ingenuity to supply our insatiable appetite for consumer goods. We’ve created new products from new raw materials. We’ve invented new ways to use old raw materials. We’ve enhanced productivity and found ways to make more out of less. But we’re coming to a point of no return. We will just have too many people on the planet to continue to consume as we have in the past sixty years.
So the answer can’t be more consumerism in the long-term. But it seems to be the only short-term answer. It’s a “catch 22” or a double-bind. If we do what we need to do to save the economy in the short-term, we will destroy the economy in the long-term.
A new value proposition needs to be designed into any economic form going forward. And it must include the reinvestment of some portion of our productivity into our planet and/or the exploration of other planets.
Although it’s related, this is not about climate change. It’s about the simple logic that says we cannot continue to use the existing resources at our current level and spread them across 2 billion more people at the same relative rate.
So for those readers who see this as a partisan issue, wake up! Whether you are a conservative or liberal, white, black, yellow or red, senior citizen or millennial, business owner or employee, the math is indisputable.
We either develop a new economic model or get used to the idea that we will eventually use up our resources and have nowhere else to turn.
It’s our choice.
See Tim Jackson’s TED Talk below.