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Feeling Consumptive

February 16, 2011

I’ve been simplifying my life recently.  It’s mostly because I have a couple rooms in the house that were so full of crud that I couldn’t walk through them, and I needed to reclaim at least one for some new hobbies.  I also thought it was interesting that our local gas and electric companies got together to provide an “energy consumption” rating — in which the Fister household did very well (with two energy-company-approved smiley faces even), mostly because we do sensible things as opposed to sanctimonious things.  But does that mean that I want to tax the snot out of people who have bigger houses or who use more gas?  No.  It must the be Libertarian in me.  Either that, or I’m not good at sanctimonious.

Anyway, cue Ronal Bailey at Reason with this very well-thought article on a recent U of O study.

In five polls of Oregonians and one national survey, they find 74 to 80 percent of respondents “support reducing consumption and believe doing so would improve societal and individual well-being.” Markowitz and Bowerman interpret their poll results as challenging “conventional wisdom about our collective and never-ending need for consumption of material goods.” Armed with these poll results they hope to persuade policy makers that Americans are ready to “deconsume” for the sake of the environment, cutting back purchases of material goods, and especially reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.

While I’m probably in the minority on that specific conclusion, I see the point.  We all live very complex lives, and finding ways to cut back would give us time to assess what’s really important and help reign in spending and control budgets that are spiraling out of control on the personal (and governmental) level.  I’m sure that’s what people meant…

The Oregonians polled, it turns out, are not all that eager to tax their own consumption. Majorities were against a luxury tax on houses bigger than 2,500 square feet or costing more than $300,000 (62 percent opposed); a tax on houses bigger than 5,000 square feet and costing $500,000 (50 percent opposed); a 10 cent per gallon gasoline tax (63 percent opposed); a program to tax energy when its price is low and invest the funds in conservation (64 percent opposed); charging a one cent fee for each kilowatt hour consumed once a household consumes $100 of energy in a month (71 percent opposed); a luxury fee on second homes (56 percent opposed); a $1,000 new vehicle tax on cars that get fewer than 25 miles per gallon (62 percent opposed); and a one cent per mile carbon tax on airplane travel (58 percent opposed).

These results mirror similar findings in a June 2010 national poll [PDF] by the Institute for Energy Research which found that 70 percent of respondents opposed any new energy taxes aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The same poll found that 61 percent opposed any increase in gasoline taxes.

Oh, so maybe not.  While the article goes on to say that people appeared happy to tax those who were WAY more rich, it’s apparently not okay to tax people who were only slightly more rich… you know, just in case people figured out how to get that second home.  But the real point actually comes later in the article… while there doesn’t appear to be a desire to actually CONSUME less by the majority of the population, there is a desire for people to USE less in general.  And there’s the point that I think people often miss:

Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, show that the world economy is increasingly using less to produce more. They call this process “dematerialization.” By dematerialization, they mean declining consumption of energy or goods per unit of GDP. In a 2008 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ausubel and Waggoner, using data from 1980 to 2005, show that the world is on a dematerialization binge, wringing ever more value from less material. It turns out that dematerialization achieves many of the same environmental goals as deconsumption.

So it’s really learning to more efficiently use what we already have.  Like, say, throwing out a bunch of junk in a few rooms of the house in order to better use the space.  Or perhaps digging up shale deposits and getting oil out of it so that the land can be reclaimed and used for something more useful than tarry wasteland.  But I’m getting ahead of everyone.  If you’d like some support for that last sentence…

Oddly, many ideological environmentalists favor highly material-intensive ways to produce food and fuel. For example, organic agriculture uses more crop land than conventional farming, and current versions of solar and wind power production occupy a lot of land and take more material to build than do conventional power plants.

Ah, so there you have it.  It’s really about feeling good rather than doing good.  So the polls show that we want to do the right thing, but that we’ve been “educated” to the point that we don’t know what that is.  I have a suggestion.  Go clean out a junk drawer in your house.  It’ll make you hungry to do more.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2011 9:40 am

    it is a definite difference between “waste not, want not” from Depression era and “reduce, reuse, recycle”
    One really focuses on efficiency and maximizing what you already have. One focuses on throwing out old stuff and buying new stuff that’s supposedly better for the planet. Instead of better use of what they have, they buy something to show how concerned they really are. Even when we’re environmentally focused, this generation of individuals STILL fall into consumption patterns – and justify it justify it with self-glorification (I’m doing it for the planet…punk) instead of “I’m worth it”

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