We need to find what kind of economy can provide people's needs without
making too much pollution and without running out of resources rapidly.
Our present consumer economy has many nice features, yet it is
basically at odds with resource stewardship.
The consumer economy is popular, but many people are worried
about the wisdom of consuming so much. There is a way to maintain our
security and comfort without the high consumption required by our
present consumer economy. Our plans already include partial answers for
how to build a sustainable economy. We have come to recognize the need
to use increased efficiency and recycling as parts of any sustainable
economy. But, efficiency and recycling are not enough to make the cuts
in consumption we need to become sustainable.
The more difficult and more important change we need will
require us to stop running our consumer economy, because it needs waste
to function. War, throw away goods, and planned obsolescence are good
for the consumer economy, but they have no place in a sustainable
The missing element in our plan for a sustainable society is
what to do about conserving items that can be reused. Items that are
not consumed when they are used the first time are durable, and could
be made to last longer. When we increase the lifetime of durable goods
we cut the cost and consumption of manufacturing them.The use of
increased durability will allow us to enjoy wealth with low resource
consumption. It will be easy to learn to love a sustainable economy
based on durability. A sustainable economy should do the opposite of
the consumer economy; it should try to make things last longer.
Products that are designed to be long-lasting will naturally
accumulate. Those who have a stock of truly durable goods rarely need
to replace them. Our concept of wealth as a flow is wrong. Wealth is
a stock, including the stock of durable tools that make and recycle
food items that can't be made durable and the durable homes that are
energy efficient. Our use of durability to conserve will allow
consumption to drop to sustainable levels after people have acquired
what they need. We don't really need a high flow of goods to have a big
stock of goods.
The multiplier effect, so important to increasing consumption
in the consumer economy, also works to cut consumption more than might
be expected when we conserve. When we cut consumption of one item all
the many support activities previously needed to produce that item can
also be cut back and will consume less. Production and consumption can
then be reduced to the low levels needed to introduce innovations and
provide infrequent replacements. But, cutting the need for consumption
will also cut paid jobs. These cuts will not be such big problems as we
might expect because when we used durability to conserve the resulting
fall in incomes will be preceded by a fall in our needs, and there is
no reason for us to be totally dependent on wages.
The main function of the consumer economy is to provide the
demand stimulation needed create full employment. This growing demand
has prevented machines from causing unemployment, and it has provided
vast consumer wealth, but it has placed heavy demands on natural
resources. Thus, we have been squandering our, really scarce, natural
resources to keep all of our, assumed scarce, workers busy.
Wage labor has been surplus relative to local natural resources
for a long time. In today's crowded world migration can no longer
provide an escape from depleted local resources, and imported resources
are no longer abundant and cheap. Even though we face a growing
shortage of resources we still pretend that labor shortage is limiting
production. Our fear of labor shortage is obsolete. Since the dawn of
the industrial age it has been necessary to constantly find ways to
increase consumption in order maintain full employment.
Most people agree that jobs are the only acceptable way to dole
out money to the masses. Yet, when we create nearly full employment our
powerful technology and out large supply of workers will always consume
far too many resources for such hyper-activity to be sustainable. Only
in our dreams is there no conflict between expanding the economy to
make jobs and contracting the economy to conserve resources.
Our labor is surplus only relative to resources and the production of
physical goods. Most people need a job that pays, and have little time
left for the work of nurturing, caring and stewardship. There is plenty
of important unpaid work to do, but we can't start doing it if we are
all working full time to produce and consume as much as possible. Today
we can do the work that makes a short-term dollar profit, while unpaid
work is mostly neglected.
Our present views rarely include any awareness that wealth comes from
nature and inheritance more than from any work we do. To make our
system work under present conditions we must admit that human labor is
no longer scarce because machines with computer control can already
replace most paid labor, even in services. Our claim on the resources
which provide the base of both durable and perishable wealth can not be
based on labor when paid jobs are rare.
We should expect to shift our dependence from wages toward unearned
income as automation replaces more human labor. Our system already has
unearned income, but for now it is only for a few. Ending our
dependence on wages is one key to the locked doors of becoming
sustainable. Unearned income can end our dependence on jobs.
The resource base of our income has always been unearned, because
nature can not be paid for the resources we take. Thus, prices and
wages are mostly about the division of labor among humans. That's why
the labor theory of value is true.
Yet, the relation between prices and labor costs would be hard to
measure if machines replaced most human labor. More computer automation
will make wage costs fall along with the prices of manufactured goods.
If all paid human labor could be replaced, then wage income would fall
to zero leaving only income from profit.
We will need to notice this old trend of the industrial age now that is
has been accelerated by computers. Because the consumer economy can't
continue, we must rethink our assumptions about our pretense that
everyone should be busy in a paid job just to be a good person. Yet
reaction is taking the opposite tack. They would deny the value of
unpaid work. We hear that staying home to care for children doesn't
have the dignity of a job.
High taxes on fuel aren't the best way to encourage conservation. High
taxes on fuel will cause suffering and poverty, and people who can
hardly afford to heat their houses can't afford to replace them with an
efficient house either. Instead of taxing consumption, we need to
support the low cost replacement of wasteful houses and cars with
efficient models, and to make laws against the production of wasteful
Whether our goal is to preserve the present pecking order or to help
improve the lives of the poor, we must have a sustainable system to
have hope for our families. The need to make jobs and the resulting
excess growth are the causes of our high consumption, and high
consumption is the reason our economic system is not sustainable.
Growth is the common problem of all classes! True conservation cuts
consumption and that cuts production and that cuts real paying jobs and
profits. It's not surprising that almost no one supports a sustainable
economy. Without true conservation we can continue to squander scarce
resources to exercise all our surplus labor. Without conservation we
can have our giant SUVs. It is our plan to avoid change. But, more
growth is really no plan at all in the face of looming changes.
Four basic ways to conserve resources are: increased efficiency,
increased durability, recycling and by doing less. Conservation of
perishables using recycling and efficiency are already our goals, but
the use of durability to conserve has had little notice. Durability
allows doing less without having less. Because durability has been
neglected we have a lot to gain when we starting using durability to
conserve. We can make deep cuts in consumption without sacrifice by
designing new products to maximize their lifetime, efficiency and
We wouldn't need to encourage growth to make jobs if everyone got some
small share of unearned income. If we don't shrink real earned income,
we aren't really conserving resources. A small income could provide a
life of luxury in a system that doesn't need to be wasteful.
A stable population using durability to conserve will have
most wealth coming from inheritance, but a growing population can't be
supported for long before it overruns the gains of any kind of
conservation. If we are to become sustainable population must be
controlled, and we need to act now because
once resources are depleted and population is higher we won't have the
capacity to build an economy based on durability and efficiency.
Who really believes that our wasteful consumer economy will get
us very far? Although we know it will lead to trouble we don't even
talk about hyper-consumption. On top of too much consumption and vast
waste we plan to consume at even higher rates. But, so long as people
are dependent on paid jobs it seems impossible to stop wasting our
wealth and spoiling natural systems.
Without a need for hyper-activity and waste just to make paid jobs,
real conservation could be allowed to shrink the economy and real
incomes without any loss of living standards. One form of conservation
is doing less, not working, or not consuming. Staying home will cut
energy consumption more than any kind of improved transportation ever
When we begin to supply unearned income as an suppliment to wages we
will suddenly be able to cut consumption. Unpaid work, which has been
neglected while we pursue only paid jobs, will get done. Downsizing and
the elimination of as many paid jobs as possible will be seen as a
contribution to conservation. Of course the drive to cut labor costs is
a long established trend, but no alternate income or provision for low
consumption living has been discussed for the displaced workers.
If everyone received unearned income we could adjust the amount of
unearned income to stabilize wages. Wages would remain as a motivation
and reward for those who choose to work. Our acceptance of unearned
income could provide a mechanism allowing us to match the labor force
to the real need for labor, instead of making jobs to match the labor
It's too common to hear the weird claim that our economy needs
growth. It's like saying we need cancer. We don't need growth; we need
sustainability, and growth is the reason why we aren't sustainable.
Since we haven't learned to control our economy, our population, or our
waste, each of these failures has been accepted as a fact of life and
each provides another "need" for growth. A sustainable economy needs
limited greed, limited population, minimum waste. If we had democratic
unearned income we would no longer need growth to make jobs. If we had
a stable population we would no longer need growth to provide for more
people. If we used durability to conserve we would no longer need
growth to raise our living standards. If earnings could regain the role
lost to speculation we would no longer need growth to please the
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