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Conserving happiness

Two recent pieces came together in my mind this afternoon.

May 24, 2011

Two recent pieces came together in my mind this afternoon.

The first, published in Grist, contains economist Stephen DeCanio's prescription for a "Climate Policy for Conservatives." DeCanio presents a thoughtful argument for why developed nations should move first on reducing greenhouse gases, without relying in any way on moral arguments like "we should take the lead in cleaning up this mess because we took the lead in creating it." True conservative that he is (or at least appears to be), DeCanio bases his argument solely in realpolitik. Developed nations should move promptly to reduce their GHG emissions because for any of them not to would be disastrous to their own fortunes. In the process of addressing their own emissions, developed economies will create technological innovations necessary to satisfy consumers (their own) while operating within ecological constraints.

Large developing nations, in DeCanio's scenario, would follow along because (like economies already developed) for them not to do so would be self-destructive. Additionally, to my mind, the large developing economies (think China, India, Indonesia) would seize on the economic opportunities inherent in new sustainable technologies. The necessary innovation might take place in the developed world, but let's be honest -- the manufacturing is going to migrate the same way all manufacturing migrates, toward efficient cheap labor. If sustainable technologies and products are sufficiently attractive to shift consumption patterns in the developed world, they'll be attractive in the developing world, as well. And China, et al., may well be able to implement any new technologies faster than the USA, in that there's proportionally less old infrastructure to tear down.

DeCanio presumes that smaller developing countries will need financial assistance to implement technology shifts, but this is hardly surprising. Many small, under-developed economies need financial assistance, period. To implement new technology, they'll need subsidies. To implement old technology, they'll still need subsidies. Thus, the question comes down to one of just what restrictions lending institutions (controlled, at least currently, within the developed world) wish to impose.

Such restrictions, however, need not be perceived as onerous. As current events point out, what creates unrest in the developing world is not simply poverty, but unhappiness. And as Ray Anderson points out in a recent Environmental Leader piece, happiness is not intrinsically tied to stuff. (That's just what the advertisers and product placement people what you to believe.) Feelings of affluence can be attained without rampant consumerism, especially in the presence of beneficial technologies (upon the invention of which DeCanio's scenario clearly depends, anyway).

DeCanio is an emeritus economics professor. Anderson is a businessman. Each is, in his own way, hard-headed . . . realistic . . . conservative. Yet each comes down, in his closing paragraphs, to the concept of community. Community used to be considered a virtue by all conservatives. In recent times, it's suffered at the hands of individualism, consumerism, divide-and-conquer politics. But, if we're willing to give it a chance, it seems likely that community will get us through times of no money better than money will get us through times of no happiness.


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