How seven billion…make that nine billion!…can live well on the real world

With a title like that? What follows has to be an outrageous simplification. Please read it as such, and cut me some slack.

As the world marks its seven-billion-person milestone, it’s natural to look ahead…and the view at first glance is sobering. The real world we live on is a finite resource, and we have to feed ourselves and slake our growing thirst. The real world is robust in many respects, but fragile in others, and as the seven billion of us scramble around grubbing for those scarce resources, we often (not intentionally, but mindlessly) damage the delicate parts – the rainforests and the wetlands, the ocean coasts, and the endangered species therein and thereon. And two billion more of us are coming! Lastly, because the real world does much of its business through extremes of flood and drought, storm, earthquake and volcanic eruption, we’re getting repeatedly blindsided. Clobbered. Easy to feel overwhelmed. Depressed.

But wrongheaded. Might not the KISS (keep-it-simple-stupid) principle work even here? Let’s give it a shot. Let’s see if we can’t characterize the challenge we face in some simple way.

Perhaps as good a place as any to start? That throwaway comment from the previous post to the effect that much of our problem is spiritual.

How so? Let’s illustrate with a brief story about last night’s commute. My wonderful wife picked me up at the Metro station. The game plan was that I would drop her off at church where she and others were starting an eleven-week course focused on diet, exercise, weight-loss, etc. I would then make my way home. She’d find her own way back later with a friend.

Her eleven-week course? Lots of specifics, but the underlying principle was how to stop being controlled by thoughts like, “I WANT…or I MUST have…” I know this because as I was driving my wife was reading me a string of selected highlights from the first night’s reading materials. Take diet. Low calorie. Low carbs.

After dropping her off, I could have driven home, where a number of healthy dinner choices awaited me in the refrigerator. So what did I do? I stopped off instead at our local fast-food eatery…where I had a bacon cheeseburger and French fries, topped off with a chocolate milkshake. Easily 1200 calories? Even more?

C’mon, man!

We all know better, don’t we? Certainly I do. And I’m thinking, that if I make this confession in the blog, I can expect to hear folks ask from time to time, how’s my diet? And because I want to give you the truthful answer, I can use this accountability to do what I ought. Eating the right foods…the complex carbohydrates, vegetables, beans, etc. that are not only healthier for me but represent less energy-, water-, environmental cost. I can also control portion size. Maybe in that way my diet will reduce my healthcare costs…and also reduce yours because I’ll contribute to your lower premiums. What’s more, I also save the environment, and the world. How? Because the food value of the grains, etc. that go into that beef I enjoy is many times that of the beef itself. As a beef eater, I’m essentially consuming food at the rate of several people in the developing world.

We know this drill. But it’s all spiritual. Not trying to make too much of that word, but I have to decide to do this unilaterally, without asking anything from you. And you have the same decision to make. And so on. [Your preferred word might be responsible. No matter.]

Now I used that “C’mon, man!” line from ESPN advisedly. Why? Because getting back to that 7-billion population figure, we’re told that the reason the rate of population growth is slowing is not because of any policy proscription against large families so much. And it’s not just that in developed countries children are costly. It’s more a matter of women being educated and making their way into the workplace, women being given access to birth control, and women being given greater assurance that the children they do have will live until adulthood.

Did you see any mention of men in that explanation? Neither did I. Nothing there about men being responsible, doing the thoughtful thing. Thinking long-range.

Hmm.

But when we look at that story behind the changing trend in population growth, and the explanation – which lies in billions of individual decisions made on almost a daily basis as opposed to some top-down, command-and-control approach, it’s tempting to look for analogs.

I’ve given one with connection to diet. By simply changing my diet, I can save money, life longer and happier, enjoy my wife and family – and save the environment. Wow.

Makes me think that a simple carbon tax – or a consumption tax – would accomplish much the same objective.

Too bad it’s a tax! In today’s world, I can use almost any expletive in almost any setting with impunity. And if I use a euphemism, I’m absolutely ok. People who use both are almost universally seen as daring or clever. But to say the word tax is to invite the roof to fall on your head. And euphemisms – words like “fees” or phrases like “true costing of carbon”  and “eliminating carbon subsidies” don’t excuse the speaker.

What a world.

But to slog on…the only execrable feature of a carbon tax, or accurate pricing of carbon, is that it is by itself regressive. The burden falls heaviest on the poorest. So it has to be accompanied by some kind of adjustment.

There’s much to argue in favor of this approach. In many respects the population problem is not simply that there are seven billion of us. It’s that additionally the top few billion of us are using resources – particularly food, water, and energy – at ten times or more the rate of the least well-off. And it’s at the impoverished end where most of the population will be added over the next quarter century. So we can and should give those at the bottom rung of the ladder a free pass, using any one of a number of fixes that economists have offered.

Such a modified carbon tax ought to be on the table as part of the solution to our fiscal challenge…here in the United States, but also worldwide. Put it into place, and we’d unleash all sorts of technological innovation and social engineering. And change the world’s behavior one (male and female!) individual at a time.

What a great contribution for the United States and other countries to bring to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainability scheduled for next year.

Twenty years! Sneaked up on us, didn’t it? Kind of like twenty years of eating those bacon cheeseburgers when I knew I should be hitting the veggie wraps.

More on innovation and its role in the next post.

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