Is greed more sustainable than frugality?

Sustainability is much misunderstood. Certainly government and corporate sustainability policies often point completely the wrong way.

To be sustainable, we must ensure that future generations are able to live decent lives. Not much argument about that usually. But conventional wisdom in the field is that this means we should cut back on consumption.  That leap of logic is flawed. Cutting back reduces environmental impact in the short term but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will reduce it in the long term, or overall over any significant length of time. The full lifetime, full system impact is what counts. Achieving a reduction in overall impact well be best served by increasing consumption in the short term, if this leads to development that reduces the later impacts enough to offset short term damage.

An excellent example is in mobile phone design. Vigorous marketing and encouragement to replace mobiles frequently seems to many people to be wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. However, the rapid obsolescence cycle here has given us 150g mobiles that essentially replace 600kg of previously needed IT equipment. If everyone wants a mobile phone, or to access to the functions they provide, then the lowest environmental impact is achieved by using ultra-high tech phones that do far more with far less. Increased consumption has led to lower environmental impact. If instead, we had held back development and demanded that people use their phones till they fail, we would still be using a lot of heavy and resource intensive kit that needs lots more energy, generates far more waste, and would need far more mining, nasty heavy metals and pollution. And it wouldn’t work half as well, so we’d have less happy lives too.

Greed v frugality? Greed is the more sustainable. Because it leads faster to more advanced technology that is invariably better for the environment.

For a fuller analysis of sustainability and technology, download http://futurizon.com/articles/sustainingtheearth.pdf. It is free.

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