January 19, 2010

Social Cohesion and Natural Resource Limits

It's not about the environment, but this FT column raises some important points about the ability of societies to live within limits:
Some observers blame that on Japan's obsession with maintaining cultural harmony; many Japanese point to the fact that they live in an island with constrained resources. Either way, this emphasis on sharing pain in an equitable manner is likely to shape how the government tries to impose public spending cuts in future years.


However, in the US, the government has less experience of dividing up a shrinking pool of resources. Instead, in a land built by pioneers, Americans prefer to spend time thinking about how to make the pie bigger -- or to find fresh frontiers -- than about making shared sacrifices.
The attitude described here -- unlimited entitlement to resources -- is an important one to understand, since it pervades everything from budget deficits, as discussed in the link, to energy use. If you want to touch a nerve in some people, for example, argue that high gas prices are a good thing: I once heard a radio program where Christopher Steiner, author of $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, was a guest, and it was shocking to hear the vitriol that many of the callers were directing at him. The temerity of the man, for suggesting that cheap gas isn't a God-given right!

On the other hand, it's not as if this attitude doesn't appear among liberals and enviros in America as well. Folks who think buying a hybrid or other low-carbon gadgets makes them green, while not thinking about the larger patterns of development and energy use that have driven the growth in global warming pollution, aren't doing themselves, or the planet, any favors. Not that addressing global warming requires us to adopt a hairshirt approach to the problem; but turning the question of sustainability into one of consumerism is just a cosmetic change, and leaves the deeper question of entitlement untouched.

Another thing to consider, which is also mentioned in the FT column, is not only societal attitudes, but the capability of the political system to address urgent issues and, if necessary, make "shared sacrifices." Obviously the dysfunctions of the Senate that many liberals have been lamenting lately contribute to this. As I noted on my short-lived Tumblr experiment, it's simply perverse that a political party need only 50%+1 to control a chamber and set its agenda, but require a supermajority to actually accomplish anything. And if the result of today's special election in Massachusetts is that instead of there still being solid majorities in both houses of Congress for increasing access to and controlling the costs the health care system, there's simply failure, that will only heighten the perversity of the situation in Washington.

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