Prosperity, possessions and flying

In a recent article published in the Guardian, L Hunter Lovins describes how a new narrative might be emerging about the economy.

In the rich world we are realising that we don’t need possessions to achieve prosperity, happiness and fulfillment.  Therefore we do not need to be make so many things – business can be done by arranging the sharing of existing things or providing services not to do with physical objects.

This points to a future where we can achieve the human goal of lots of people having meaningful livelihoods and we also don’t have to trash the planet.

It points to but does not imply, so we have to be sceptical embracing this soft-techno-optimist route.  There is a fly in the ointment.

In the rich world the thing we do with the biggest CO2 emissions by far is flying.  A flight within Europe can emit several hundred kg CO2 per head and a transatlantic flight can be well over a ton.  This is an order of magnitude far above other things we do in our lives.  Meat-eaters cause emissions in the order of a ton per head per year; your domestic heating and hot water system – perhaps one or two tons per head per year.   One single flight can exceed these figures.

The very most polluting thing we do is not about possessions.  It is about experience.

Once we get over the need for hoarding symbols of status, which can be possessions (a car) or evidence of experience (a tan), we often move to hoarding experiences – partly for hedonistic reasons – pure pleasure, and partly as a store for the future so that we can look back at pleasurable memories.  We have to be careful that the shift from symbols to experience does not result in even more emissions because we end up travelling more.

Cutting down on possessions and sharing are using ways of reducing our consumption of resources.  As important as this, however, are finding ways of symbolising status without physical tokens and developing the self-confidence not to need symbols of status in the first place.

Then – the greatest challenge – having the restraint not to pursue those pleasurable and experience-rich activities which are highly polluting.  Sharing or no sharing, possessions or no possessions, that challenge remains.

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