Why conserve?
Posted by aogSaturday, 13 December 2003 at 20:59 TrackBack Ping URL

I was thinking about energy efficiency and CAFE standards. One thing that’s not pointed out enough is that making the use of something more efficient causes greater use of that thing by (in effect) lowering the price. One need only look at electrical use. As electrical devices have become more efficient, we use more of them. The large rise in overall fuel efficiency in cars in America hasn’t lead to less gasoline being used either. Of course, one could argue in favor of CAFE on other grounds, but the idea that it will reduce the overall use of gasoline is not supported by the historical record.

But let’s look at the bigger picture. What’s the actual goal of conservation, of improving the level of efficiency of using natural resources? One effect is increased economic activity and wealth, but I’ve seen few to no advocates of conservation tout that as a feature. Instead, the putative goal is “conserve” these natural resources. But why? If they are in fact finite, then they’ll run out no matter how much we conserve. Conservation can only put off the day of reckoning, not prevent it. Why put it off, why not enjoy ourselves now? Our distant descendants would do without anyway. In a world of finite resources, we have to plan for That Day regardless.

Ah, you say, but the longer we delay That Day the more chance we have of finding some alternative. I actually don’t think that is true either. How would we find an alternative? Only by investing excess wealth today. The more excess wealth we have, the more we can invest in research to find alternatives. So it’s not the total amount but the excess that matters. Where does that excess wealth come from? Why, the profligate use of natural resources! It’s easy to conceive of a conservation regime that would eliminate all excess wealth and thereby prevent the discovery of alternatives for That Day when the resource runs out. Subsistence farmers tend to remain subsistence farmers.

This is a bit of a simplistic treatment of the issue, but hopefull it illustrates the fact that mindless conservation can well not even serve its own purposes. Perhaps the environmentalists should take up the banner of conspicuous consumption and point out how saving money on electricity for gadget A makes room in the budget for gadget B. Anyone want to alert the Sierra Club?