It seems to me obvious that the utilitarian policy is the one that prolongs human life (as a species, not necessarily as individuals) on earth for the longest possible time.
It seems obvious to a lot of other people that the utilitarian policy maximizes the rate of growth of gross economic production, i.e., the total net dollar value of all money transactions (the “value added”).
But growth is not wealth, for numerous reasons. It is true that in the short run “recessions” are bad times, but that is because we have a system planned and designed for growth. Wealth, in addition to social connection, is access to resources. And yet, when we destroy a resource and replace it with one of greater valuation, however transitory that valuation, it counts toward progress. This is how cultures eat themselves.
There is no clearer example on earth today than that of China, which after a half century of communist madness seems to be entering a period of pseudo-capitalist madness, where destroying things and putting up other things to replace them occurs at a frantic pace, regardless of demand at all. At least we in the west force ourselves to drum up some sort of demand for our excesses.
David Roberts concludes, in an excellent essay that Keith Kloor feels compelled to call “a long, wonky post” that limits to carbon emissions amount to limits to economic growth. I think this is correct.
But I don’t see him challenging the implication that this amounts to limits to well-being. I don’t see that it does.
What I think kicked David R’s ruminations off is that David Owen, a fine nonfiction writer, has written a book on the “rebound effect”. Bryan Walsh in turn has written a brief summary at Time. In short, the claim is that reducing costs simply increases demand, an idea which goes back to the 19th century and has long been called Jevons’ Paradox.
This paradox is what prevents the free market from adjusting to the availability of “green” alternatives in a way that reduces impacts. I think this case is strong.
But an early respondent to that article snarkily replies:
This article is idiotic. And it sounds like the book by David Owen is as well. The average European uses HALF the electricity of the average American, and emits HALF the carbon of an American, even though they enjoy a standard of living that in many ways is *higher* than Americans’. How have they done that? By implementing conservation practices and technologies in every corner of their societies — businesses, homes and in public. The average US car uses 40% more fuel than the average car in Europe (or Japan). They have low wattage light bulbs and motion sensors in their buildings to turn off lights when no one is in the room. In the city where I live, most of the buildings downtown have their lights on in the middle of the night, even though no one is in the building. Americans are simply under-achievers, looking for any excuse to either deny global warming is real or to shrug their shoulders and do nothing about it. This Time article and Owen’s book are good examples of the latter. Yet another area where America has ceded its global leadership.
and therein lies an answer to our quandary. What we have here is not a paradox of the marketplace, but rather an ordinary, nonparadoxical tragedy of the commons. The workable solution is to apply our collective good will. Sometimes this is called “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”, but I would simply call it governance.