Quality of Life
I have been thinking about "quality of life", not in real terms of what makes life worthwhile, but in terms that most people strive for: less effort-more resources. I would like to explore what goes into this effort and what it means to humanity. Once we have a better idea of the source and costs of these conveniences, we may choose to temper our efforts.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in Palo Alto, California, measures quality of life in terms of energy use. For instance, few people would prefer to walk 100 miles than to ride a horse. Taking a car is even more convenient. Few would rather farm their food than to have it delivered, ready to eat. At another time, I would like to explore the idea that too much convenience, like too much sugar, can actually become detrimental. But for now, letís stay with the idea of "quality of life" in terms of convenience and energy use.
A person alone can only accomplish a limited amount. With some leverage, that same person can accomplish a lot more. To increase our quality of life, we rely on a number of levers:
- Cooperating with others.
- Domesticated plants and animals.
- Technology, which for the most part means harnessing energy in some form or another.
- Exploiting other people's labor and resources. That is, taking their resources without proper compensation.
Letís look at the limitations of each lever:
We can cooperate as long as we all see a mutual benefit. In general, the larger the group and the longer the time frame, the more tenuous the alliance. Times of crisis and war bring the most cooperation, but only for a short time. Most long term cooperations are looser and more limited.
Most of the plants and animals could be domesticated, have been for about 5,000 years. These days, we have some success in harnessing microbes and in genetically modifying the already domesticated plants and animals, but we have long since past the point of making significant progress in this area. There are certain characteristics that make it possible to domesticate an animal or plant. For example, a horse is a social animal that lives in a hierarchical group. Once established, the hierarchy is stable. We merely insert ourselves as the Alpha. Zebra also live in groups, but each male is a stud who dominates his harem and defends it against other males. Zebras are constantly challenging the order in the hopes of gaining more mares. Despite many efforts to domesticate the zebra, it has never succeeded. Ancient man was no dumber than we are. Before any written history, all animals and plants that could be domesticated were domesticated. Can you think of one plant or animal that has been domesticated since recorded history?
For plants to be domesticated, they must evolve with some condition that makes it possible. An example is wheat which evolved with a short wet growing season of about 4 months and a long dry season. Wild wheat does not invest in a woody stock. It grows a quick grass like stalk and covers the seeds with a hard shell to survive the dry season. It also tends to be in concentrated areas and ripen all at the same time. All that had to be done was to select wheat for size and for seeds which do not pop off the stalk.
Technology has brought a lot of benefits in a short time and the future promises more technology which might further improve our lives. But if you examine technology at the point of use, it involves the use of energy. It takes energy to make technical products, and it takes energy to use technical products. The only time technology uses less energy is when newer more efficient technology replaces older, less efficient technology. The problem is that we are already seeing limiting factors to expanded energy. At this point, it is not clear whether we will run out of resources before we foul our environment to the point it is no longer livable. It is not necessary to turn the air poisonous to cause mass suffering. If our weather patterns shift enough, our ability to grow food will be compromised. Even domesticated plants are adapted to climates. Changes in the climate could cause a significant drop in food production over a short period of time, leading to much hunger political instability. With 1/3 of the world's population ready to jump onto an already strained energy and technology band wagon, we are bound to have to make adjustments.
Few of us like to think we are exploiting other people. We no longer practice slavery overtly. Nor do we openly colonize other countries. We talk about human rights and limit prison labor. Nonetheless, we benefit unduly from other countries resources through "gun boat diplomacy", corruption, and the World Bank activities. We also promote the abuse of "illegal aliens" which is an insidious form of slavery. We also export our pollution by sending dirty industries off-shore. Each of these activities has long term negative effects on the victims, even after the activities cease.
Once we understand what our "quality of life" rests on, we have to ask ourselves whether it is worth the price. There is a sustainable level of energy and other resource use. I am not sure what that level is, but it is certainly much lower than what we are using now. There are plenty of solutions to living within our means. The question is whether enough of us are willing to face the reality and whether we are able to act without a crisis.
by Didier G.