The Master said: “Ci, do you regard me as someone who learns much and commits it all to memory?”
Zi-gong replied: “Yes, are you not?”
The Master said: “No, I use one string to tie it all together.”

— from the Analects of Confusius

Have you ever noticed that what used to be referred to as citizens or workers are now referred to as consumers? Have you noticed that the solution to our economic woes is to give people money so that they can go out and buy something?

Our culture is living out a story. A story that is based on man taking over dominion of the world with the full rights to take fruits, herbs and animals for his own consumption. This idea might have made sense 5000 years ago, but now our demands are so great that not only are we consuming food, we also clearing out other life to build houses, roads, golf courses.

“How about I move 20 miles away from the place where I work and my colleague moves 20 miles in the opposite direction. Then we will both build large houses in the middle of the forrest. And we will build roads and cars, and each day we will get into our cars and spend 2 hours each day driving in order to go back to work. We could build an entire economy around this concept and thus create more employment.”

Currently mankind has taken control of 60% of the biosphere. This number can not go to 100% since nobody knows how to make a self-sustaining completely closed system (the space station still needs supplies from time to time). This worries me.

Our culture is based on consumption and hoarding but we have forgotten why. It used to be that prudent people would save resources like grain, wood, water, metal,… for a rainy day. Rainy days happen whenever a system is critically constrained. One critical constrain is the inability for a farmer to move his land. If a crop fails, he better have a backup plan. If resources are naturally abundant there is no need to save.

Today we live in the most technologically advanced civilization the world has ever seen. It is not hard to list all our achievements, but let my mention just one. Today we wear shoes superior to those of kings five centuries ago and pay only $29.95. This is thanks to advances in technology, transport and commerce. It is really quite amazing. However, culturally speaking we are no more advanced than a bunch of bronze age peasants. So what do we do? While we are not hoarding grain, we still fill our homes with 15 pairs of shoes, 25 suits, new furniture (that we replace every other time a new catalogue comes out), 2 TVs, 3 computers, and enough tools to equip a small motor shop even though we only use a screwdriver and maybe a hammer a couple of times a month.

With our incredible advanced financial systems it no longer makes to hoard all these things. Therefore there is another solution which could be called ecological capitalism or ecocapitalism. Ecocapitalism takes advantage of the advanced technology we posses to finish work that used to take days in less than an hour (consider knitting a shirt by hand vs by machine).

One string ties it all together
In our world it is possible to choose quality over quantity. It is possible to work to produce enough for a life time of ecologically conscientious consumption in just five years. This should be possible for any productive environmentalist that walks the talk.To change and improve a culture we must change the individuals in the culture. To change the individuals we must first change ourself. I am generally opposed to telling people what to do and what not to do be decree. Instead I am trying to show that it is possible by setting example which is hopefully worth emulating.It all starts by reducing one’s ecological footprint. Buy used rather than new. A used house does not require new land or resources to be built. A used car has already been built once and does not require additional factory resources and raw material. It is more ecologically sound to buy a used Hummer than a new Prius. The same goes for furniture. Develop a taste for quality rather than novelty. Get antique furniture rather than new plywood. Even during my lifetime I have noticed that the furniture you buy these days is not nearly as solid as the standard of 20 years ago. Buy quality rather than quantity. It will quickly become obvious that this strategy is much less expensive in the long run.

By reducing one’s ecological footprint significantly below that of one’s neighbors it is possible to save a lot of money. This money should be invested in tools. The tools of this world is not pitch forks, shovels, plows and hammers. Our tools are financial instruments, like bonds and equity (shares), which represent claims on the tools and a share of the products of the tools. This leaves the tools in the hands of experts, craftsmen, etc. where they are much more effective than in the hands of individuals.

It takes only five years of hard work to gather enough investments or claims on products to live an ecologically sustainable life. This does in no way mean that one has to live like an average consumer only with less plywood furniture, less plastic coat hangers, less plastic bowls, and less plastic toys. Instead it means carefully picking high quality items that last a long time (thus keeping expenses down) while consciously making choices regarding price, resource use, and aesthetics.

If more people took this up we would start seeing less factories that produce endless miles of plastic crap. We would see the emergence of cars that were built to be maintained for a hundred years. Since people with no longer be running around trying to fill their growing houses with cheap trinkets, people would have much more time for friends and family or tinkering with projects or doing research into how the world could be turned into an even better place.

So who’s with me?

Originally posted 2008-02-03 07:38:07.