A Redistribution of Convenience

This is something that’s been on my mind lately.

Radical ideologies, and more specifically the left-leaning ones, often argue for a vast redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and to put in place a system that would make future redistribution unnecessary. Get rid of classes, of strata, of hierarchy, and you’ll have left the building blocks for economical sustainability.

That’s the basic argument, at least.

I’m beginning to think that in order to green this concept up, to ground it in the reality of a closed planetary system, to take into account all the “externalities” that economists and politicians find so easy to ignore, is to frame the concept in terms of convenience instead of just money. Because what does money buy, much of the time, other than convenience? The basics are easy to come by for many of us: food, shelter, transportation, leisure. Sufficient light to stay active at night. Clothing that’s not falling apart. The means to pursue some kind of hobby. Access to art and culture. Access to the internet. And so on.

Linking money to convenience happens linguistically too (or at least for us English speakers). How many times have you heard somebody refer to “buying time”? Or that some wonderful gadget is “worth its weight in gold”? Industrial efficiency is very closely tied into this as well. The assembly line and the birth of modern mass-scale production was born out of Henry Ford’s desire to make more product with less effort. More, for less.

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More, more, more. Convenience is disposability, efficiency, and a low price. Right?

As Michael Grunwald wrote in a 2008 Time Magazine article:

This may sound too good to be true, but the US has a renewable-energy resource that is perfectly clean, remarkably cheap, surprisingly abundant, and immediately available. It has astounding potential to reduce the carbon emissions that threaten our planet, the dependence on foreign oil that threatens our security and the energy costs that threaten our wallets. Unlike coal and petroleum, it doesn’t pollute; unlike solar and wind, it doesn’t depend on the weather; unlike ethanol, it doesn’t accelerate deforestation or inflate food prices; unlike nuclear plants, it doesn’t raise uncomfortable questions about meltdowns or terrorist attacks or radioactive waste storage, and it doesn’t take a decade to build…

What do you think this miracle energy resource is? Some piece of technology that’s going to descend from the institutions on high and save us from ourselves? A hitherto unknown natural source of energy?

Unfortunately, the author of this article was advocating for mere energy efficiency, which the author of Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet pretty succinctly reveals as being a relatively useless endeavor at this point in time:

Energy efficiency and energy conservation, although often used interchangeably, are not the same thing. Energy efficiency is using less energy to provide the same level of service — it’s increasing the miles per gallon of a vehicle, reducing the amount of electricity needed to run a refrigerator, or reducing the amount of fuel needed to heat a home. In theory, increasing a products energy efficiency would reduce the amount of energy we consume. In practice, that hasn’t been the case. [We’ve] eroded the many efficiencies gained through improved insulation and better heaters in housing by simply building bigger houses. We have eroded the savings of increased fuel efficiency in cars by driving further. And we have eliminated the efficiency gains of our appliances by simply purchasing more of them.

The other radical step that’s usually assumed to be taken after wealth redistribution is, like I said, instating a system that keeps the wealth balanced. So if you’re going to have energy efficiency, you’re going to need to practice energy conservation as well or it’s pointless.

We need to get it out of our heads that convenience is the end-all-be-all: that it’s a hallmark of the wealthy and prestigious and is something to aspire to. That it’s the reward for living appropriately. That it’s the respite from tedious and unsatisfying labor. Conservation and temperance (I think a glance at the meaning of the tarot card of the same name is merited here) should, ideally, be acted in accordance with voluntarily, but it’s an appalling proposition in the current culture we live in here in the West. And for some, it’s downright impossible. Regarding the situation of the poor and working poor, I think Oscar Wilde says it perfectly in his essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

Hence, redistributing. Redistributing wealth only tackles one part of the equation here; there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we view labor and treat laborers, and the shift in our conception of convenience will follow. The worker who is passionate about their work, no matter how hard or monetarily unrewarding, doesn’t see their lot as toil to that needs escaping from. Americans in the 50’s, with the invention of commercially-viable plastics, were suddenly inundated with the revolutionary convenience of disposables. Dishes and diapers that didn’t need to be washed changed the way we think about dish-washing and laundering. Foam and plastic-packed meat changed the way we think about butchering and animal husbandry. And for a more modern example, Ikea has fundamentally changed the way we think about furniture. Why repair or repurpose something if it’s more convenient to just replace it? After all, it feels like there’s an endless supply of the thing out there anyways.

What would a redistribution of convenience look like, though?

It might require the dismantling of much of the big box store phenomenon, and rebuilding local and more specialized economies. It might mean going to one store for your produce and then another for your meat (for everyone; so this would obviously mean eradicating the “food desert” also). It might mean cutting freeway lanes to make room for public transit. It might mean outlawing lawns in drought-prone regions and permitting them in public green spaces only. It might mean requiring households to stay below a certain rate of energy consumption. It might mean permitting alternative building methods (like rammed earth). It might mean requiring passive design of certain kinds of buildings to limit the heat island effect. It might mean requiring a certain number of green spaces per square mile of urban development. It might mean outlawing plastic bottles and developing a public drinking water system and giving out reusable bottles to those who can’t afford them.

It would mean taking away some of the convenience from those at the top and giving it to those at the bottom.

This is really the thesis of Green Washed. Every single chapter is dedicated to describing a product, an industry, or a market philosophy that tries to present itself as sustainable and systemically ripping it apart. You cannot buy yourself green. Buying a used car is significantly more eco-friendly than purchasing a new hybrid or electric vehicle. (And did you know that more Prius owners care more about the status associated with owning a Prius than with actually being eco-conscious? Sounds familiar.) Driving around a 90’s Civic is not nearly as convenient as just going out and buying a new car that promises to forgive your environmental sins. It’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t look green. But it sure doesn’t rely on more labor exploitation overseas to produce the electronics in the dashboard, more deforestation and violence in the Amazon to mine for the iron or aluminum in the frame and components, more military intervention in the Middle-East or Central America to secure oil for the tires and plastic-based interior. And it certainly doesn’t involve another 37,000 lbs (on average) of embodied CO2 emissions from manufacturing alone because you’re not buying it fresh off the line.

So I challenge you all to go out and start doing the more difficult version of something in your life. “Take the stairs”, if you will. Go to the mom and pop store even though it’s out of your way or a little more expensive. Take the bus even though it lengthens your travel time by 15 minutes. Do without an ethically dubious product. Attend that rally or sign that petition even though it’s time consuming. Do volunteer work instead of just donate money.

Do something difficult so someone else with less than you can have it just that much easier. If we can’t achieve mass, institutionalized redistribution, let’s take this into our own hands.

The fact of the matter is that in order to keep our planet habitable, we need to start getting used to the idea of doing more with less now, because we’ll have no choice in the matter later. Less gadgets, less cars, less variety in products and foods. Destroy the concept of disposability and cheapness. Destroy quantity over quality. If nobody in your county grows 5 different kinds of tomatoes for you to buy, you need to do without them.

The revolution will not be convenient.

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