27 May 2008

Sustainable Living

Anonymous asks me to comment on this piece in the Washington Post, which describes a sustainable future, i.e., "We'll also have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming." Anonymous adds:
It seems like the efficiencies of having everyone in one place will keep cities alive... but I'm wondering, what would be the costs and benefits (aguanomically) of moving metropolites out to smaller towns? And generally, what changes do you foresee in our national water framework in the future?
First of all, read this excellent post by a girl who is making her own attempt to live sustainably in urban Pittsburg.

Now... sustainable living requires that you live with fewer energy inputs -- as fuel, imported items, manufactured goods, etc. That does not mean that life is miserable, just that a number of us (including economists) would probably be out of work. Put another way, the diversified labor-force that we have today exists to feed many a need. If people stop watching TV or buying carbon fibre skis, or drinking coffee (imported!), then many of us will have to find other jobs. (That's not necessarily a bad thing -- I like carpentry!)

The one who is credited with the earliest and best discussion of the division of labor and the role of cities is Adam Smith. To paraphrase, he said that dividing one big tasks into many tasks makes us all richer. He also said that the division of labor is limited to the extent (size) of the market. Thus, cities are natural centers of labor diversification, and the people who live in cities are likely to be able to consume and produce a wide variety of goods.

Now we are getting to sustainable living, which is defined by local and -- more important -- low intensity use of resources (oil, water, fish, etc.). It that case, cities will still be where it's at, poets will still be in business, but there will probably not be salmon from Chile.

How is all of this aguanomical?* Well, it can easily be -- mostly because our current uses of water are so messed up that rationalizing water to "higher and better" uses is rather simple. Assign property rights (the people, the environment, farmers), charge full cost of conveyance, allow trading, and sit back. I'd predict that less water would be shipped to desert cities (goodbye Phoenix!) and agricultural production would change by quite a bit (goodbye $1.29/lb beef!).

BTW, I wouldn't bother to move people here and there -- they will migrate on their own as they weighed the costs and benefits of living without food, water, other people, etc. :)

Bottom Line: We can live sustainably with most of the happiness but fewer of the goodies we have today. We'd probably be skinnier from more exercise and better eating. Hmmm... sounds suspiciously nice. Oh yeah, don't forget that global warming will probably kill us.

* what is this monster I have created? :)