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More or Less?

With gas above $4.00 a gallon, increased fuel costs pushing up prices of almost everything else, and a host of other factors conspiring to challenge household budgets, nearly everyone is figuring out how to do with less of something. Leaving aside those other factors and the great distress of coping with incomes that don’t keep pace with rising costs, high prices are pushing us to make changes that we probably should be making anyway. This is the first time since 1991 that Americans’ gasoline usage has declined during what’s considered the summer driving season. Gas prices are sending more commuters than ever to buses and trains. In terms of carbon emissions, this is all good for the environment.

Yet at the same time the federal government is mailing out tax rebates hoping that we’ll shop our way to economic recovery. The success of this so-called economic stimulus depends on the buying and selling of more stuff – the traditional measure of financial health and well-being. But the buying and selling of more stuff has not historically reduced our environmental footprint. Which brings me to a dilemma I encountered researching High Tech Trash.

The high-tech electronics industry is resource intensive. Large volumes of water, energy, and materials go into making these digital devices. In the past decade the industry has been working hard, and mostly successfully, to increase resource-efficiency and reduce waste for each product manufactured. At the same time, however, most of these companies also have increased overall production. This raises some hard questions about the products’ actual environmental footprints as measured throughout the supply chain and the equipment’s entire lifespan. Are environmental efficiencies in production reducing environmental impacts throughout the product’s entire lifecycle? How do we really measure these footprints anyway? It’s very hard to know.

Which brings me back to the neighborhood gas station’s $4.23 per gallon regular and the shopping spree the government hopes I’ll be taking. How do we encourage or even compel environmentally preferable consumer choices so they’re real and possible for everyone? How do we recast our measures of economic success so that “more” is not the only trigger of rewards and financial compensation? Personally, I’m a little leery of hair-shirt sermons exhorting readers to monastic simplicity. We all want and should be able to lead comfortable lives. I can’t answer these big questions with workable solutions this morning, but since many of us are cutting our driving in half and realizing some of our extras are just extraneous, we need to take this opportunity to keep on thinking in this direction. In fact it’s imperative that we do. We can’t afford not to.