Recently, my friend Joe and I bought a 1994 Ford F-250 for five hundred dollars. The previous owner named it Wynona. It has 230,000-plus miles, an eight-foot bed, and plenty of rust creeping along the edge of the crimson-colored frame. In addition, it leaks oil and probably gets about eight miles to the gallon— certainly not the most environmentally friendly vehicle. But it runs, and will serve us well for a while, facilitating bow-hunting excursions, home maintenance projects, and landscaping tasks. My fingers are crossed regarding its lifespan.
We obviously didn’t purchase a new truck with better gas mileage to pump up the economy—say the new 2012 Chevy Silverado full hybrid for almost forty thousand dollars—and I’ll admit we didn’t really need to purchase a truck. But isn’t it better for the environment that we bought Wynona? This is the last sentiment you’re going to hear during this election season because—let’s face it—our politicians and most of the populace bow down thoughtlessly at the altar of growth and consumption.
Cruise down the main commerce strip in any decent-sized American town or city. Inevitably, sprawling new and used car lots are stamped into the landscape. How many material resources and watts of energy go into the production of a brand new hybrid? How much waste is created by its creation? Does this material use and the environmental impact of manufacture offset the gains one makes in gas mileage and society’s “benefit” of economic growth and employment on car and truck assembly lines? There are many hidden costs to our consumption, and they are difficult to measure.
All we hear from most politicians and economists is the need for economic growth. Few people seem to be concerned about the long view—there is a finite amount of material resource on our earth. When will the paradigm shift from an obsession with growth to something more prudent? It’s clear that our current brand of capitalism is incompatible with sustainability. True sustainability is reusing and avoiding excess consumption, not buying a new Prius because is gets better mileage and makes you feel like a responsible consumer.
I was recently in New Orleans for a Bachelor party with some college friends—some of whom are investment bankers and hedge fund guys—and I asked them some of the same questions I’m asking of my readers. How much room for growth is there in the world economy? Even if there is room for growth, is it prudent to continue extracting as much as possible from the earth?
One hedge fund analyst I was with started rambling about Africa and the untapped potential for growth. Another guy didn’t have much to say regarding a tipping point for economic growth, but told me about a real estate deal he was working on in Egypt. Interesting points, they both conceded, without truly seeming concerned that a raw material shortage would happen during their lifetimes, nor should they worry about it.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe science, technology, and increased efficiency will allow the planet to sustain current human consumption much longer than seems realistically possible. Maybe climate change isn’t much of a threat, but I seriously doubt it.
It’s hard to endure and embrace significant change in our actions and value systems. Since our economy is structured so that we don’t see the environmental and human costs of our consumption, it’s even harder to comprehend and accept that we should drastically cut back on purchasing more and more new, shiny gadgets and cars. It’d be refreshing to have a presidential candidate who embraces a different outlook on economic growth, but I’m not crossing my fingers.
Which brings me back to Wynona. The truck represents thrift, value, and reuse. It is already proving to be a great purchase, and we’re going to utilize the truck until it can’t run any longer. I just got back from loading up the extended bed with some old barn wood, which I hope to reclaim for some furniture projects. We’re hoping that a few oil changes and the expertise from some of my high school students will keep her running for a while.