What Is to Be Done?

In addition to being Earth Day, April 22 is also the birthday of V. I. Lenin, who in 1902 famously took on the old question of how we can create a better world. His answers may no longer resonate, but some criticisms of capitalism seem increasingly relevant as our economic system faces a new challenge in today's environmental exigencies.

To avoid economic disaster, capitalism both requires and desires boundless growth. To avoid natural disaster, society has to find ways to place bounds on the consumption of resources and the distortions imposed on the environment in that consumption. How can we achieve sustainability on a finite planet rapidly filling up with people with our infinite desires? Can we change the way we live or our reasons for living?

I think we can, because to match our boundless desires, we also have an almost limitless capacity for interpretation, re-interpretation, and social suggestibility that can be exercised to direct our yearnings towards sustainable ends. We can and do create value, rather than just finding it. In an ever more sophisticated economy, the value of things is less and less in what they intrinsically are, and more and more in what we think of them as. The value in a six-million dollar painting is not in the canvas and pigment, nor even necessarily in their particular arrangement, but rather, almost entirely in the effect that they have on the viewer. This effect in turn has two components, a physiological one, which (given certain reasonable conditions) is more or less the same across viewers, and an emotional and intellectual one, which is almost entirely socially constructed. It is the second that gives it most of its value, while all the other attributes form only the substrate. It is the celebrity and history of the Mona Lisa that gives it its value above the thousands of replicas. And just look at how much advertising can change our perceptions of something's relative value.

To be sure, there are basics that we will never be able to interpret away, where the substrate is everything. We are still embodied beings, and the liveliest imagination, the strongest social signals, cannot induce me in my right mind to feel full for long when I have no food; nor will I be able to create satisfaction when I am cold without shelter or injured without care. While we at MIT may not suffer these lacks ourselves, they nonetheless represent the primary challenges towards which our material wealth would be most efficiently directed. These are the causes which have the strongest and most urgent claim on our material resources and surplus wealth. But once we have bought our freedom from these basic physical needs, what further use have we for more things or more wealth?

One answer is simple. We need to buy them so that we can drive the economy, so that it can produce more things, and we by participating in it can become rich, which will allow us to buy more things — this is the circular answer that brings us global warming and our heads up against the Malthusian wall of our one planet. This is the road we have been taking.

The other answer is more hopeful, the one that makes me think we are on the cusp of opportunity on one side even as catastrophe looms on the other.

Instead, what if material wealth served as only the infrastructure of an economy whose real growth sectors lay in intellectual and social goods? We wouldn't have to give up technology, or the conveniences and comforts that give us the freedom to devote our energies to think about these questions. But we could change our priorities and say: No more absurd levels of consumption just because we don't know any other way to live. What we really want is health and education and security and beauty in our lives, not the maximum number of donuts at the minimum possible price.

In fact, these intellectual and social goods are nothing more than what we've always wanted (or at least claimed to want): to understand how the world works (if only so that we can manipulate it), to understand ourselves and each other (ditto), to express ourselves, and yes, to win in the little competitions we run against each other in material and intellectual arenas alike. To do all of these things, we also need to exist in a sustainable balance with our environment, which provides the entirety of the raw materials we need for existence.

An economist might advocate creating public prices for less tangible, hard-to-track goods as the first step to making sure that they are properly valued, and creating a structure that will allow us to build on them. And to some extent, this has already happened. A carbon emissions market seems to be on the horizon for most of the developed world. Someone values the mysterious stuff that somehow leaches into our heads between lectures and problem sets and research projects at MIT at about $33,400 a year. The cheerful exploitation of intellectual property laws by scientific journals is sucking dry the coffers of science libraries everywhere. And Google's profit margins are thick, while Shaw's Supermarkets' are skinny.

If we can convince ourselves to pursue these projects as ends in and of themselves, rather than as means to more wealth and more stuff, then we have a chance at a truly "new" economy. That then leaves only the problem of how to prevent the market from distorting parts of our lives that we have traditionally held to be priceless, how to balance these new markets even as we attempt to widen them.

Finally, in addition to embracing (and ennobling) the knowledge and service industries, we also have the more difficult choice of turning away from their less sustainable counterparts.

Until we have access to cleaner renewable technologies, we still have to conserve energies. As long as our supply of raw materials is limited, we still need to recycle. And as long as manufacturers and retailers still try to manipulate us into buying things we don't need, or even really want, we have to try to reduce our consumption.

Just as we no longer need a gold standard to justify the value of paper money, nor should we tie ourselves to a pile of stuff in envisioning a desirable future.