05 February 2009

Quality of Life and Consumption of Resources

Colin Beavan of No Impact Man writes today about the problem of prioritizing our use of resources. He asks:
How many resources are we wasting--both as individuals and as a culture--on things that don't even improve our lives? If we made a rule of targeting resources only at things that delivered quality of life, we would end up automatically saving the planet.

I find this a difficult question, in part because the term "quality of life" must certainly mean many different things to different people. Also, the question itself implies a certain level of financial stability and comfort, things unavailable to so many people in the US and around the world.

The notion of "quality of life" seems to extend beyond minimal needs and into things we want. In this sense, one person's quality of life may be enhanced by a really nice pair of hiking boots, and someone else's, by a really nice motorcycle.

Beyond the question of differences in how various people might define "quality of life," I find the question difficult to answer for myself. Supporting a family on the salary of an English professor (without credit card debt or auto loans) means living a little on the lean side, and besides that we're fairly ecologically conscious, and we try not to buy things that are on a fast track to the dump.

I'm fairly constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce my ecological impact, and over the past couple of years, I've made some small changes. I've brought a towel to my office so I don't have to use so many paper towels. I've cut back on buying take-out for lunch, in large part because of the sheer amount of garbage this produces. I've always made an effort to buy clothes that will last for a long time (in both quality and style). In the past couple of years, I've tried harder to find used clothing and to buy things made of hemp, which has a much lower environmental profile than cotton.

But I do buy things that are clearly not necessary. Today, for example, I'm awaiting delivery of a new cell phone. Nothing wrong with the old one, but the new one has a significantly better-quality camera, and I want to be able to take better photos of The Offspring and download them to my computer so I can store them and send them to friends and family. To what extent will this improve my "quality of life"?

Plus I'm a sucker for books, for myself as well as for The Offspring. I could use the library more; I could buy used books. But I like owning books, and I like new books with crisp pages and unmutilated spines.

I don't have an answer to this today. No Impact Man has me thinking, as he often does. Go see what he has to say, and tell me what you think.