From Consumption to Utility

What are we doing when we take resources without care or concern for their integrity or longevity simply to benefit ourselves? By what measure might we take to make this different?

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“The pursuit of wealth for its own sake is folly.” I read this declaration recently in The Economist, a publication that generally sets store by capitalism and markets. It was spoken as editorial voice in a review of two new books on the limits of capitalism, a subject heretical in a world that thrives and declines by the measure of gross domestic product based on what appears to be insatiable consumption.

The argument over the real and moral manifestations of the dominant economic system of this time will not be settled here.  But it can be addressed in the context of the ocean as a place where the pursuit of wealth, primarily natural resources, plays out in known and less known ways. The consumption of marine species as food, oil and gas as energy, coastal wetlands and estuaries as sites for rampant tourism, and soon enough minerals as the base parts of much making and processing are combined at the core of the supply system upon which we all rely.  We consume these things without limit, or at least until we have used them all up. The system appears not to have failed us, those of us who have been the beneficiaries, not the victims, of its working. GDP grows as a result of our desires to live better, eat more, play harder, live longer, and otherwise continue an easy ascent up the scale of wealth and well being.

Occasionally, the system fails us – a pestilence, a catastrophic natural event, a depression, a war, or an act of God, that is, things we may think are not of our own making. Science often undercuts such reasoning when it reveals that, indeed, such things may well be our responsibility for which we, not Nature or the Divine, must be held accountable.

I can argue that in fact it is we who have failed the system, not the other way around. Surely, war, for example, is ours to provoke and wage, no matter how we might justify our actions as religiously correct and exceptional. Such circumstance underlies climate denial, the unwillingness to accept that our pursuit of wealth, unrestrained and mismanaged, accounts for what is now polluted air, poisoned earth, acid and hypoxic seas.

By what measure might we take to make this different. What if we measured well being by the meeting of our basic need for water, food, work, health, and community, supplemented and paid for by those interested and able to consume more without depriving others or exhausting supply? Not a new question of course. But one that must be addressed again as we face the reality and increasing certainty that some, perhaps much, of this wealth may soon be denied us all?

What if we valued things first by their utility? A well, a bit of land and garden, a hoe and bucket, a hook and net, a roof, and stove, a book or brush, a place to help us when we’re sick  -- what if everyone could have that first, and calculate our well-being from that utilitarian baseline from which to build our lives, every one of us safe and equal at the start? Those who have these things, and more, are far too often indifferent to this equitable foundation; those who do not have these things, and less, are far too often excluded from the discussion.  What are we saying when we deride the safety net or government programs that apply such values to our basic human needs? What are we doing when we take resources without care or concern for their integrity or longevity simply to benefit ourselves? What does it mean when we consume things into extinction leaving nothing for anyone including our own children? Where is the logic in any of this? Why are we so fearful when basic human needs are promoted as basic human rights?

Capitalism may continue to serve us as a viable system, but not in its present unrestrained, corrupted form where one can glut voraciously, break the law, defy regulation and treaty, deny the truth, and walk on free, irresponsible and indifferent to the consequences.

You do not have to look to far to find evidence of this decline. The media shouts the dire news; the land burns and floods; the weather extends into extremes; the jobs are lost, the investments fail, the opportunists hedge the markets, the politics become a paralyzed confrontation of pointing fingers, and the illusions become delusions evident to all, even to those who live only by the gross domestic product.

The ocean is a different place. It dynamism and life might provide an antidote to this polluted behavior. But not if we continue to treat it with the same ignorance as we have done the land.  We can use the ocean to meet our needs, and it will nurture us. Or we can consume the ocean, and it will destroy us with power that we have already seen as comparable to the wrath of God.

Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.