Paying the True Costs of Living

We’re in trouble. We as in the people of the Earth, which is all the people there are, notwithstanding theories of extraterrestrials munching their popcorn equivalents while watching us flail about. Our planet is only so big and has only so much in the way of natural resources to offer us. Think of The Giving Tree. As we cruise to a 7.7 Billion human population, the rest of the Earth and its species aren’t doing so hot (anthropological climate change aside), with a few notable exceptions such as starlings, cockroaches, and rats. This represents one of the unquantified costs of living, the impact of our increasing population and activities on the global ecosystem. Not to mention the ever decreasing EROEI (energy return on energy invested) that is signalling the end of capitalism as we know it. Gulp!

For example, flying insect biomass has been found to have decreased by over 75% in Germany over the past 27 years. Insects are one of the foundations of our ecological house, with some 10 quintillion (1 with 19 zeroes after it) bugs in existence on Earth at any given time. Well, maybe 2.5 quintillion these days. Regardless, the fate of these lowly arthropods is an indicator of the fate of higher organism and our fate as well. Other animals eat these bugs and are themselves eaten, the whole circle of life thing. Such as in Britain where farmland birds have declined by 50% since 1970. The world has been made aware of hive collapse syndrome in our hard working bees for hire which pollinate so many of our food crops. But what about all those wild bugs that pollinate for free? Can we lose 75% of them and maintain a functioning ecosystem? 85%? 95%? How to quantify the cost of losing so many insects and reliant species? The good news is that we’re going to get a front row seat to the answer to that question, or at least our kids will. That is also the bad news.

Are flying insects like bees going to continue their decline? I’ll take the under.

More good news. Some wonks took the time to figure out one of modern American life’s most mysterious unquantified costs of living. The subsidy that the American military and our wide-ranging and almost unfathomable spending on military intervention, bases on foreign soilhardware, proxy wars, our own endless warsblack opsdrone strikes on weddings, and other misadventures represents for the fossil fuel industry. Oil in particular. The results are a little bit murky and imperfectly bounded by a vast network of assumptions, much like the military industrial complex itself, but best guess is that American military expenditures represent a subsidy of over $30 per barrel of oil consumed in the US, nearly $1 of hidden costs per gallon of gas. How’s that for country living? Now I don’t know about you, but as much as I disagree with the way America has played the bull in the china shop of the world for the past few decades, breaking things willy-nilly, goring innocent shoppers, and otherwise making a nuisance of ourselves, I’d be a lot more comfortable with the whole system if Americans had to pay this cost directly, every day, at the pump. This would be a regressive tax, meaning it would hit everyone equally and thus the poorest the hardest, those least able to accommodate a significant increase in the cost of fuel, but maybe that would be a good thing. George W. Bush said it best when he said “I encourage you all to go shopping more” in a speech discussing the way the American citizenry should respond to the escalating so-called GWOT (Global War on Terror). Basically, shut up and never mind what we’re doing over here. If Americans at large had to face and pay out of pocket directly for what our military industrial complex was doing to the rest of the world perhaps we’d rise above the Kardashian-powered bread and circuses we’ve been lulled into a soma-like stupor on and start paying attention and demand accountability. This is a cost of living we need to acknowledge, then face and halt the terrible shit that has been going on in our names before we can move forward. Because as the steadily declining EROIE mentioned earlier is showing us, business as usual with fossil fuels is going to get rough. We can’t afford to oppress the populacesand secure the resources of oil-rich states for our use forever, both morally and economically.

The sun is setting on cheap energy. (CREDIT: Zbynek Burival on Unsplash)

As I’ve written before, we have been making terrible choices on what to subsidize, what to value, and what not to value from an economic and ecological point of view for the past few centuries. Water, for example, is being used as if an infinite resource. We’re pumping it up from aquifers faster than it can be replenished, diverting rivers like the Colorado for irrigation to the point that they dry up, and polluting all of it as fast as we can. In the American heartland, Kansas, for example, studies of the vast underground water source that is the Ogallala Aquifer show that in order to sustainably draw water we need to cut our usage by 80%. Otherwise we will see the peaking and slow collapse of industrial agriculture in the region by 2040. Which will be bad. Any improvements in efficiency of use and reduction in withdrawals will help but the point is we need to change how we feed ourselves and a great way to do that is through economic incentives, like pricing water use such that growing water-intensive crops in arid climates, using wasteful flood or spray irrigation, and letting +40% of water leak in transit are no longer acceptable. Because in the long run, they are not.

Mobile phones? Think about all the hyperventilating about rare earth metals, lithium, copper and other esoteric ingredients that go into our electronic masters, ahem, I mean mobile phones. These resources are extracted largely in bad places, or maybe more accurately in places kept bad, and thus enable further militaristic saber rattlingKleptocracies, and trade wars. Yet, we throw away about 150 Million mobile phones in the US alone per year. Which basically means that every man, woman, and child in our fair nation gets a new phone every other year. Preposterous. Wasteful. Unconscionable. This kind of e-waste is the fastest growing source of waste in the world. As someone who considers fixing, reusing, and otherwise maintaining the things I buy to be a diverting hobby I have had my phone for over 4 years, which hasn’t been easy. As anyone who has done such an anti-American thing can tell you, the problem is battery life or rather the lack of it as the phones age. Every phone has a custom battery cell inside it, and nearly every phone makes it very difficult to get to that battery, and importantly these one-of-a-kind batteries are only produced for the very brief blink of time that these specific phones are produced. So if you need a new battery for a 4 year old phone, and you will, you are forced to deconstruct your phone as carefully as possible and place a NOS (new old stock) battery into the phone with unknown result. Because rechargeable lithium batteries begin dying the day they are born, much like humans. So a battery that has been sitting on a shelf for 4 years may not be much better than the battery that has been sitting in your phone for 4 years. It’s a crap shoot. This simple example highlights a problem with our modern life. We value new, flashy, better-marketed things over sustainable, responsible things and thus far we have not had to face the consequences and pay the true cost of this proclivity. But we could have both. If we price mobile phones designed with non-standard, non-serviceable batteries with a surcharge for their inevitable life in a landfill we can push the needle on this state of mind just a bit. If we teach our kids to value conservation and reuse over consumerism, help them overcome the marketing deluge to consume newer and better stuff (phones included) we can shift this tide even further. Maybe. Thus far we’ve been burying this cost of living, literally, but our attitudes on consumption are punishing poor people the world over, and before long we’ll be feeling the hurt too.

Is it any surprise that we have such awful outcomes from such awful incentives? We have built a world where it is acceptable to sweep ugly costs under the proverbial rug. Where making sure as many costs as possible are externalized to the commons is a business model. Enabling us to devour a 1000 calorie, 1800 L of water and 10 lbs of carbon dioxide hamburger loaded with antibiotic-raised high density feedlot beef fed on a diet of heavily irrigated, herbicided, pesticided, and subsidized alfalfa and corn, on a bun made from intensively irrigated grains tainted with glyphosate sprayed to ease harvest, all farmed and shipped with fossil fuels at prices kept low by our world spanning military. For $3.99, with a 32oz corn syrup-based soft drink and 800 calories of fries too. Who are you to resist? We have built a world where monocultural industrial scale farming has created vast swathes of land nearly devoid of insect life through pesticides and herbicides. We have allowed our government to pour 70% of all direct (non-military) energy subsidies, incentives, research funding, and tax breaks into the fossil fuel industry. It is no wonder we are awash in cheap, unhealthy food, driving our SUVs everywhere, breathing polluted air, drinking tainted water and sweating flabbily in a warming world. And all these things are related. Water, oil, insects, phones, the military. We value saving a buck now over a breath of fresh air tomorrow. Considering the costs of our choices for how we live is complicated, unpleasant, and it is just easier to sit back and Netflix-binge while munching engineered, hyper-palatable GMO snacks. I contend that facing and paying the true costs of our way of life, while painful, will lead to a happier, more connected, and sustainable way of life. For studies show it is your interactions, relationships with those around you, not your candy crush score or how much money you saved on groceries, that most directly impact your happiness. A life of awareness and engagement with our community and taking joy in our place in it. Sounds good to me.

Jonathan Engel is a medical device research scientist by day with a passion for wilderness and a lifetime spent on the water and in the woods at his 1920s-era family cabin on the Kawishiwi River near the proposed Twin Metals project.