Monday, May 28, 2012

The sweet spot

Jeff and I are traveling in Ecuador, and this weekend we visited the small town of Mindo. Saturday evening I watched these kids playing with some pieces of wood:

At first I was surprised to see them so apparently happy, because these kids are poor by my standards. I think this is part of what makes people throw up their hands at the idea of redistributing anything worldwide. How can every child in the world live like first-world children, with a Tickle Me Elmo, a bedroom in a big house, and a seat in an SUV?

They can't. There is not enough space, not enough fuel, not enough raw material in the world for every child to live like rich children. Nor for all adults to live like American adults.

But an American standard of living is not necessary for happiness. Despite having higher incomes and higher consumption of goods, Americans aren't as satisfied with their lives as Danes or Costa Ricans (source). That's probably because we're behind in some other things that help us be happy, like social connection. And if everybody consumed at the level of Americans, the planet would be trashed.

One model of global well-being I've seen is a "doughnut" - the sweet spot where people's needs are met but they're not burning through too many natural resources. And it occurs to me that these Ecuadoran kids are probably somewhere in that doughnut. Their house, like most in Mindo, was simply made from cement, wood, and corrugated metal. It has running water and a gas stove. Their town has a health center, a school, and a paved road going to the city. The kids looked healthy and cared-for, and they were clearly having a great time until it started raining and the grownups made them come inside.

I don't know much about these kids' lives, and I don't want to idealize them. I don't know how much education they'll get, or how safe their water is, or what opportunities there are for them in this small town. But I don't think people need to live like Americans to be happy.  Personally, I try not to live like a typical American.

I think it's possible to hit that sweet spot where our needs – health, safety, useful work, good relationships, a functioning society – are met.  Where we can enjoy our lives because we're not distracted by hunger or fear or sickness.  That's the kind of world I'm aiming for.


  1. It looks to me like there are plenty of natural resources for 7 billion people to live much more extravagantly than American adults do today, given predictable technological progress. I'd predict (and endorse) massive population growth in the long run, though, and so I buy that point for very different reasons.

    I also buy the claim "you don't need much to be happy," but again for different reasons. A rapidly increasing share of many people's experiences are online, the goods they consume costing next to nothing on the margin. I expect future people (barring disruptive change) will use resources for as much computing/communication/etc. as they want, and may shuffle around some money in exchange for rights to intellectual property, but will be happy without consuming much more than the bare minimum necessary to support life (hopefully because they actually have materially better lives, not just because they can be happy with less).

    I think I may have a very different view than you, though, both about what will happen and what should.

  2. It's really unclear to me what to expect in terms of natural resources/climate, since I hear experts saying different things. I'm not swayed by people who want to apply Moore's law to everything and assume everything we want will definitely get better and cheaper.

    I agree that tech will help us have better quality lives at a low economic and environmental costs. Looking closer at the photo, I'm pretty sure the girl was playing with a cell phone while the boys were playing with boards.

    1. What resource would plausibly run out, if we all lived like typical Americans? To me it seems like we have more than enough space, unless we need it to grow food; we'll have more than enough food, unless we don't have enough energy to make it. So it looks like energy is the main contender for a bottleneck (or waste heat, if we scaled up the population a really huge amount), and though I'm no expert, I would quite confidently predict that either nuclear power or solar power could be comfortably scaled up far enough, if we tried seriously for a while.

      That said, in addition to not being an expert I don't really know what domain experts say on this question, and I'd be interested to see one justifying or at least expressing the necessary degree of pessimism about the long-run prospects for sustainable energy.

    2. One thing that worries me is that we are not trying seriously to scale up nuclear or renewables. While we were in the process of trying seriously, many people would suffer and die because their farming and weather were screwed up. That's already happening.

      Soil depletion is another thing that worries me. Current agriculture is possible because of petrochemicals. As we use more water, we're irrigating land with somewhat saline water, which builds up and eventually salts the earth into uselessness. (More use of water is a first-world pattern, both due to stupid city locations like the US Southwest and due to growing more plant crops to feed to animals to produce more meat.)

      As first-world food patterns spread across the world, more factory-farmed animals with high doses of antibiotics mean more risk of antibiotic-resistant pandemics.

      "Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air" is a book that I haven't read, but have been meaning to. It's available free online and is supposed to be well done. The author goes through the physics on what types of renewable energy sources would be practical to what degrees, and ends mostly in favor of nuclear.