This is the introduction / first part in a planned series, wherein I document some of the more egregious misuses of time, energy, and resources in society, always keeping in mind the intense injustices and suffering so often ignored in these discussions.
There is a diseased thought which has spread among us; a vile, backwards idea which stifles progress and destroys hope. It is the mentality of the so-called realist, who proclaims loudly to the world: "It can't be done."
But the 'realist' is a fraud.
I'm not talking about reversing gravity or breaking the speed of light here. But even if I were, just about any physicist out there would be open-minded enough to at least try. Why should we hold sociology - far from a hard science - to a different standard? Why do we let people tell us we can do no better, especially when all the evidence points to the fact we can?
As a society, we spend countless resources in areas which range from questionably worthwhile to certainly worthless. And despite their uncertain value, many of these are so ingrained in our daily lives that we consider them necessary evils. It's easy to fall into the realist's trap when you unwittingly accept the 'necessity' of the greater part of the insurance, advertising, and intelligence/surveillance industries (among others); the excesses spent on weapons of war (that is, resources used primarily to destroy other resources); and the many inefficiencies that we blind ourselves to when accepting the lie that bureaucracy is the only inhibitor of progress.
There is always an opportunity cost. Time lost on one task can never be regained and spent on another. In this way, even actions of a dubious nature (or ones where resources are no object) can be incredibly wasteful. Even those things we consider acceptable luxuries must be scrutinized with a broad perspective, holding each under the lens of the need in other areas. The status quo is unacceptable. Humanity has thus far failed to produce a society that could be called moral - in any sense of the word. The sheer inequality of life stands out as a hideous offense to our innate sense of justice. We could do better, if we tried.
Now, this doesn't mean we should give up our all technology and excessive possessions and return to working plots of land. Humanity has made strides, and most of them have increased our productivity while lowering our collective labor needs. Philosophers have long envisioned a day where work - at least how we know it today - ceases to be necessary, leaving time for learning, discovery, leisure, and joy. The difficulty in reaching this goal is that we hold fast to unhelpful economic concepts - we worry about things like creating jobs and curbing unemployment, as if we live in an environment that is nearly perfect, but only fluctuates a bit now and then. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is our blatant misuse of resources, and their accumulation among an extremely tiny portion of humanity. This is what we must change.
But there is always an excuse as to why we can't. If the words heard are not "It can't be done", they are instead "This is a democracy - what we have is what people want. Don't you trust democracy? Would you rather be told what you can have, with no say in it?"
Putting aside other troublesome aspects of that argument for a moment, let's consider some basic facts about the economic system most of the world lives under.
The prevailing argument in favor of the efficiency of this 'democratic' capitalism can be summed up as: "If there is demand, there is necessity. If the primary motive is profit, resources will be used in the most efficient manner possible.".
There are significant leaps in logic used to reach this conclusion, which are too-often glossed over. It first assumes that consumers are always intelligent and rational in what they seek to buy, and at the same time are in complete control of their own demands. It also, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, assumes a form of ethical control that is not in place, and never has been: nothing is stopping someone from producing something which is 'worthless' (or at the very least a terribly inefficient use of resources), as long as they can create a demand for the product in question. In essence, this mantra denies the very nature of contemporary life, wherein power and influence are exerted over populations in order to shape wants, desires, opinions, and attitudes.
Importantly, the fact an individual or company worries about profit says nothing about whether or not their use of resources itself is worthwhile, and does not even assure that they will be used in an efficient manner in the long term.
Let's say you have a choice between using a certain amount and certain quality of steel, in construction of some object which would last for ten years, or instead spending twice the amount on a higher quality construction and having it last for thirty years. Shouldn't you always build the latter? Well, no - not if you can sell three of the cheaper version in the time you sell one of the more expensive. In fact, given the current market incentives, you'll probably choose to make the cheaper one if you want to stay in business. This is only one example of market failure, but it is a widely applicable one, and obvious to anyone who has lived long enough to observe it in action.
You might ask: wouldn't most consumers prefer the higher quality item, knowing that it is a better return on their investment? The problem with this assumption is that it ignores all of the other complex factors involved in a sale. First, most people are on limited budgets, and cannot afford to buy high quality items at any given time. So, even if they're aware they'll eventually pay more in the long term, they can't do anything about it. This is a perpetual cycle - an oft-overlooked aspect of what keeps people in states of poverty. But it doesn't end there. The consumer has not just imperfect information, but actually more disinformation than anything. You have to navigate through layers of advertising and packaging just to do the research necessary to really understand what you're buying. And research it is. In order to be a 'responsible consumer', you need to spend far more time reading up on what you're going to buy than you do actually buying it. I wouldn't consider this exactly a useful expenditure of time.
Of course, all of this still assumes that the product in question is even useful in the first place. In capitalist society, we're constantly bombarded with products and services that we most definitely do not need, and often do not even want. With proper conditioning, we grow to accept certain ideas of what is necessary and what is not, dictated by the whims of the powerful. We're programmed - yes, our minds are programmable - not just to agree with these definitions, but never to question them. We're not supposed to have these deeper thoughts - only to accept our existence for what it is, find our place (that is, our career), and live out our life.
After all, knowledge, reasoning, and critical thinking are the enemies of commercialism. If you have the knowledge of what the products really are, how they're made, and under what conditions, you don't want them. If you have the reasoning power to consider what else people could be making instead of those products, in this world of great need, you start to get angry. And if you have the critical thinking skills necessary to put together the pieces of the puzzle, realize the wool is being held over your eyes, and that the system itself (along with every powerful interest working inside it) seeks to turn you into a mindless husk of a consumer...
..well, then you want to bring the whole thing down.