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Sacrifice is for suckers (an occasional series)

I see the pundits are still lobbing up chinstrokers about how addressing climate change is going to require huge, painful sacrifice from all Americans. This all sounds very serious, and the only quibble I have is that it’s probably not true. “Going green” in a carbon-constrained economy won’t feel like sacrifice to most people. It will feel like shopping.

Meaning, it will feel like all the consumption decisions we make every day, but tilted imperceptibly by the price ramifications of a carbon cap. Studies just keep piling up suggesting that the overall economic effect of climate change legislation will be fairly small. The most recent one was from the environmental radicals at the IMF.

So why all the sacrifice talk? Maybe because it’s just plain hard to imagine what a decades-long economic transformation will look like. We tend to extrapolate crudely from where we are now. If you want to cut your individual carbon footprint 80% today, you might have to sell your car, give up flying, move into a smaller house, and start foraging for food.

But that’s not how this will go down. Fully decarbonizing will take decades at least. The process will be unpredictable, creating winners, losers, opportunities, and benefits. Come with me now to Strained Analogy Land. Imagine going back in time to meet your hippie forebear…

Future you: I need you to do me a favor.

Retro you: Lay it on me.

FY: I need you to build a worldwide network of devices that subsumes what you presently think of as the postal service, the telephone network, television, and a large chunk of the U.S. retail economy. I’m envisioning a gadget-y thing that will, for example, let you listen to any song ever recorded, search the text of any book or newspaper, talk to anyone in the world, file your taxes, buy stuff, look up recipes, what have you.

RY: Sounds complicated.

FY: You’ll have a few decades.

RY: The book thing alone will take that long.

FY: You’d be surprised.

RY: Ask NASA to do it. They just put a man on the moon!

FY: The government will lend a hand with R&D and a congenial policy environment. More importantly, you can count on assistance from several billion technologically clueless consumers and a large number of rapacious, profit-minded corporations.

RY: We’re doomed. Even if this were technically possible, which it’s not, it sounds insanely expensive.

FY: We’ll all chip in. I did some rough math. Counting all the computers and bandwidth I’ve ever consumed, I’d guess I’ve personally contributed about $25,000 over the years to developing the infrastructure of the “new economy.”

RY: That covers a lot of cookbooks! This gadget is for the super-rich!

FY: Hardly. I don’t even own a Mac. My employers paid most of the 25 grand. Actually, wait, I think I left out a few things. I bought a ton of stuff on Amazon. And I’ve got a data plan for my cell phone. Does that count? I’m not sure. It’s hard to disentangle exactly what should be apportioned to the “new economy.”

RY: You keep using that term. Forget it. The old economy suits me fine.

FY: No problem. You can opt out. I should warn you, though. I’m going to tax your time.

RY: You’re going to what?

FY: Tax your time. Every year, I’m going to remove three minutes from your day.

RY: Take five. I’m not busy.

FY: You’ll see. Right now you don’t even know what a spreadsheet is. In a few years, you’ll go nuts if a web page takes ten seconds to load. You’ll be bereft if your cell phone hits a dead spot. You’ll feverishly refresh your favorite environmental blogs.

RY: I don’t want any part of this.

FY: Wait ’til you see the iPhone. It’s awesome! Really, though, you can opt out. You just won’t want to. Your time is valuable to you, and it will become ever more so. To maximize its value, you’ll start making choices. And bit by bit, the Electromofied Librariphone will be built.

. . .

The point is that fairly dramatic infrastructural changes don’t feel very bad to most people while they’re happening. While the changes can confer lumpy costs and benefits to society, the notion that we’re all going to suffer just totally misunderstands how this sort of thing goes down. Obviously my dumb little parable is oversimplified and glib, but certainly not any more so than calls for “wartime sacrifice.”

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