Take what you want, and pay for it

An old Spanish proverb says that God said to mankind, “take what you want, and pay for it”.

If you look around at the world around you today, what you’ll see, again and again, is us taking, without paying for it.

You don’t need to know, for instance, how much oil remains in the ground, or what percentage of the oil that exists has been discovered, to know everything you need to know about taking too much oil today.

We do not have a better transportation fuel to replace oil. You can talk electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles, natural gas-powered vehicles, ethanols and the like all you care to. You can talk about vehicles whose paint is all solar-to-electric in nature. It doesn’t matter.

We have built a society that depends on motoring, to get ourselves around, to get goods to market, to supply our daily needs.

We should be diversifying that as quickly as possible, adding more ways to do those tasks. (Indeed, we ought to have been doing so for years, but better late than never.) We therefore would take less oil going forward (because otherwise we’re just gambling).

(Within oil, of course, there’s various types as well. Some have excellent energy returns on the energy invested to extract and process them; others have lousy returns. Every day uses up far more of the first, forcing more and more of our lives onto the second. In other words, the issue is pressing, regardless.)

We do this for many other types of resources, too. Some are regenerable, some are recyclable, some (like oil) are consumed in use.

We need as well to recognise that there is only so much useful land on this planet. Each hectare comes with choices to be made: is this better being the lungs of the planet (an active natural forest), a woodlot (a monocultured forest), used for agriculture, used for industry, the site of homes & lawns? We cannot have the same hectare be all of these simultaneously. In many cases, we must combine hectares to make things sustainable: take too much of the forest, or open grasslands, away, and suddenly the ecosystems collapse; build too many places to live over too much land in too close a proximity and you have snarled traffic and chaos due to overcrowding (even though the same area mapped with apartments would hold more people, but be less snarled and chaotic, since more options than driving yourself everywhere would now make sense).

We do it economically and financially as well. We’re unwilling to tax ourselves to pay for the programmes we’ve enacted, but we’re also unwilling to give up the goodies. So we run deficits, add to our debt, kick the problem onto future generations.

Life requires communal action, and therefore it requires that we make choices.

Everything we have built in the past requires maintenance: entropy and time take all produced order and reduce it to rust, jumble, uselessness. The more we build, the more we must maintain. The more complicated we make things, the more we must do to keep them operational. The more complex we make our society by pushing it to its limits, the closer it comes to a chaotic cascade failure.

At the same time, since we insist there are no limits to our growth, we must constantly add onto what we have built.

And, at the same time, since we insist there are no limits to our desires, we must constantly add onto the programmes that reward us.

Is it any wonder that we have been considered almost the equivalent of a cancer (growing without limits, consuming everything simply to keep growing)?

This is the issue of our time. Are we prepared to grow up as a species, as a society, as a people, and accept that in our taking we must pay the bills?

That our taking today also involves stewardship for the future, that our descendants deserve to have the opportunities we have taken?

Or will we simply steal from them, with an implied “too bad, so sad”.

This is not a matter of left or right. It is a matter of whether or not we shall live.

Choose wisely. Judge accordingly. And pay as you go.


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