Friday, May 23, 2008

I am for saving

This post starts from a discussion started on Maurice's blog, about the habit, to drink, of the water sold in the stores, typically in plastic or glass bottles instead of the "mayor's water" (the one coming from the aqueduct [in Italy it is a service by the Municipality], that is declared drinkable, and often purer than the one sold in bottles).

We, at home, use water in returnable glass bottles. The attempt is to cut to the bone the waste of plastic, fighting not only the scattering of this polluting material, but also the environmental damage, smaller but still not insignificant, given by the recycling processes.
Nevertheless also the returnable glass bottles cause a useless environmental damage, because this system produces some wastes: for example the detergent to wash the bottle, the plastic cap to close it (note that in a regular plastic bottle, the amount of material in the cap is bigger than the much in the bottle itself), the paper label and the glue to attach it, the energy for the machines that fill the bottles, the fuel for the transportation to the groceries, the fuel to take the bottles home, and then all the path backward of the returning bottles till closing the cycle.
But, the "mayor's water" in our village, also admitting that it is bacteriologically pure, is really disgusting. It tastes like chlorine and it is very calcareous. For this last problem there are efficient filters in commerce, but against the chlorine there's no simple solution, as far as i know.

In that discussion, Maurice himself writes:
Credo che sia necessario anche mettersi d’accordo sullo sviluppo sostenibile, come sostengono alcuni ecologisti fra i quali vorrei collocarmi.
Una semplice bottiglietta d’acqua inquina il pianeta, ma dà anche lavoro (e quindi produce ricchezza) a chi deve produrre la bottiglia ed il tappo, a chi la imbottiglia, a chi la trasporta, eccetera.
Leggiamo spesso cifre precisissime sull’inquinamento - ricordo a memoria che una bistecca inquina quanto un’auto che corre per 50 km - ma non ho mai letto quanto valore produce la bistecca in termini di lavoro e di ricchezza.
Credo che si possa vivere con agiatezza rispettando la natura e l’ambiente, senza con questo ritornare alle società primitive. Ammesso che esse rispettassero l’ambiente, come non hanno fatto i pellerossa distruggendo le foreste delle grandi praterie per permettere la sopravvivenza delle mandrie di bisonti e di loro stessi.

I believe that it is also necessary to agree about sustainable development, as some ecologists, among whom i would put myself, assert.
One simple water bottle pollutes the planet, but it also gives work (and so it gives wealth) to who produces the bottle and the cap, to who fills it, to who transports it, etcetera.
We often read very exact numbers about pollution - i remember that a steak pollutes as much as a car that runs 50 km's - but i never read about how much value the steak produces in terms of work and wealth.
I believe that we can live in prosperity respecting nature and environment, without having to go back to the primitive societies for this. Also admitting that those ones used to respect the environment, as the native american did not, destroying the forests of the big prairies to allow the survival of the bison herds and of theirselves.

[Free translation by me]
I believe it's a mistake to justify consumerism with the excuse that it is a system that allows a fair redistribution of wealth. Firstly because it doesn't seem fair at all to me.
But above all, the hole in the capitalist consumerism is right intrinsic in the mechanism, according to which the amount of commercialized goods (and services) must always increase, and so, also the useless has to be sold (and bought) anyway.
From one side it is true that the commercialization of a water bottle gives wealth to those who are part of its production/distribution chain. But let's consider, for example, the driver that transports it on his truck, which we can name Mario. At the end, how great is the wealth that Mario gets from the delivery of a bottle? For sure less than the cost at the store of that bottle. Mario, indefatigable worker, will eventually be thirsty, before or after, won't he? And how will he quench his thirst? Will he drink from the tap the "mayor's water"? No! Carefully applying the logic of consumerism, he will go to the shop to buy a water bottle similar to the ones he hauled (spending more money than the amount he made for each of them).
Now, it is also true that our Mario doesn't deliver only one, but an entire truck of bottles, and I'm not going to say that the necessary physical exertion for that job gives him such a thirst to drain the entire charge. But it is also true that Mario would have the need to buy other products, which probably suffered similar commercial stages. If Mario buys an apple because he's hungry, it means that there is somebody else that hauled apples. And maybe this last delivery person would have the need to quench his thirst with Mario's water besides to appease his hunger with his own apples.
In short, applying this mechanism to the whole closed system, society consumes exactly the entire amount of products that are commercialized, spending exactly an amount given by the sum of money that any single individual made as fruit of his work. In this system, so, no wealth is created. At most it has been re-distributed in higher or lower amounts belonging to how hard any individual worked. Since the amount of wealth in the closed system is not infinite, if wealth is proportional to work, when an individual works more, the other individuals must work less. And this mechanism generates social inequalities, which is the exact opposite of the system purposes.

One could raise the objection that instead of spending the entire amount of money made it would be wiser to save something. Or, that Mario should decide not to buy the apple, if he's not that hungry but to keep that money. But doing this way, that apple would remain unsold, and the wealth destined to who worked on it won't be available. In substance if the savings increase, in our closed system the consumes would decrease, and so also the money to be re-distributed would.
In other words, in our closed system, if we avoid to buy the useless, it is true that we would decrease the circulating wealth, but it is also true that this reduction is exactly equivalent to the value of the unsold useless goods.
To come back to our example, if we all used the "mayor's water", it's true that, as Maurice says, the wealth that would have been distributed in the commercial chain of the water in bottle would decrease, but its also true that globally that lost wealth would be exactly equivalent to the amount we save not to buy the water bottles.
And so, where's the social advantage in buying the water bottles?

A remark is needed about the fact that, in this analysis i considered a "closed system", which, apparently, doesn't apply very well to reality. In the capitalist westerner world (and also pretty much in the rest of the world), economical systems are not closed, meaning by this that they are based on export (and import).
The statement that working more one makes more money to the detriment of others that, working less, make less money, in a context of a non-closed system, it is false, because the eventual exceeding of product wouldn't be lost but exported. But this assumption presupposes that there is, elsewhere, another non-closed system (an importing country) that buys the surplus.
But this means that the importing country wouldn't have the need to produce the imported good, and so it doesn't have the possibility to employ workers in that productive cycle, and to produce the relative wealth, necessary to buy that product. And this looks to me a non-ethic side of the system, since it implies the increase of public debt, which means political dependency, of the importing country, increasing the social difference between rich and poor countries.
Considering instead the global economy of the world, which is obviously a closed system, since it's not possible to export outside the planet (and it looks it won't be for a lot of time), no wealth can be created, if by wealth we mean the purchasing power. Wealth equals the sum of all the goods globally produced, and so it is clear that the one coming from the production of a useless good is useless itself, because it allows only to buy a useless good.

The real wealth should be computed not in the basis of purchasing power, but according to the ownership of goods useful to better our lives. For example, the invention, production and distribution of cellphones didn't create wealth meaning purchasing power of individuals. Simplifying, the wealth given by the salaries of the workers that contributed in invention/production/distribution of cellphones is even to the wealth spent by consumers to buy that product... that's to say, at the end people that work get a salary that, after, is useful to them to buy the same goods they produce. The real wealth given by progress, instead, is the possibility to use those goods. If cellphones weren't there we wouldn't be able to send each other all those short messages to tell us romantic stuff like "TVTTTTTB" [in Italian it's the acronym of "ti voglio tanto tanto tanto bene" ("i love you very very very much"), typical teenagers' language].

Adimitting that water in bottles has the same quality of the "mayor's water" (which is clearly false in my case), to buy water bottles is absolutely useless from the economical point of view, and only a damage from the ecological one.

Anyway i am not an economist. Where's the error in my line of reasoning?


rowena said...

There are two points that I would like to make on the issues of saving and bottled water:

1. Saving (the environment, money, time, etc.) is always a good cause/habit to cultivate. However in this case, ironically contradicts itself as glass-bottled water is usually more expensive than plastic bottles. You pay more for water, yet there is still the pollution of the production of glass.

2. According to wikipedia The human body is anywhere from 55% to 78% water depending on body size. This means we must have it to function, yet in contrast to Mario the delivery person, simple mathematics dictate that it is much more environmentally friendly and time/energy saving if ONE person delivers to a common point of distribution rather than HUNDREDS of people driving for miles to the source of bottled water.

A very clear example would be San Pellegrino Terme, the source of the world's favorite italian bottled water. We live barely an hour's drive away. Imagine if hundreds of people were to drive all over our roads and mountains to buy their trendy bottles of Pellegrino? I would rather have Mario drive his truck filled with thousands of bottles, rather than thousands of cars buying a couple of cases that hold only 12 bottles each.

The sad thing about water is that there is plenty of it, yet we alpine dwellers actually waste it, seeing how sources flow freely from the municipal taps. A shame that there is no feasible way to distribute H2O to water-starved countries without a great amount of expenditure in cost, time and energy.

dario said...

1) Well... with glass bottles we don't save money, but for sure we save the world in terms of pollution. Still we pollute, but much less!
2) Yes, it's not reasonable that everybody go to Sanpellegrino companty to get water bottles. It would be convenient instead if Sanpellegrino water, or more reasonably any other clean and good water, was the one that flow in our aqueduct, so that there wouldn't need Mario to deliver water nor us to go there to pick it up, i just would open the tap and drink from there. There's a lot of places in which that can be done.