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Back in My Day (err . . . umm . . . 1992?): Advancing Sustainability While Avoiding Premature Nostalgia Isn’t Easy

I don't want today's kids to live in the same world where I was one of a fortunate minority to type papers for school on a home computer (nearly $2000, or $3300 in today's dollars). Though it would be nice if they had to suffer (ahem! marvel at!) a 16-color display . . .
(photo from Wilhelm Schickard Museum of Computing History)

In isolation, it’s a good thing that many common luxury items have become so much cheaper over the years. Not those items that are luxuries because they cost a lot of money (like diamonds and whatnot), but those things that, while wholly unnecessary, enhance the enjoyment of life. Despite an overall decline in real inflation-adjusted incomes, the average American today can more easily than ever afford a tennis racquet or pair of skis suitable for an Olympic athlete, a professional-quality musical instrument, or a giant TV that can simulate the experience of being at a movie theatre or sporting event. (Never mind that it is now much more expensive to actually attend either of those things in person.)

So what’s the downside? Let’s forget the worries that these cheap luxuries spoil us somehow, or make us unappreciative of what really matters in life*, and focus on the practical concerns. First, of course, there’s the fact that all of this “stuff” (as George Carlin put it) eventually turns into garbage (of course, Carlin used a more colorful word). Further, that garbage has to go somewhere, usually far away from where the majority of people are who bought the stuff. At the moment, garbage is still less fungible than a shipping container of notebook computers, so it doesn’t go all the way back to China, Indonesia, or Mexico, but it does move quite a bit. In the USA, on balance, the states that import food export garbage.


The second concern is the distortion in relative cost and accessibility between luxuries and essentials like food, housing, healthcare, and a clean environment, as well as those nonessentials that are generally accepted to be good for you, like a college education. These are all objectively more expensive than they were two decades ago, but subjectively – in relation to other items – even more so. More parents than ever can afford a computer to help their kids get into college; fewer can afford to pay for the tuition.

Some distortions are funny or mildly disturbing, depending on your perspective: here on Martha’s Vineyard, one meal at a restaurant for a family of four costs more than a Blu-ray player, a technology that would have amazed people in the 1980s. Others are more serious threat to the health and welfare of individuals and society. Cheap “luxury” foods, usually artificially inexpensive due to commodity corn subsidies, play a significant role in driving the extreme increase in obesity, especially among children in poor and working poor households. On our island, it’s less of a concern than elsewhere. The near-total prohibition of fast food chains certainly helps; regardless, with our many local sustainable farms and the efforts of groups like the Island Grown Initiative, VCS, and others, I think our community would have more than a fighting chance at resisting the temptation of dependency on the dollar menu.

In the end, this may be a worrisome trend, but surely it’s a product of recent technological innovation, global free trade, and expanding population, right? A peculiar blip in time where a cheeseburger made entirely of commodity corn costs less than two ears of fresh corn? Maybe – but read what George Orwell had to say in 1937, on the eve of WWII in an increasingly industrial England:

From George Orwell (1937), "The Road to Wigan Pier," Chapter 5:

"Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but asprins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for,' as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake... And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life."