Why Government?

Government is the process by which we decide how we are going to operate as a community. It is very instructive to watch the TV series Deadwood, which is the story of an outlaw town, outside the limits of what was then the US, that was a haven for people who wanted to live outside the legal system. For any number of reasons they felt too constricted by laws and rules and regulations (frequently the particular laws against such entrepreneurial enterprise as robbing banks and killing people,) and wanted to live somewhere they could be free of such restrictions. Of course a couple of out of control fires soon convinces the more reflective members of the population that if the town is to survive at all, there have to be some rules. A Fire Marshall is appointed, and so it begins. Before you know it, there are rules and regulations and laws, and they are discussing which State they should seek to become part of. As soon as you have people living in proximity to each other, you need some kind of organization to define and enforce the duties we each have towards everyone else.

The astonishing claim has been made by people at the extreme right of the political scale, that there is no such thing as society; only freely acting individuals. Would they claim that there is no such thing as a team, only individual players? No congregation, no association, no assembly or crowd? Of course these things exist separate and distinct from the individuals who make up each of them. One might as well say there is no such thing as a liver; only an aggregation of freely acting liver cells. Each of these aggregations has a nature and behavior in and of itself, regardless of the individuals that comprise it. Of course the particulars of the individuals will affect the nature and behavior of the group, but each individual has two distinct roles: one role is as an independent individual with individual needs and desires, the other is as a member of the group, desiring the welfare and continued existence of the group, which may well dictate behavior that is different from what one would do acting purely as an individual In other words a member of a group may well sacrifice some portion of his own best interest for the sake of the group.

So to say, as Ronald Reagan said, that Government is not the solution but rather the problem, is clearly nonsense. We have to have government. The question is what kind of government? This is the subject of an ongoing sociopolitical discourse that has been written about since the invention of writing, and was undoubtedly hotly debated before that. The majority of this debate has been purely theoretical. The true deciding factor that determined the kinds of government we had was the power to make it so. What that has meant through the ages is the rule of the strongest. The particular ways that this system has been arranged, and the rationales offered for it hardly matter. Sometimes a single figure such as a king or emperor is the titular head, but always the power has been wielded by a small number of people, and that power has been enforced ultimately at the point of a gun. Even in today’s democracies we are scarcely better off. We are still subject to rule by the strongest; only the nature of that strength has changed. Before the Industrial Revolution power derived from the control of land. In today’s world money is the instrument of power. 

What is Science?

Science is not a profession, it is a method, an algorithm. An orderly set of instructions which when correctly applied yield the best possible approximation to a reliable and repeatable truth.  It will also yield the degree of certitude of that truth as well as the degree of likely variance. 

Science does not answer the question “What course should we take?” Science answers the question “If we take thus and such a course, what is the range of possible outcomes, and what is the probability of any given outcome?” There are many areas that science has no tools to tackle, which means that it is not the right method of approaching that problem. This is not a weakness of science any more than it is a weakness of a hammer that it cannot cut a straight line. 

The process goes something like this. You have a flash of inspiration. You figure out ways of testing it by trying to disprove it. You try to eliminate all the other possible causes that could account for your results. You try it under as many different conditions as you can think of.

Only when you have thoroughly tested the limits of your hypothesis can you justify any confidence in it. Then comes the real test. In order to pass scientific muster you must show how you arrived at your conclusion in sufficient detail to allow others to replicate your findings. If a significant proportion of them succeed in doing so, then and only then can you claim to have arrived at a verifiable truth.

You can be an inventor without being a scientist; as long as what you invent works well enough to be beneficial in the world you can even get rich that way. You can make scientific discoveries with out being a scientist, but someone will have to do the science to prove it, it does not have to be the discoverer. The vast majority of scientists never discover anything new or propose an original hypothesis, they dedicate their lives to testing the ideas of others. Sometimes they are motivated by the desire to find mistakes in accepted hypotheses. No matter, they are all valuable to the project of Science itself, which is the search for ever more reliable truth. 

Pure science barely exists in the world today. So much is known about the nature of the physical world at such a deep level, that advancing the frontiers of knowledge involves prolonged immersion on the subject even to understand the remaining problems, and then very expensive gadgets like CERN to test their theories. The days of hobbyist scientists discovering new materials are long gone, and such research is now done by corporations for their own use and profit. They are not specifically interested in advancing knowledge, but in making money. If they can make more money by suppressing knowledge, they will happily do so.

Science has among its practitioners a certain number of liars, a certain number of fools, honestly deluded people and some outright criminals. This statement could be said equally truthfully of lawyers, bankers, mechanics, wealthy people and pretty much anyone else. These are categories that people in general fall into in similar proportions throughout the population regardless of what station in life they occupy. The vast majority of people are honest and well intentioned. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that scientists have a greater propensity for dishonesty than the general public.

How do we know what we know?

Every decision is taken in the context of countless conditions. The number of possible reverberations that might result from any significant life decision is infinite, and the possibilities usually range from total success to utter failure. When you also count in the potential effects on others, and their probable reactions, trying to figure it all out logically is an impossibility and often leads to complete inability to make any decision at all. There are two possible kinds of response to this situation. Some declare that you just can never think it through and must rely on some kind of intuition or “direct knowing” or some such. This is just giving up, and the likelihood of making anything close to the optimal decision is no greater than plain chance. This is not much of a problem in the personal sphere where your actions will affect only a limited number of people, but in the public sphere it just is not good enough. If we are to make laws that everyone must obey and decisions that will affect everyone (and to live in a society we must do that) we owe it to them to base those laws and decisions on the most reliable basis possible.

This raises one of the most fundamental philosophical questions: “How do we know what we know?”  The reason this question is so important is because the only way we can justify society’s abridgment of citizens’ freedom is if we can be morally certain that there is a strong and valid reason for it. There is no such thing as absolute certainty about anything, but in order to balance a societal need against the citizen’s freedom of action we need to know at the very least four things: what is the degree of harm being avoided; what is the severity of the restriction on freedom; what is the likelihood of the harm occurring; and how certain are we that the danger is real? 

There are countless examples in history of measures being taken to counter a perceived danger that turned out in the end never to have been a danger at all. The Cold War was largely based on a gross overestimation of the capabilities and hostile intent of the USSR. 9/11 precipitated a series of government actions the echoes and aftershocks of which are still roiling the world (and inconveniencing the traveler) in 2017, which have cost us untold lives and treasure, and virtually none of them, I would be willing to bet, had any effect whatever upon the likelihood of another such event. So clearly it is vitally important to know what degree of credibility to give to any given piece of information.

We must recognize just how difficult it is to be certain of something. Things which seem self-evidently true turn out to be completely false. Things that seem quite obviously to be caused by a particular circumstance turn out to be caused by something quite different. We give great weight to our own personal experience, and the experiences of our friends and acquaintances, forgetting that we and they may very well not be typical of the world at large.

Fortunately this problem is not new. People have been thinking about it for centuries, and have come up with various solutions. Religion, in all of its varieties, is one solution. God will tell us what is right and what is wrong, and it is not up to us mere mortals to inquire into such matters. The difficulty with this solution is that there is by definition no way to verify the truth of what God says. You just have to have faith that it is true. Unfortunately we cannot even verify convincingly that such a concept as God even exists, and still less can we be certain that any alleged communication fro that source is even genuine, to say nothing of the impossibility of verifying its correct meaning. If your personal experience runs counter to what God says in any aspect at all, the whole edifice is then suspect, and you are left with no certainty.

Then there is folk knowledge, also known as old wives tales. Here we are on much more solid ground, as these remedies do represent accumulated experience and often study. The difficulty here is again the issue of verification. Too often old ideas persist long past the time when the original impulse for them is forgotten.

We might have direct personal experience of the matter, or perhaps have access to the combined experiences of others. Unfortunately this may be a poor basis upon which to draw a reliable conclusion. There may be something untypical about you and your acquaintances that make your experience quite different from that of others.  

We may have a very strong intuitive flash that something is true. It just seems so right, answers so many questions, it just has to be true, right? Well, maybe. Certainly it could be true; many famous scientific discoveries came about through just such flashes of inspiration. But we do not hear the countless stories of the flashes of inspiration that turned out to be just plain wrong. The intuitive inspiration is just the start of the process. The real work is in testing the hypothesis to verify that it is in fact correct. Or more accurately to assess its degree of certitude. 

Fortunately we have at our disposal the best tool ever invented by the mind of man for this purpose, and that tool is Science.


Before the Industrial Revolution most of the property in the world was owned by absolute monarchs, and parceled out to others at their whim, to be taken back equally whimsically. Over a period of 250 years or so, this entire system disappeared, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, to be replaced by the one we know.  Clearly there is nothing about the rights of property that are bound by nature. They can be redefined at will.

The capitalist economic system operates as a positive feedback loop. The more resources you have the easier it is to get more. This describes a runaway effect: nuclear fission is an example of a positive feedback loop. A thermostat, on the other hand, operates as a negative feedback loop, and has the effect of putting a natural limit on the phenomenon in question. Those born to wealth will in their time tend acquire even more wealth, while those at the bottom will tend to have less and less. The odds are astronomically high that any particular person born in the world at any given moment will find themselves at or near the very bottom. This fact in itself makes me very skeptical of the “we chose our position in life in order to learn certain lessons” school of thought. Why would so many agree to such a miserable existence? 

It is not as if we could simply opt out. All of the livable space in the world is controlled, and access to it requires paying rent. We do not have the basic right of every wild animal, the right to exist unmolested on the planet, making our own way. There is nowhere in the world that you can do that, even if you could afford to go to such a place. We are born in a specific country, a completely artificial construct, yet one which, second only to our parentage, will largely determine our fate. We cannot simply choose to belong to a different country, except by dint of monumental effort we are tied to one place, one political entity. That political entity has life and death power over you. It can order you to fight to the death on its behalf. It can take away your freedom of movement and action for the rest of your life, or even take away your life itself if it so chooses. 

Perhaps the most important feature of our societal system is that we believe that it is the best way of life ever invented, and everyone in the world should live that way.  The idea of opting out is thought of as aberrant. The only way forward is more and better civilization. All other choices are unthinkable.

Yet all of it is a human construct. Nothing about the way society operates is dictated by any natural law. Gravity and friction are examples of natural law. We are bound by their effects no matter how much we may deny their existence. Countries and civilizations and economies are artificial constructs made up by people, and their rules were made up by people, and could just as well be completely different. Countless varieties of society have existed throughout history. All of these things that absolutely govern our lives are constructs that we collectively agree to. They are constructs that can change, will change, indeed are changing right now. 


We say “serving prison time,” which I believe is a phrase that enables us to avoid confronting the truth of what we are doing to our prisoners. I have come to believe that the idea of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all manner of transgressions against the community is a moral outrage. Next to our life itself, our freedom of action and movement is the most precious thing we have, and indeed some would say that without it life itself is worth very little. Yet we debate between locking people away for ten years or fifteen as though there were little to choose between them. We speak blithely of locking people away for the rest of their lives, with not even the remotest conception of what we are condemning them to. 

It is not simply the deprivation of freedom, though that is in my mind enough alone to condemn the practice, it is also the conditions under which prisoners are kept. They are put almost entirely at the mercy of prison staff, who are hired largely for their “tough” qualities. A kindly, empathetic prison guard will not last long at the job. We have seen from well-known experiments the effect on people of giving them power over others, even in academic laboratory settings. Imagine how bad it can get in real life situations in such places as maximum security prisons. The truth is truly horrific. 

The social purposes supposedly being served by this system are said to be fourfold: rehabilitation, segregation, deterrence and punishment. Cure them of their criminality, put them where they cannot do further harm, and apply sanctions for their criminal behavior that provide serious consequences and by their harshness discourage others from doing similar things. 

Rehabilitation is so little practiced in our prison systems that one might say that the exact reverse is taking place. There may be, it is true, places in the US where genuinely “enlightened” prison methods are being used, though the expression itself seems to me to be an oxymoron, but if so they are very much in the minority. The rest of the system can fairly be described as schools for crime. Universities, in fact. Prisons turn a large proportion of their inmates into lifetime criminals. 

Locking criminals away does indeed prevent them from committing further crimes while they are locked away, but at very great cost. The main problem is that at some point most of them will end up being released. After perhaps decades of harsh inhumane treatment they are turned loose with only whatever possessions they had with them when arrested, and a few dollars. Is it any wonder that they have difficulties readjusting to outside life, or that many of them end up back inside within a short time, sometimes preferring that life to the challenges of freedom. The only thing they know is the criminal life, and the only people they know are criminals. 

Deterrence hinges on the idea that people will avoid crime for fear of the punishment. Increasingly harsh sentences are imposed, often cemented in place by minimum sentencing laws, in pursuit of this aim. Psychological studies, however, seem to show that this is not effective. The likelihood of being caught seems to weigh much more heavily than the fear of punishment; criminals do not expect to be caught, so the severity of the punishment is immaterial to them. Furthermore such considerations do not even come into play when it comes to crimes committed in the heat of the moment, without forethought. They are also of little weight when the crime is truly one of need.

So we are left with punishment. The criminal did a bad thing, and must suffer as a consequence. This (in the absence of the other three) is perhaps the least defensible rationale. If this is indeed the only remaining justification, then the degree of punishment must bear a direct relationship with the harm done by the crime. I would argue that this is almost never the case. Instead prosecutors brag about the number of criminals they have caused to be imprisoned and for how long.  Far from carefully suiting the punishment to the crime (which would require individual examination of the circumstances of each case, and of the circumstances of the criminal) punishment is decided in most cases by a bargaining process between prosecutor and the defense counsel. The vast majority of criminal cases are decided by plea bargaining; not only is the defendant effectively denied the benefit of a jury trial, even the judge plays almost no part except rubber stamping the result.

This is done by charging the defendant with the most serious crimes that the circumstances of the case could possibly justify. The prosecutor does not imagine that he could obtain a conviction from a jury on these charges, that is not the aim. The aim is to frighten the defendant into pleading to a lesser charge that he may not even be guilty of so as not to have to run the risk (however remote) of a conviction on the harsher charges. Ironically in this situation draconian minimum sentences do act as a strong incentive, an incentive to accept a manifestly unjust punishment in order to avoid the risk of an even worse result.

There are many facets to this issue which is the great shame and crime of our society. There is the disgrace of private prisons run for profit. It outrages me that anyone should even require reasons for condemning private prisons; are they not morally unacceptable simply on the face of it? Take all of the evils I have already described, add to them the incentive to operate the entire concern as cheaply as possible and remove even the pretence of accountability imposed by a publicly run system? What could possibly go wrong?

There are the various industries that prey on the prisoners and their families. The private phone companies that charge unconscionable rates for calls. The prison run banking system that charges hefty fees for depositing money into prisoners’ accounts. The prison labor racket where prisoners are paid pennies per hour for work that is sold for regular prices, with most of the profit going to private contractors. 

All these circumstances, and many more that I do not have space for here, combine to make prisoners’ lives almost insupportable. And all of it is on top of what is already the most severe deprivation short of death, the deprivation of freedom. Even if you hold that we should lock people away, is it even good policy to make the conditions so severe? Would we not be better served by a system that really did rehabilitate people? Regardless of whether you think that this is a morally correct thing to do, surely it would be the sensible thing to do. 


Slavery has been a feature of society for as long as we have any kind of records. Generally the term slavery conjures up its most basic form, chattel slavery, which treats the slave as the personal property of his master. In some societies laws protected slaves from the worst kinds of treatment, but usually they could be put to death with impunity. Over the past two hundred years the world has come to a general agreement that this kind of slavery is criminal, and should be eliminated. This represents an important achievement in what we might term the betterment of mankind, but we need to examine some other, more subtle and unnoticed forms of slavery before we take too much satisfaction. 

How can we define slavery? The essence of slavery is involuntary servitude. I would suggest that a person is enslaved if he or she is required to work involuntarily in order to satisfy his or her basic survival needs. So called free people in our society are not truly free: always they have the burden of the monthly nut. Somehow every month they have to earn enough to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, along with the countless other expenditures needed to live a dignified life. If they are very fortunate they work at something they enjoy, something they would choose to do even if they were in fact free to choose, but most people go to work because they have to, because the alternative is crime or destitution. 

We tend to think of this situation as a force of nature. It has always been that way, it will always be that way. The rules of economics dictate it. May as well just buckle down and make the most of it.  And it is a monument to the human spirit that many, perhaps most people take pride in their work and develop true loyalty to their employers (less often, sadly, is this loyalty returned.) The fact is, though, that the so called laws of economics are just a set of rules and conditions that people have made up. They are not actual physical limitations like the law of gravity or the law of conservation of energy, they are a completely artificial construct, and we are perfectly free to come up with better ones. 

There is in fact an identifiable very small segment of society that effectively controls everybody else, and it is for the benefit of these people that the entire system is designed. Their ownership is passed on from generation to generation and I will demonstrate some of the methods that have been used over the past 150 years to constantly increase the proportion of the wealth of the world that ends up in their hands. I will suggest improvements designed to rectify this problem, and present an ethical justification for doing so. I will demonstrate that if you applied their own professed values (such as self sufficiency, and the notion that nobody should have money he had worked for taken and given to people who do no work) to them, they could not justify their own position. 

Group rights vs individual rights

Written in response to a posting deploring the granting of “special rights” for gays, saying that they should not be singled out for special treatment.

IMO this a straw man argument. Taking gays as an example, it is not the claim of gay rights advocates that gays deserve some special form of protection not available to anyone else. They are saying not that they should be granted rights, but that the rights to which they are already entitled are being denied. Therefore they are not demanding any kind of group rights, but rather the recognition of their individual rights, which they are banding together as a group to promote. I believe this to be also the case with every other rights group I can think of.

So while the writer is correct in saying that our rights are ours as individuals, this is not a valid argument for refusing to consider the claims of gays or blacks or women (for instance) as a class of people whose individual rights are being denied because they are members of that class.


Supposedly an early attempt at using a computer to translate from English into Russian almost caused an international incident by translating “or of sight, out of mind” as “blind crazy” and “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as “the booze is good but the meat stinks.” I am pretty sure the story is apocryphal, but it does point up some of the problems we have communicating our thoughts  to one another. 

The purpose of language is communication. When we communicate we are attempting to take a concept that exists in our own mind, often not in verbal form, and recreate the exact same concept in the mind of the person(s) we are communicating with. We are bound to fail in this attempt. The very best we can hope to achieve is some very imperfect approximation of what we had in mind. First we have to find words to express our thought, then arrange those words in as comprehensible a fashion as possible. Then the recipient must interpret those words according to their own understanding of their meaning. Already we are in deep trouble. We have countless opportunities for error. We might not agree on the meaning of a word. We may have inadvertently used a word or phrase capable of multiple meanings. The recipient might mishear or misread a word that changes the meaning, or may have an emotional reaction to a particular word that has nothing to do with its present use.

This problem is compounded by social considerations. Some words are considered so “loaded” that they simply cannot be used in some contexts (though, confusingly, they may be perfectly acceptable on others) and their accidental use by one who is unaware of this can cause communication to come to a screeching halt. The popular song “My Old Kentucky Home”, written in 1851, contains the phrase “the darkies are gay.” At the time nobody remarked on this, and in fact the song, far from insulting black people, was protesting the institution of slavery. Today, of course, referring to “darkies” would be quite out of the question, and “gay” would have a completely different connotation. 

This is particularly problematic in at least two fields: science and the law. In both cases for somewhat different reasons it is essential that meanings be as clear as possible. A system of laws is useless if those bound by it cannot agree on the meaning of each law. Scientists must clearly understand each others’ ideas to be able to check them for accuracy. Because of the need for precision in these and other fields, many branches of science use “terms of art.” These are words and phrases that used in that particular field have a special meaning, almost always narrower than the commonly accepted meaning of the term. This gives rise to the accusations by laypeople that scientists deliberately use language in a confusing way, calling it jargon and claiming that its purpose is to make science seem more complex and hard to understand than it really is, so that we need “authorities” to explain it to us. 

Sometimes these accusations are justifiable. There is no doubt that some scientists are guilty of overcomplexification in order to exclude outsiders from their field; like all pursuits, science is populated with a whole range of people. There is a similar spectrum as in the general population, of dishonesty, honest delusion, unscrupulousness, criminality and the like. As in the world, these are the minority, perhaps more so in science which is devoted to the attempt to find reliable truth and has tools to weed out error. More often the topics are genuinely complex, and the need for specialized language to describe them is real. 

This is especially true when dealing with the further reaches of physics, for instance. To the layman it seems that scientists are constantly proving wrong those who went before, but this is often a mistaken impression. Einstein did not prove Newton wrong, but rather discovered that Newtonian physics no longer applied under certain circumstances, and that when examining the behavior of subatomic particles an entirety different set of rules pertained. Newton was correct as far as he went, and the calculations required to land a spaceship on Mars within minutes of the predicted time and within a few hundred feet of the projected location (an astounding feat of accuracy) relied almost entirely on Newton (though of course without Einstein we would not have electronics and therefore no computers to perform calculations that would have taken lifetimes for an unaided mathematician). 

Many scientists are impatient with the need to explain themselves and their work to the general public, and unskilled at doing so, compounding the communication problem. There is a natural human tendency to regard whatever one is familiar with as easy to understand. Because we ourselves understand something, we assume others should also understand it. One might say the definition of easy is “I can do it!” This leads to experts explaining complex topics as though they were instructing rather dense seven year olds, which naturally does not endear them to their listeners.

Human Nature

Human nature describes inherent behaviors common to all people, which seem to be built in to our very being. The so called human nature problem that is often cited as the reason that societal improvements will inevitably fail is based on a very narrow view of the subject. In this view, only our baser attributions are considered. We may think that we and our friends, and perhaps our countrymen are well meaning people, but the further away people are, and the stranger their appearances and habits, the less we are willing to trust them. Yet when we travel and actually meet these people we find that they are people just like ourselves.

Not only are we humans possessed of a deep seated “better nature” but these empathy based reactions seem to be the very first instincts of new born infants. Fear is activated as a result of experience; before fear there is empathy. Better yet, we are one of the rare species that can modify our basic instinctual behavior as a result of thinking about it and deciding to behave differently.

All of the variants of human nature are present in similar proportions at all levels of society in all populations. Some conditions of life tend to foster particular kinds of pathology; the lower reaches of society experience more personal violence, while the upper reaches prefer more cerebral forms of crime, but the proportion of criminality is about the same at all levels, and it is not very high. The vast majority of people just want to have a happy life and enjoy their families and their hobbies. 

So why does it seem otherwise? Why do we think we are surrounded by criminals and live in a violent world and that people cannot be trusted? One important influence is the study of history. History is the story of the past, and it is one of never ending violence. All of the worst elements of human behavior crowd its pages. Did this then mean that this was the everyday experience of the ordinary people? Far from it. True, personal violence was an everyday occurrence, but wars and the doings of the mighty, which are what history is about, barely impinged on the population as a whole.

History tells us little about the common people, and much about the doings of a small number of people who could fairly be termed psychopaths. There is nothing natural about wars and invasions and the exploitation of the inhabitants of other lands. No other animal behaves like this towards its own kind. The vast majority of people would not behave this way. Yet the activities of this tiny class of people so dominate the information stream that we think they are the norm. We do not see them for what they are, parasites upon humanity; diseases that attack the mind of society. They do not represent human nature as a whole.

So rather than accepting that human nature is defined by the worst in us and will bring us down no matter what we try, let us activate the better angels of our nature and stop electing psychopaths to lead us.


I hate waste. Yet I live in perhaps the most wasteful culture that has ever existed. We produce so much waste that disposal of that waste is a major environmental problem. Packaging alone, which adds nothing to the usefulness of a product, accounts for a truly staggering quantity of waste. To produce something that is potentially useful, and then have it never actually be used is one level of waste. To produce something that is not even useful in the first place is doubly wasteful. Manufacturers claim that they are simply responding to customer demand. If this were true there would be no need for persuasive advertising. All that would be needed would be to make it known that the product was available. It is not generally customer demand that drives manufacturing, it is the desire to find a way to make money.

The wasteful manufacture of items that are not actually useful is only part of the story. Many items that are useful and needed are used in a wasteful manner. Most tools such as electric drills and power saws are used for a minuscule amount of time in their entire lives. I have heard that the average drill is used for eight minutes total. Automobiles spend around 85% of their time not simply sitting idle, but actually being in the way! Everybody finds it necessary to own a complete set of what we consider essential to a proper life: appliances, tools, vehicles, recreational items, that spend most of their time being a storage problem. We keep things because we might need them some day, and then even if that day does in fact come when we need something we have been saving for just that moment, we cannot find it, or we find it and discover that in the meantime it has deteriorated to the point of uselessness. 

We rent storage lockers and pay over the years thousands of dollars to store things that are maybe worth hundreds, even if that. I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of everything stored in such places goes directly from there to the dump. (Full disclosure: I have just such a locker. I wish I could live up to my beliefs.)

Nature is a wonderful reuser of materials. Almost all living organisms produce waste that feeds some other organism or natural process. I know of no other organism except we humans in all of creation that takes useful materials and turns them into something that benefits no other life form. Worse; by our activities we have wiped out countless other species; not even for our comfort or safety or other benefit, mostly, but just as a casual byproduct of our lifestyle. Actions that harm others without benefiting yourself are truly perverse. Indeed, often the harm we do harms us right back. Remember the childhood game “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” (As I am sure most of us who either had or were older siblings do) We spend much of our energy hitting ourselves.

And then there is the fact we are using up the raw materials of the earth. One of the prime tenets of our current religion, capitalism, is that you do not spend your capital. What else are irreplaceable raw materials than capital? if we consume them in such a way that they are not reusable, we have spent a portion of our capital, and we should only do that if we gain more by doing so than we are spending.  Clearly we do not. We burn gasoline for entirely frivolous reasons. We give little or no consideration to the depletion of the original resources, the harm to other life forms or the accumulation of waste product caused by our way of living.

So do we have to reduce our lives to a level of deprivation to save the earth? Not at all. We just have to eliminate the waste. Sure, there are some activities we should not engage in at all, and maybe we could all examine honestly how many of our activities really do add to our happiness, but we could still enjoy a high standard of living (and even spread it to more of the world’s population) without harm if we could use no more than the absolutely necessary resources to do so. 

We care a great deal about owning things, and the concept of what has been called a sharing economy can be challenging for us to accept. It has uncomfortable connotations of socialism. We have visions of having one electric drill for the whole block to share, and having to put our name on a waiting list to use it. But it does not have to be like that. Imagine rather that when you needed a drill you would simply order it on your computer, and it would arrive at your door within an hour, maybe sooner. You could specify exactly what kind if drill you needed for the specific job, rather than having to use the one you owned whether it was suitable or not. Obviously some people really do have enough use for tools such as drills to justify owning one, and they could still do so, but this would still be a small selection of items for any one person, and if any tool at all were available on call, everyone would have access to tools that they could only dream of owning. Certain tools would need some kind of certification to order, and other rules and restrictions would apply, just as in any other field, but the technology to make such a system possible either exists or is in the process of being developed. Amazon provides a model for accessing tools; it facilitates purchase, but could be adapted for rental, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, providing a delivery mechanism.  But this touches on what a non wasteful transportation system might look like, and that is a topic for another night.