Counting the real cost

Grey Skye thinking. (Photo by OldSkool Photography)

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I’m tight, I admit it. It’s not just that I’m forever switching accounts to get the best interest rate or cheapest electricity. I’m so tight that, when driving down a hill, I wonder whether the savings I’ll make on fuel by freewheeling will be offset by the additional wear on my brakes when I reach the bottom.

And yet I’m going to claim – indulge me here – that my tightfistedness is actually a positive, and not just because, in a world of finite resources, it forces my long-suffering family to consume less. My argument is that a heightened awareness of cost can only be a good thing for us all, because sooner or later it forces consideration of the full cost – and not just to the wallet.

There’s no getting round it: our mere existence exacts a price on the planet – even the most sustainable lifestyle is called low-impact living, not no-impact. And unless that cost can be counted in pennies and pounds, it’s all too easy to overlook.

I moan about the price of oil when I turn on the heating, but I don’t pay for the cost of the gases chugging out the flue – the planet picks up the tab. I might think I’m paying too much for a lettuce in Tesco but it doesn’t touch the cost of the pesticides leaching into the water course – the planet picks up the tab. And the bargain price for that plastic tat from China doesn’t factor in the environmental cost of its manufacture, delivery or, when it breaks within a day, its disposal in landfill – the planet picks up the tab.

The earth has always subsidised our existence. Our way of living has for so long been so deeply exploitative that only now, when it’s impossible to ignore, are we recognising the debt, and scrabbling for a means of paying it off – or at least going a little further towards paying our way.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to reduce their ecological footprint. The problem is, I don’t think I know anyone who’s willing to reduce their standard of living to do so. We’ve come to see our indebted lives as our right, so why should we think twice about flying to Prague for a weekend’s party, or eating avocados all year round, or turning the thermostat up a few degrees? As long as our wallets can afford it, what’s to stop us?

Clearly, the true cost should stop us, or at least make us think twice. Otherwise we’re nothing but houseguests delighting in how cheap our dinner was. I’m not advocating a return to some utopian, pre-industrial past that never existed – I love my hot showers, my morning coffee and my evening Netflix way too much for that. I’m just suggesting that perhaps the time has come to recognise that the immediate cost to our wallets is not the ultimate price we’ll pay. We need to acknowledge our debt, and factor that into our decisions. Because our choices have power. From choosing to take the bus rather than drive, to invest in renewables rather than gas and oil, to eat that bit less meat or even just to turn the lights off when we’re out, our decisions have consequences.

So the question is, now that the planet is beginning to call in the debt – in cyclones and droughts, wildfires, floods and rising sea levels – are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary to start paying what we owe? Or are we going to continue to deny the reality, and go on living on credit until the debt becomes so unmanageable that there’s no going back?

That’s the individual challenge we all face. How we respond will make all the difference to our future. And either way, it’ll hit our wallets: noticeably now, or ever more dramatically in the future.

Put like that, of course I’m tight. I recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Counting the real cost

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