The New York Times this morning has a story that more and more people are paying actual money for virtual goods; they are paying on-line retailers and social network sites to send virtual gifts to their friends. You pay one dollar; they ‘ship’ the image of a champagne bottle to the on-line account of someone you wish to congratulate.
The first reaction: P.T. Barnum lives! Nature is still pumping out suckers, one a minute.
Second reaction: Good for the earth! I’ve long thought that economic growth is not only compatible with saving the environment; growth is the best strategy for saving the planet.
This story is an example of what I’m talking about. As the economy grows, our wants become more sophisticated and refined. It’s not just that rich countries are willing to pay for clean air, clean water and the preservation of natural beauty while poor countries often aren’t. It’s not just that technological progress, the motor of economic growth, creates new and more efficient ways of using fossil fuels and other raw materials. It’s that a growing economy tends to shift from the production and consumption of heavy industrial goods to goods whose value comes from services and design: from human ingenuity rather than the earth’s resources.
These virtual goods on the internet are an extreme example of what I mean; their impact on the earth is minimal, but consumers apparently believe, to the tune of $5 billion per year, that they provide a real value.
The whole internet works that way, actually. When teenage boys are burning off their excess testosterone by pounding keyboards while playing internet games rather than racing the engines of their hot-rods out on the streets, that’s a good thing from the earth’s point of view. When shoppers cut back on trips to the mall, substituting mouse clicks for gasoline, the world gets a little bit cleaner.