Casaubon's Book

I spend much of my life making the case for changing one’s life (and not just one’s life – for supporting political and social change that is associated with it) in fairly radical ways, very quickly. I spend a lot of my time writing, and periodically I get on a train or a bus or something and go stand up in front of people and make the same case. I know this is a diffcult thing for many people, whose infrastructure envelopes them and pushes them powerfully towards a particular way of life, so I try to make good arguments for doing it now. I make moral arguments, about the use of a fair share. I make political arguments about not giving our money to causes we abhore. I make economic arguments. I make the argument that it will probably be a lot easier to adapt later if we have some practice.

But in the last year or two, I’ve been debating with myself how necessary I think these arguments actually are. Don’t get me wrong – I think there are still compelling moral arguments to choose to live in a certain way, and to support certain responses to climate change and depletion. For me personally, these are the most compelling possible reasons for doing this – even if climate change and depletion weren’t a reality, the truth is that Americans can only consume as they do if they tell themselves that other people in the world really won’t mind if they take more than their share, and of course, we all know that’s complete nonsense.

But I also think that the days of being able to choose to live with less are probably over. My prediction for the coming decade is pretty simple – we’re headed fairly rapidly into a time past all choosing. If the “aughts” were about the growing recognition that things are going to change, the teens, I think are now about the growing reality of that change – the recognition that none of us have the resources, or the wealth, or the immunity from changing circumstances to resist change for very long. The question is how we will change, not whether we will.

What do I mean by this? I mean that whether it comes from a worldwide economic crisis (begun already, not nearly as resolved as people say, and likely to be ongoing), from the gradual end of growth, from carbon finally being priced appropriately at the mine/well/etc…, from the costs of dealing with a rapidly increasing number of natural disaster linked to our lack of ecological awareness, from actual energy shortages or simply extremely volatile energy prices, from rising poverty and unemployment that absorb more and more of us or from failing infrastructure as we face the costs of not maintaining our sewers, electric greed, soil, water systems…. it is going to be increasingly impossible for most of us to go on as we have been.

It is no accident that the bills come due pretty much all at once in this decade. This is the decade, for example in which we can probably expect to firmly establish our oil peak, and if the promise of shale fails, as it may, our gas peak as well. This is the decade in which we run out of money to pay the Medicare bill (2017) and in which we begin to see the growing consequences of climate change – an ice free summer arctic, the first really big waves of climate refugees, etc…This is the decade in which our deferred maintenence will begin to come due as more and more of the things we’ve left undone come back and bite us in the ass. This is the decade when we begin paying for all the things we were borrowing for in the last few years. How do we know this is true? Well, the most obvious reason is that these things are already happening.

That is, we already can’t pay for the increasing number of natural disasters and the repairs that would bring them back. We already have no real plan to save Medicare, and a jobless recovery, which is no recovery at all. We already see bridges collapsing and water depleting and are spending more money and more resources to compensate. We already are seeing the volatility associated with an oil peak, and the associated economic costs. It is not going out on a limb to predict that these things will continue, and almost certainly accellerate.

All of which adds up to a new reality – we can’t use all the energy and resources we want. Either this will be because we suddenly develop some common sense and recognize that future generations might like some oil to make medicines with and that they definitely would prefer to live in a fairly stable climate, or they will change because we are idiots and we have pushed things too far. Either we won’t be able to afford the energy or we won’t be able to use it for moral reasons – it doesn’t really matter, except in the sense that one choice would be more ethical than the other – but the results are the same.

Now comes the question of fun – if you are going to have to use a lot fewer resources, you might as well have a good time at it. And in fact, there’s considerable evidence that people can have a good time with a lot less.

How do we know this? Well, first of all, we secretly know that not being born in the first world in the latter half of the 20th century is not actually proof of a life of unmitigated hell. That is, your grandmother probably had fun sometimes – she might even tell you about it if you ask nicely. People who live in other parts of the world now and use half as much, 1/4 as much, 1/10th as much energy also have happy lives – so much so that many people are shocked. Now some of them don’t – there are some things that really suck, and it makes a lot of sense to use the energy we can use at the places that would make us miserable, say, not letting kids die of preventable diseases, not having your daughters end up illiterate or getting embroiled in resource wars. The good news is that it is possible to have those things with radically lower energy use – we know this from high-quality of life, low resource use countries. That is, you can have a long lifespan, low infant mortality, education for everyone in places that are quite poor – assuming, of course, you prioritize these things.

The same is true at slightly higher levels of use – not having any heat in a cold climate will make you bloody unhappy all winter. On the other hand, there’s no reason why you can’t have a lot less heat, and apply it differently and be pretty content – instead of heating a whole house, heat one or two rooms in which you primarily live, or heating your body with warm drinks and objects like hot water bottles that hold warmth where you need it.

What’s the difference between misery and contentment here? I think there are two big differences. The first is appropriate infrastructure and knowledge – that is, you have to know how to live well with less energy, and have the basic tools to do it. The difference between the old guy who dies of heat stroke in his apartment during the local heat wave and the one who is checked on regularly by neighbors, and helped to the local cooling station is infrastructure – not necessarily anything costly or difficult, just the infrastructure of a neighborhood where people check in on one another. The difference between a family that is content during a poweroutage and one that is panicked is preparation – having the ability to meet basic needs.

The second is attitude adjustment. This is pretty viable – one proof of this is historian Timothy Breen’s observation that during times of privation for a good cause, consumption gets replaced with “rituals of non-consumption” that are just as satisfying to people as consumption was. Thus, while drinking tea might have been a prior source of satisfaction during the American revolution, exchanging recipes for homemade tea substitutes replaces it socially.

I’ve found that the more people say that they have to have something a particular way, the more they convince themselves. That doesn’t mean that attitude adjustment is all there is – if you have been doing something that was a lot easier and have to shift to the hard way, it won’t always be fun. However it is possible to convince yourself that this is bearable, or to do an honest evaluation – how much does my happiness depend on this? What can I do to make it tolerable? Can I share the burden? Get help? Try a new tool? Change my relationship to it? When my family began reducing our energy use, we found that things that were hardest to deal with often could be handled – if we could rethink our handling, and our relationship to them.

And this, I think, is the argument for making real and significant cuts right now – that you are giving the grace of making your adaptations while the stakes are low – that is, you aren’t figuring out how to keep warm because the utility company has shut you off and you are now freezing, you are doing it while you still have the luxury of turning up the heat if things don’t work out. You are making your changes while, ideally, you still have enough time and energy and resources to seek out the necessary tools and learn the necessary skills – you aren’t trying to grow your first garden while your hungry family looks on.

My own prediction for the coming decade is this – for that last ten years, we have had warnings and signs and omens, the beginning and the decline. But for that decade most of our choices were just that – choices. We could say “soon” or we could say “now” or we could put the whole thing off. We could hope for technological solutions that might make some of the harder choices no longer necessary. That time is winding down rapidly.

In this decade, we will face the future. It will not look like the past – we will be faced with the reality that this is a more volatile, less wealthy, less resource rich future, and that we have far fewer choices than we once did. But with any luck, many of us will have made our choices while we had them available to us, and have done what was necessary to make sure that we are having fun anyway.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Sonntag
    December 24, 2009

    Hi Sharon–another dimension I would is the point of diminishing returns on energy and resource consumption as it relates to happiness. As you’ve illustrated, there is a point at which insufficient resources makes happiness pretty much impossible–cracking cold in the winter, oppressive heat in the summer, lack of medicine, etc. And yes, a growing number of us will see the needle on these drop into the red in the coming years. However a lot of the available energy is deployed in this culture for the purpose of selling consumer goods in ways that are directly contrary to personal welfare and happiness. The concept of the nuclear family, for example, was largely a construct meant to break families down in the smallest viable units, thus increasing the market for suburban houses, household goods and appliances. It results in a culture of disentigrating families and weakened community ties, which accounts for a lot of misery. The consumer culture also fronts the idea that happiness is a function of consumption, which is a loser’s game, even putting aside the environmental costs. You can never have it all, and if that’s the bar, again, you have another source of misery.

    So I agree that it does make sense to make the best of what’s coming, because we simply have no choice but to do so. But I would also submit that the pressures of increasing scarcity will likely make the project of human happiness a lot easier.

  2. #2 Megan
    December 24, 2009

    So….will there also be a round of predictions for 2010? I can’t wait!

  3. #3 Greenpa
    December 24, 2009

    A good place to look for reassurance that simpler is not more miserable is the nearly universally familiar “Little House” books.

    Most people read them as kids- and the freedom they portray is crazy attractive, as are the loving family and fascination with what will happen next.

    When you re-read them as an adult- if you can step back and do that- a couple of things become clear. The Ingalls were dirt poor- compared to others in their own time, not just compared to life today. And Pa, the wonderful always-providing father- was a complete “loser”- in their parlance, a ne’er-do-well. He screwed up every decision he made about his family’s welfare.

    In spite of those two factors – Laura grew up pretty happy, and very well educated; and without any feeling that she was sub-human.

    It really should not be difficult to make decisions better than Pa did- making life much easier. And a perfectly satisfactory “quality of life” should not be difficult to maintain.

    My two sons do realize that they grew up very wealthy indeed. We just never had any money. Granted, they were around 28 or so before they fully realized it- but they did get there.

    Happy 2010, everybody.

  4. #4 billygroats
    December 25, 2009

    It’s interesting how we can reach the same conclusion from two completely different starting points.

    It is entirely in the imagination of the writer that there is a “fair” amount of resources that a person should limit themselves to consuming relative to amounts consumed by others. There in no objective standard of how much oil, or potable water or uninhabited land those of us alive to day “should” leave available to those yet unborn.

    There is, in fact, only one rational argument that can be used to help people decide that they should consume less resources and take full advantage of those they are using. It is the argument from personal liberty, which our host touched on, and Paul and Greenpa expanded upon.

    It is also and argument made in traditions such a Buddhism, some sects of Christianity and other religions and philosopies.

    The argument is this: For everything that you spend resources on now, you will have less resources to use in the future (less freedom). For everything that you invest resources in now, you will have more resources in the future (more freedom).

    What’s the difference between spending and investing? Well, that’s where this appears to be a circular argument: Spending is using resources on something that is consumed and provides no value afterwards. Investing is using resources on things that produce more value than what was put in.

    The original post spends time on an argument that has no value: “fairness.”

    It also invests time in the one argument that matters: Change is happening so someone who wants more freedom in the future should learn how to reprioritize their use of resources now, while there is sill some “wiggle room.”

    In other words, “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.”

  5. #5 Tree
    December 25, 2009

    “The original post spends time on an argument that has no value: “fairness.” ”

    No value?! To You, maybe. Don’t assume everyone shares Your ‘values’.

    Tree

  6. #6 Brad
    December 25, 2009

    Sharon,

    I thought of your message last Sunday, reading about this story about the looming 2010 Food Crisis – exacerbated by Obama’s USDA. “Normally food prices should have already shot higher months ago, leading to lower food consumption and bringing the global food supply/demand situation back into balance. This never happened because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), instead of adjusting production estimates down to reflect decreased production, adjusted estimates upwards to match increasing demand from china.”

    This is from “Food Crisis for Dummies”, a post on New Research Findings Two.
    http://newresearchfindingstwo.blogspot.com/2009/12/food-crisis-for-dummies.html It seems that all this last year the USDA lied about having grain reserves still in storage (after America ran out). They lied about how much was produced this year – and exports are running higher than ever, leading to shortfall in corn (think “corn flakes”, “corn syrup”, “high fructose corn sweetener”, “corn oil”, “corn starch” and “corn meal”, “livestock feed”, “popcorn” and “sweet corn”) and soybeans (think “tofu”, “salad oil”, “fried food”, “drugs”, “biofuel”, “Animal feed” from soy meal, “soy mik”). The NRFT posting predicts doubling of food prices, in 2010. And massive shortages, come summer 2010.

    I thought 2010 was to be the last year of the ‘aughts decade. I hope we have any of the next decade for a softer descent than looks likely. I mean, just think of how long it will take to replace polyester and nylon clothes with cotton and wool – starting with planting cotton, processing, increasing sheep herds, teaching sheep farmers how to keep their sheep alive, training shearers to efficiently clip sheep – all day long.

    Maybe knitting isn’t the only “cottage industry” we need to be working on.

    BTW – do coal, oil and gas companies still get to claim depreciation credits for the coal and oil the ground no longer holds, to offset income taxes? How about when they pumped “depleted” wells last year when prices got high?

    Happy New Year!

  7. #7 John Andersen
    December 25, 2009

    Thanks.

    I believe the biggest challenge for me in the years ahead will be to learn to think and work cooperatively with neighbors, especially if we’re in the same neighborhood.

    For decades this has been a car-centric suburb. These are not McMansions. They’re rather modestly sized homes built in the 1960s and 70s.

    Unfortunately, rather than reaching out to neighbors, I feel many here will suffer (even die) in silence. We’re just too accustomed to do it all on our own.

    Leadership will be needed to help people break down the barriers and begin to know, trust, and work with neighbors.
    Perhaps I will need to step into that role.

    I know it will be difficult.

  8. #8 Claire
    December 26, 2009

    It also seems likely to me that the next decade is going to bring more far-reaching changes at the level of individuals than the just-winding-up decade has. I can see it personally, as we will have higher expenses combined with less income. For us, this is likely to mean that by the end of 2019, we will no longer own a car (it may well occur sooner than that) in order to afford more-important things like property tax, food (that supplements what we can’t grow), medicines (that I can’t make), clothes (to keep warm and cool enough), and so forth.

    All of our local utility rates are set to increase, the sewer rate by a factor of 5 over the next 25-30 years, electricity 18% next year if they get the rate increase they want, natural gas because of the supply decreasing, water because all the things needed to produce clean water will cost more.

    Our state transport department will not have enough money to keep the current road system fully maintained by 2012 and will have no money for new roads by that point. And that’s only the most obvious state-level vulnerability.

    I’m working on a plan to plug holes in our ability to provision at least some of our energy and water use ourselves over the next couple of years, and slowly increase our food production as well. We will also plan for decreased need for transport and eventual use of modes other than private car for nearly all the transport we need.

    The interesting thing is that I’m not dismayed by any of this. That is partly because I get jazzed by designing and implementing projects in general. It’s also because I can see that our personal carbon footprint will be way down by the end of the decade – by then we should be at the Riot for Austerity targets – and because at least so far, our lives have improved as we’ve consumed less. I agree with Sharon and everyone else that there is a point beyond which cutting energy use deteriorates the quality of life. But we personally are not in danger of getting there in the next few years. The challenge is to see how low we can go before things really do deteriorate.

  9. #9 billygroats
    December 26, 2009

    Tree,
    The term “fairness” has no value because it is vague and undefined. I explained why I reject the concept in my comment.

    If you have an objective standard of what is a “fair” level of oil consumption for each person on earth, or a “fair” size for each human’s carbon footprint, or a “fair” income for everyone, then we can begin a discussion.

    To hold people to a standard of “fairness” when that standard is not even defined is, well, “unfair.”

  10. #10 billygroats
    December 26, 2009

    Claire,

    Thanks for leading from the front. If you have time, please create a blog about what you’ve tried and what has worked.

    I know there are already a lot of sources out there to refer to, but each person is a litle different. Someone who gets no jazz from one site may get jazzed by Claire’s successes.

    John,

    If you want to find a leader for brining your neighborhood together, look in the mirror. You can start with just the little acts such as having two or three of the neighborhood families over at a time for a small potluck or garden party, then slowly introducing them to your “off grid” lifestyle.

  11. #11 Raye
    December 27, 2009

    John, I am with you, and I think Sharon is right – time to look in the mirror, and do the next thing, whatever that is, and likely it won’t be anything grand. Last summer I helped get a block party going. Odd, all that was really needed was to tell a few people who had talked about it off and on for months, “this is the summer. We are going to do it. Let’s set a date and send out invitations.” Most of the rest of the work was picked up by three younger families. But apparently someone needed to hear someone else say, “it is time for this to happen.” For a year now I have felt pretty much useless in the leadership department. I have felt that others consider me quaint and misguided and anachronistic, a little off-base, ya know? (c; But lately my beloved has been agreeing with me on some of my lower-energy plans, he likes the pantry (I just needed to label items with dates for him), and we are talking about the future together more often.

    So, this year, in addition to the garden, getting set up for ducks, and expanding the composting, it looks like I need to check in more frequently on some neighbors and try to get some momentum going in the neighborhood. I may even find one or two families on the same trajectory.

    Alons nous! or something like that.

  12. #12 John Andersen
    December 27, 2009

    Thanks billygoats!

    I know that’s what we need to do; baby steps to get to know people.

    Some neighbors tried that awhile back and it sort of fizzled. Perhaps we could get together with them to revive it, and have a “money saving ideas” theme for our potlucks.

  13. #13 Greenpa
    December 27, 2009

    Brad- I’ve read the “food crisis for dummies” article, and am not overly impressed. He’s certainly got a lot of references, but far too many of them are “headlines”; from not-very-knowledgeable journalists, and a tad on the hysterical side.

    While there is no doubt the global food system is in serious trouble, it has been for a long time; predictions of its immediate demise have been going on for a couple decades now. It seems to have some hidden resiliences that are not immediately apparent.

    My all time favorite was the breathless announcement, about 20 years ago, by Lester Brown’s WorldWatch Institute (accompanied by tons of press) that their exhaustive research had revealed that ALL cultivable land in the world was – already being cultivated! There is no more land for crops, anywhere! This is it, we’re all going to die!

    That was when I quit paying any attention to Lester. They can’t possibly have just gone outside and looked around, with the eyes of a hungry person. Vast quantities of good land, in all countries, is uncultivated- the most obvious to me being freeway medians and right-of-way strips, in the USA. Even in China, there are zillions of corners that could be more intensely worked.

    Anyway- grain of salt time, I think. Which does not mean a collapse in food supply is not possible.

  14. #14 Nancy Reyes
    December 27, 2009

    When I visit the US, I see the huge waste of resources, and things thrown out.

    But why risk the lives of the old, young, and chronically ill by nonsense like not keeping the heat up (Chilblains, anyone?) or not using an airconditioner when it goes above 85 inside?

    Try using local heat/aircon instead of the whole house, and you would have the best of both worlds.

    As for the rest: I am always leery of rich Yanks saying how wonderful people in third world countries can live while keeping a “low carbon profile”. Know how we do it? Maids…to shop on foot every day, to cook, to clean by hand, and especially to do the laundry by hand.

    One small refrigerator, no washer/drier, no driving the car to the supermarket, no vacuum cleaner…

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    December 28, 2009

    Nancy, lots of people live without a/c in places where the temps rise above 85 – I do myself. We have a couple of months a year that frequently hit those temps – and we do not have a/c, just ceiling fans and good ventilation and shade trees placed appropriately around the house. Not keeping the heat up or the a/c on doesn’t necessarily equate to misery. I don’t live in a terribly hot place, though, and I recognize that it is useful, particularly for those who are fragile, in places where the temps are constantly hot on a small scale, as you say. We live in an extremely cold climate without using central heating, and use most of the techniques you talk about – and without chillblains ;-).

    You bring up a good point about service in the pre-powered era – either one needs a servant class, or a large extended family. Personally, I like the extended family (or equivalent) model better than the class/caste system myself.

    But in the end, it isn’t an issue of romanticizing (I’ve lived in Indonesia myself) so much as recognizing that in an era of depletion and carbon limits, people aren’t going to get everything they want. Romantic or not, we have 6.7 billion people, and a very limited supply of fossil fuels.

    Sharon

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    December 28, 2009

    Billygroats, I agree with you that there is no objective (ie, can be established without consensus) standard of how much should be left to future generations. That doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility of developing an ethical consensus (ethics are generally not objective) about what would be fair. On the other hand, I think that there is demonstrably a fair share measure for what one can consume in relationship to people who are already alive, and it wouldn’t be very hard to establish one – George Monbiot does this in _Heat_, albeit to outdated standards of what the climate can absorb. That is, all you have to do is figure out how much carbon you can emit, and then divide it by the number of people in the world. That’s entirely objective – it would require non-objective ethical consensus, on the other hand, to establish that some people by right of location, historic usage, habit or imperative were entitled to more.

    Sharon

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