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.