The Riot for Austerity came about this way. In 2007, after the release of the IPCC report, and a number of books drawing attention to climate change, a friend of mine and I were discussing our frustration that no political organization was considering any kind of emissions cuts that even resembled those necessary to limit the damage from climate change. In fact whenever we discussed the 90+% emissions cuts required to give us the best chance of a reasonable stable climate, the immediate reaction was “that’s not going to happen!”
Stealing a great line from George Monbiot’s wonderful book _Heat_, in which he laments “no one has ever rioted for austerity” Miranda Edel and I, both mothers of children who would be living for this world, wondered if it was really so inconceivable that people could change their lives. After all, our grandparents had done so during WWII – was it really so alien, so far away? Frustrated at lack of political responsiveness, we decided we wouldn’t wait – we’d see if we could make the cuts in our own lives. Someone, we argued, had to model a way of life that was actually viable given the limits of our planet’s resources and pollution absorption capacity. So, why not us?
We set two goals. First, we would spend a year trying to get our emissions down by 90% over the American average. Second, we’d use this as part of a larger public strategy to point out that it can be done – that we don’t have to wait for political action – indeed, that we can’t wait.
What we didn’t expect was that the Riot would take on a life of its own – at its peak in 2008, several thousand people in 14 countries were rioting – and talking about it in a lively, sometimes contentious, often very funny discussion group. Wjat was most astonishing about it was how much fun all of us were having getting our emissions and impact down.
Or maybe that isn’t very surprising. The historian Timothy Breen has argued that during times of crisis, what he calls “rituals of non-consumption” arise in order to fill the gap created by the inability to consumer, for whatever reason. Those rituals – sharing recipes for homegrown teas during the American revolution, knitting socks for soldiers during WWI, etc… are as satisfying or more satisfying than the old rituals. People don’t miss what they give up – provided, of course, that they can fill the gap with community.
In 2007, while it was frustrating that the people had to lead the political discourse, it seemed possible we might do something, however inadequate, about climate change. In that sense, it seems like a good time to re-start the Riot. As our government has less and less to do with what our kids and grandkids actually need from governments, as all of us face a world where we’re losing control of the real essentials, it is more necessary than ever to build that way of life worth living, and more necessary than ever to not allow the political process to stand in the way of making change. The Riot was always political as well as personal (and y’all know I don’t think they can be separated) – there is nothing more powerful than saying to governments – we don’t need you to make change, we can do it ourselves. Strangely, that’s when governments tend to get involved – when enough ordinary people start transforming the world for themselves.
To me, this isn’t a rejection of the idea that there are some things governments do well – instead it is an affirmation that we can lead, rather than wait to be led. The Riot was set to point out – look, thousands of people can do what you have said is impossible, and we can do it without help. We can get to this point in our emissions production without waiting for the public transportation projects, for the renewable energy projects, for the subsidies for things that are worth having. How much more could we do with those things?
Moreover, there are practical reasons to join as well. As Dmitry Orlov points out, when the world is headed for a fall, and you have a choice of falling out of a fourth story window or a first story window, choosing the first-story window just plain makes sense. The lower we get our energy and resource consumption, the better prepared we are for our emergent future in which we are constrained by limits of climate, resources and wealth. If you recognize we cannot go on as we are, we must not wait for someone else to lead the way – it is time to make the changes that are needed ourselves.
If the only reasons were to change the world, make things better for your kids and grandkids and prepare yourself for the future, there’d probably be no reason to do it ;-). The real reason to riot is this – it is a heck of a lot of fun. There’s an artistry in extracting the most from the least that offers a great deal of pleasure – the formal structures of the riot act, I think, like the framework of a sonnet or a the basic positions of dance, a discipline in which a new freedom and possibility emerges.
Ok, down to brass tacks. How does this work?
In its simplest terms, we’re going to spend the next year asking “how low can you go?” Think of it as the energy limbo! The first step is to figure out what the average American uses. For this, I’m using EIA statistics whenever possible. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what the data are – other times it is more complicated. Sometimes the data is readily and accurately available in per-person numbers, sometimes you have to work with household numbers, which is more complex. Sometimes there is comparative consistency across regions, other times wide ranges, and it is hard to know how to evaluate.
One of the things that we found the first time is that there’s a lot of debate and a lot of grey areas. How much does the energy you use at work count into your resources? Maybe you can affect that not at all – you don’t have any control over how resources are used in your workplace. Maybe you can control it entirely – perhaps you work at home? How should we calculate renewable energy in your state – should it count as a 0 if you can afford to pay extra, even though there isn’t enough renewable production to support everyone who might want to use it, even though the backups come from coal or diesel? What about wood heat? How do you could public transportation?
What about things that aren’t easy to calculate, like food? Do we average things? Does doing well on some of the categories get you out of some of the others?
Other people noticed that things weren’t necessarily fair. Was it fair to have to try and work around national averages when you live in a much hotter or colder place? Was it fair that single person households were at a disadvantage in some areas? Was it fair that larger households were at a disadvantage in others? City dwellers have public transport – should rural dwellers be held to the same standard? Rural dwellers can grow more food – that doesn’t seem fair!
What we found in the year and more we struggled with these questions was that in fact, life isn’t fair. I know that will be news to all of you ;-). Ultimately, you can do whatever you want – we set up the rules, but there’s no one demanding any of us stick to them or interpret them one way. But I do know that I found the challenge of living on my energy budget to be most satisfying when I chose to calculate things in the way that seemed most in keeping with my principles. It was helpful to remember that this was a set of goals and ideals, and it isn’t a race, it isn’t a competition and there’s no olympic energy-use cutting event. This is a collaborative project, one in which ideally we’ll be proud of what we accomplish – that’s what I care most about.
There are complicated questions – the answers aren’t easy. Ultimately, at some point soon, we’re going to have to just decide how to answer them, so that people don’t get bogged down in the questions, but I do want your input. What do you think? How should we think about these things?
We’re starting over from scratch, because almost all the material dedicated to the prior Riot has now disappeared from the internet entirely – we had, among other things, a cool calculator that allowed you to plug in numbers and find out where you stand without getting out a pen and paper, and a useful FAQ. These have gone missing, so we’ll have to recreate them (note that “we” hint, hint ;-)).
I should say upfront that this is not a one person project – yes, I’m going to take the lead on writing and publicizing this, yes, if the buck has to stop somewhere, it will stop with me, but I NEED YOUR HELP!!! I need your help in a number of ways. I need someone to help us set up an energy calculator, and someone to volunteer to do the research for the FAQ in each category, for how to calculate grey areas and less clear options. I need a few people to volunteer to moderate the two groups I’m setting up for discussion of Riot issues, one on Yahoogroups, the other on facebook (we’ll also be talking about it here on my blog, but that’s not enough – people need to be able to raise their own problems and get answers). And I need y’all to publicize the riot on your own sites, to tweet and blog about it, to call up your local newspapers and publicize it. The first Riot got a surprising amount of attention – the second Riot could blow the roof off with your help.
So please, in comments, tell me what you want to contribute to this. Want to do the math on the transportation section? Ready to use your skills to set up a new calculator? Want to give the Riot a webpage and discussion group all its own so you don’t have to use Facebook? Got an idea to share about cutting your usage? Want to have a meetup at your place for rioters in your area? Tell me! The part about this that is so much fun is the collaborative element!
Ok, let’s focus on what we’re talking about – the categories. There are still 7 of them.
1. Transportation Energy – here the average American uses 500 gallons of gas per person, per year. That makes it pretty easy to figure out – everyone gets 50 gallons per year. Then the questions begin to emerge. How do you calculate different public transport options? We really need someone to set up a calculator that covers diesel buses and hybrid buses, plane mileage, carpooling, and what have you.
2. Electricity – this is a big grey area as well. How do you calculate your share of your office’s energy use? Is it fair that people who live in the far north like me don’t consume as much electricity as folks who need a/c? Space cooling is the single largest use of electricity in the US, at 17%. How do you calculate hydro? What if it is environmentally damaging hydro power? Do peak and off-peak consumption matter? How do you count nuclear?
The average American uses 2,000 kwh per person *household* (not “per houseold” but “at home” as opposed to “at work and other places you go”) use – total use is 4,000kwh annually. So that part is fairly easy – each person gets 200kwh per year. And the great thing is that this is the easiest part to calculate, since for most people on-grid, the utility company will be sending you an analysis of your usage every month.
3. Other fuels – mostly used for heating and cooking, but sometimes for other things as well. Natural gas, heating oil and propane are the major fuels, but these also include various forms of biomass (wood, pellets, corn, etc…). In some cases, this won’t be a relevant category, if your home or apartment is all-electric, but most of us use some other heating fuel. Again, this is one of those places where a lot of grey areas emerge. Should wood be counted as carbon neutral all the time? Some of the time, depending on how it is harvested and used? How to calculate pellets or corn or biodiesel heating fuel? Which equivalencies do we want to use to allow people using heating oil to compare with those using biomass, natural gas or heating oil?
4. Water. Why include this? Well, because water resources use is a huge portion of the environmental picture. At 130 gallons *houseold* average (with an average household size of 2.6 people) that gives us 13 gallons per household per day.
Water is nice and clear in some areas, but almost no one actually made the 10% goal. I was almost tempted to take it off the list, but I think it is stands as a good goal, even if most of us don’t achieve it. Water is going to be a huge source of stress in the coming century in many parts of the US. Our family actually uses about 35% of the American average, and I’m content there – but we also did go down for several months to the lower level and we know we could do it – and still live comfortably, although I admit, I missed the showers. Still with water capture and storage, and greywater usage, we weren’t hurting. We live in a wet area, and I’ve become comfortable with this – maybe too comfortable – I’m looking forward to challenging ourselves again.
5. Garbage. Like water, there was a case to be made for leaving garbage out, but I do think it counts. Among other things, garbage is a significant source of methane emissions due to the inappropriate disposal of biodegradable material in landfills. Getting your garbage down really counts. The good news is that this is actually one of the areas where most households can do the most the fastest as well!
The average American household produces 40lbs of garbage per week – that gives you a limit of 4lbs per household.
6. Food. This is a hard one – there aren’t any really good figures for figuring out how to lower the impact of your food, so we kind of made it up. Our calculation was that no more than 10% of your food should be from the mainstream industrial food system. Everything else should be either local low-input (organic isn’t a very useful term most of the time because of the prevalence of industrial organic), or bulk purchased goods with minimal packaging, either organic or low-input, and fair trade if bought from the Global South.
There’s a lot of grey here. For example, even though the local hydroponic tomato farm is near me, it sure as heck isn’t low input – tomatoes from Florida would make more sense in March, and no tomatoes at all until tomato season still more sense. What do you do if you can’t transport bulk goods? What do you do in a food desert? What if you are on WIC or food stamps? What if you can’t afford these things? These are complicated questions – at the same time, every dollar we spend in the industrial food system constitutes an endorsement. Again, the fact that the goal is challenging, and perhaps impossible for some of us doesn’t make it wrong.
Finally, category 7 is consumer goods. Multiple studies have found that every dollar we spend in the US results in an average of 1.6-2.kg of atmospheric carbon being produced in the process of manufacture, transport of goods, etc…. Not addressing the problem of consumption seems like missing the point. We know that Americans spend almost 1.5 trillion dollars a year on things that can only be viewed as non-essentials – luxury boats, marshmallow peeps, jewelry, Johnny Walker, lottery tickets…and those are just the things that the US commerce department feels comfortable acknowledging that *no one* needs – lots of other luxury items count as “necessary” because someone thinks they are. They don’t include things like mansions (counting as housing) or $500 sneakers (clothing) or what have you. We spend almost 12% of our total household budgets on luxury items alone.
We also buy new when we could buy used 90% of the time. The average American spend 11,000 per year on items that don’t include food, insurance, energy, housing and other necessities. Much of that money is in the form of debt. So everyone gets 1,100 dollars for consumer purchases – but used goods count as only 10% of their asking price, because keeping used items out of the waste stream is awesome! So if you can afford it, you can have you full 11K as long as you buy used. (Unfortunately, we are unable to supply you with the cash to do so as part of your membership in the Riot ;-)).
One important thing to know is that when numbers are for households, that the average American household size is 2.6 people, so you can get a rough estimate of the per-person usage by dividing by that. Different people have different takes on this – my family strove to meet the household averages even though we are more than double that size, other people chose to work with per-person averages.
What do you do if not everyone in your household wants to Riot? Well, you can try and persuade them, but honestly, maybe you’ll have to work only on per-person consumption, and there may well be things that you can’t control – if your spouse or parent wants the heat at 75 all winter or the a/c blasting, you may not be able to deal with those issues – or maybe not right away. Remember the power of benign example can do a lot.
This is a big challenge, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed. I got some criticism last time by seeing people say “wait a minute, don’t we need to take baby steps?” I admit, this is a critique that annoys me – the problem is that babies only take baby steps for a very short time. Pretty soon they are off and running. Yes, at first you may need to take it slow – particularly if this is all new and overwhelming to you. At the same time, however, baby steps can become an excuse for not making real change. Sure, take your time getting started, but the goal is to move faster and faster, just like any one growing in confidence and strength.
If last time is any measure, you are going to have a lot of company to share strategies with, complain with, to compare notes and figure out with. No one can riot alone – but riots have a life of their own, they start as a little buzz, and end up making a noise no one can silence. We’ve seen it in the middle east – now it is time to start a Riot of our own!
Please, post suggestions for how to do the calculations and volunteer to take on roles in comments. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at facebook. I’ve started the facebook group here under the “Riot for Austerity” name – drop me an email with your identity, and I’ll add you!
Can’t wait to get started!