Since You Have to Change Anyway, You Might as Well Have Fun

That would have been the title of _Making Home_ except it is way, way too wordy, but that's the gist of my book - that we don't have a choice but to change our way of life, so we might as well find the best possible way to do it.    The long version (and a lot of details about how) is in the book.  This is the short one. ;-)

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 about this, 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 have really begun to see the growing consequences of climate change – an ice free summer arctic, the first one in which we expect 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 recovery which may not be any kind of lasting recovery at all. We already see bridges collapsing and water depleting and are spending more money and more resources to compensate, already are struggling to pay the price of more and more big storms and natural disasters. 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.




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Wow- Sharon-
I have been reading your books and your blog for sometime now. Those and a plethora of other information lead me to agree with you completely. You, however, can put into words the thoughts and ideas that promote the change necessary. Hopefully, many others who read your works agree and begin to make the necessary changes in their lives.
We have started and are slowly moving toward a more earth friendly life. As time passes I become more encouraged as others begin to see the necessity of changing and preparing.
Keep doing what you do as it keeps many people motivated and moving forward.
With gratitude-

Your "prediction" is, of course, wholly, completely and totally wrong as you and virtually every other human progress hating pseudo-environmentalist (not just on "scienceblogs" but across the movement) clearly know or you would attempt to put your case factually rather than resorting to insults, lies and obscenity.

The human race has a literally unlimited potential future and you Luddites parasites are simply scared of a society of freedom where there are no poor to bully and feel superior to.

If I am wrong and there is somebody articulate who doesn't know this we will presumably now see your case put seriously - ain't hiolding my breath.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink

This is going to be hard, but we all need to try really hard to not feed the troll.

Kick the troll, Jason.

Kick the troll.

As long as he's given the air of publicity he'll continue to rant and rave about how "everyone else" is a nazi babykiller or some other shite because the little arsehole is abandoned by everyone 'cos he's FRIGGING NUTS.

Sharon - thank you for another push. We're moving along, mostly insulating and gardening. What keeps me up at night is that we don't get our heating system changed out in time before prices spike up again. We're on what can only be called an antiquated system from 100 years ago. I have my fingers crossed for a re-finance to get the heat fixed. I know, it seems like a less than ideal solution - refinance. But there it is. The gamble seems worth it as we're in the cold climate area, although this year seems to be, um, extremely warm. 20 degrees warmer than what used to be typical 15 or 20 years ago. It would give us more control over sourcing our heating fuel.

The train is going to Boston. You can sit facing forward, or you can sit facing backward. But the train is still going to Boston. I choose to sit facing forward.

But then, I've been to the North Pole, and there isn't very much ice there anymore.

There is an auction next Saturday here in north central Oklahoma. They list as "antiques" three wood burning stoves, and a four burner fuel oil stove, a couple pot belly stoves, etc. The thing is, my property taxes are due the following Friday. Gack!

Seth Godin commented recently on the difference between persuasion and convincing. "Marketers don't convince. Engineers convince. Marketers persuade. Persuasion appeals to the emotions and to fear and to the imagination. Convincing requires a spreadsheet or some other rational device." (…)

I think part of the reason for cultural inertia to continue outweighing concerns of the future, is that so much of the message (599 ppm, 2 degrees, 2005, etc.) are all technical information, useful for convincing someone operating at the technical level. For those not on board, it is the persuasion that changes minds. The emotions. And it takes a lot to change minds.

The Tarot Major Arcana card 13, the "death" card, tokens a change, not the ending or death it seems to depict. What "dies", is the former way of life, a sweeping away of what went before to make room for changes and a new way of life.

Discarding their way of life because Bad Things are about to happen is a form of death. The former life, or parts of it, end. Change is always measured in pain, and it does not</em help that industrialists are invested in selling more of what they sell today. Thus, most of the cultural message today bolsters inertia.

When the risk/danger/disaster is recognizable, when the security of life as-it-has-been is threatened, then the persuading is easy. When the store shelves are no longer packed with two layers of this soup and that, but the whole shelf holds half a layer of one kind, when trusted mainstream leaders are actively involved in getting ready, filling the sandbags, then the convincing comes into play, to arrive at a useful course of response.

Besides. Gas prices are down since the election. How bad can it be? Just kidding -- prices are a matter of speculation, and Obama is no longer milking the oil industry for campaign funds, so costs there have dropped dramatically. I realize this. That, and Europe and the rest of the world are getting too broke to compete for oil, reducing demand as the world waits for the US to start shrinking as well.

The answer to climate change cannot be monetary, cannot include redistribution of wealth, or any other form of spending someone else's money, and be helpful to me. The changes in living you embrace, that you share with us, are useful. My own thought is that the economics of the near future are dire, and thinking about a less affluent life, of depending on less energy and less inter-region supply chains, just make sense.

Your small comment about "the price of carbon at the well/mine/etc" should lead to thinking about what drives the price at the well/mine/etc., and that is the demand. The logical economic path which we should all be screaming at our representatives is to put all overhead costs (government: local and national) into a sales tax so that the consumers know what they are paying at the time they make decisions. Those of us pursuing deconsumption should be leading the charge toward this critical link of awareness. The ironic bit is that the Republicans have a plan for this, but they're too caught up in lobbyist barbed wire to implement it, and instead play shuffleboard with the income tax code. I, for one, want to know what everything actually costs when I visit the store. No amount of talk can replace the austerity motivation of high (actual) prices at the checkout.

By Auntiegrav (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

P.S. I forgot to say Thank You for your hard work, Sharon.
To clarify also, we vote once every 4 years or so through a fog of tightly controlled information about who we want to represent us, but we vote billions of times every day for gasoline, coal, and automobiles. One dollar, one vote: counted at the checkout and tallied on K street.

By Auntiegrav (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

Sharon, I liked your comment years ago on runningonempty2, where you said that as we go down the down slope of peak oil and we near TEOTWAWKI, one thing we can still do is sex.

Auntie, if you tax the import of fossil fuels and tax the companies in the country producing and using fossil fuels, then the price of goods will rise AUTOMATICALLY and become a consumption tax on fossil fuels.

So, as expected - nobody in the entire econazi movemment who is articulate and isn't perfectly well aware that the entire movement is a deliberate thieving fraud in which no remotely honest person can, or does, participate. (And obviolsly it remains that nobody here except me gas any slightest disagreement with wow's tactics of obscenity)

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

You know, every time you post I imagine Beaker Meeping away.

As expected, nothing more than empty whine and bile. Rather like an alcoholic the morning after pay day.

Really, all you're proving here is that UNLESS someone agrees with you, they are inarticulate, wrong, nazi or criminal.

Given you have nothing in the way of proof of your claim, and ABSOLUTELY NO COMPETENCE to make an assessment, all you're coming across is like that lunatic glaswegian drunk swearing at everyone because he can't stand straight and it must be someone else's fault.

PS the spelling is like a drunkard slurring their words.

I guess you get a lot of money off the government to pay for your drinking habit.

As one of those grandparents who grew up before things became so mind blindingly "great", I thank you for the reminder that people had lot's of fun throughout our lives. Grandma and I grew up working class with farming relatives. We knew about and used outdoor and indoor toilets and we both graduated college. We're in our seventies and and have got some physical "issues".

We agree with you that the "aughts" were about awareness of coming changes and choices and the "teens" are and will be about actual changes and adaptations not "fixes." This can get a little grim if we don't watch out, so thanks again for the counsel to remember and have a little fun as we proceed.

Late (as usual) in reading this post but hopefully not too late to put in my 2 cents worth. A couple of days ago (cannot tell you the station or the expert) I watched a newsprogram wherein an environmental expert was being interviewed. He gave the clearest example I have heard to date of the impact of climate change concerning the effects of an average temperature change of 1 to 3 degrees. He used changes in human body temperature as his comparitive data. I'll re-iterate here to the best of my memory: If your body temperature goes up 1 degree from the customary 98.6, you might feel a little off, but you get along alright. If your body temperature increases by 2 degrees at 100.6, you definitely are feeling the affects - you may still be functioning, but you deffinately know something is wrong and not yourself. When your body temperature increases by 3 degrees (101.6) you are sick, you are down and out and looking for a cure. As your temperature continues to rise, your situation becomes increasinginly critical until you have reached a point where brain damage or even death may occur. His explanation was stated so clearly that no one could miss his point. Wish I could name the expert. He was excellent and certainly presented a visual picture of what a earthly average temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees means to our planet.