Saving the world with voluntary simplicity
With the mass of headlines warning of humanity’s impeding fall into a climate dystopia, your heart might sink a little. The news points to a bleak future, one that will be experienced if not by yourself, surely your children and grandchildren. A future of civilization collapse — complete with brutal wars and natural disasters.
This future is not happening by chance. It is as a result of none other than human failure. A failure to use our immense gifts from God of foresight, technology and communication to acknowledge the science of climate change and act. Addicted to consumption, humankind has ignored the facts and stayed on course for disaster, much like any addict would.
Indeed, we have set ourselves up for a very severe disaster. Humanity is on track to expel enough carbon into the atmosphere to increase pre-industrial temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius. Famous climate scientist Kevin Anderson commented that this much warming would be “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community.”
Is hope lost? No, there is still time to prevent the worse of warming and adapt to the warming we’ve already locked in.
But survival means a world that so extraordinarily different that it will be unrecognizable. And you might even like it.
Nothing is coming to save you
Before getting into what needs to be done to change the world, it’s important to understand to dislodge a few beliefs about what will address the current crisis:
1. Technology will fix everything.
2. We need to shift our habits towards green consumption.
Belief in technology is almost like a religion in industrialized nations. Much hope has been placed, for example, on switching the energy grid to renewable energies such as wind and hydro. Climate observers and activists claim that an energy transition would be quick, easy and effective.
For example, Al Gore, a prominent character in the field, said in an article in the Huffington Post in 2008 “…I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative.”
Almost 10 years later, it’s clear that it is not “achievable.” However, the myth that the energy grid can be quickly overhauled into a renewable system persists. Just back in 2011, President Obama pledged get 1 million electric vehicles out on the road — a plan which was abandoned in 2013.
Sadly, these claims fail to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and the history which explains the reality. As they say, those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.
It is not the first time that industrialized societies have attempted to undergo a large energy transformation. Vaclav Smil, Bill Gate’s favorite scientist, conducted an analysis to understand the amount of time such a transformation would take, starting the wood to coal transition of 19th century. His findings? These transitions took decades. For example, crude oil took 28 years to claim 25% of USA’s energy supplies.
As he explains in an article outlining his book, Vaclav notes “Even if the new renewables keep on advancing at the same rate as they have been so far [. . .] fossil fuels would be supplying 78 percent of the U.S. primary energy in 2030 and still about 75 percent by 2040. ”
Vaclav continues in his article to mention electric cars, noting: “Elon Musk, the entrepreneur some U.S. media have proclaimed to be a man more inventive than Edison, makes much-praised electric cars — but Tesla ended 2014 with another loss after selling only 17,300 vehicles in a market of 16.5 million units, claiming a share of 0.1 percent of the U.S. car market. Obviously, it will take many years before Tesla becomes anything but a market curiosity.”
That is the energy supply-side, on the demand-side of the environmental coin is green consumption. As consumers, we are very familiar with this. We have been encouraged for years to buy more energy efficient lightbulbs, cars, and appliances. This doesn’t require any fundamental changes to our lifestyles, we just need to shop at different places and pay attention to different marketing tactics. Efficiency is the name of game in green products.
Again, analysis reveals that reality clashes with intuition and common-sense. Increases in efficiency are negated by accompanied the increases in consumption, known as the Jevons paradox. For example, as illustrated in this Nature blog article, efficient light bulbs have lead to increased usage. Any gains in efficiency have been overcome by increased consumption.
However, even these environmentally conscious options still require immense resources to produce. For example, take Tencel, a material which uses less water than some types of cotton to produce, and could therefore be marketed as a “green” fabric. Compared to a cotton t-shirt which requires over 700 gallons of water to produce, a Tencil t-shirt requires only 15 gallons of water. An improvement, to be sure.
Where is the call to buy less or buy secondhand t-shirts? After all, buying a secondhand t-shirt, or no t-shirt, over a Tencel t-shirt would save 15 gallons of water, not to mention the energy and transport invested into manufacturing the product.
Lowering consumption is what we should all be focusing on, and there is a good reason why we are not. In an economy predicated on growth, we are required to continue our consumption at every-increasing rates. Hence the focus on green consumption and renewable energies, both of which do not challenge the fundamental paradigms of how we live.
But as long as we live on a planet with ecological limits, it is clear that our consumer-based capitalist economy is simply impossible.
Year after year, industrialized countries continue to increase their consumption. This year, the Worldwatch Institute—an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C—reported that humanity has reached new peaks in production and consumption. From meat, to plastic, to coffee, to cars, we are gobbling up more of the earth than ever.
There are limits, and these limits are not metaphorical. In fact, we have a defined carbon budget handed to us by the UN International Panel on Climate Change. This is limit of the amount of carbon that we can still consume while still staying within 2 degrees Celsius of warming (arbitrary deemed as a ‘safe’ amount of warming by the IPCC).
With our current rates of consumption, we are due to deplete this budget entirely in 15-25 years. To stay within the budget, industrialized nations must decarbonize their economies by 8-10% per year. In the past, emission decreases of just 1% per year have only occurred during economic recessions. A renewable energy grid, as mentioned earlier, will likely take much longer than 15-25 years to roll out.
What does all of this point towards?
That we must radically decrease our consumption and shrink the economy, what academics have called entering into a degrowth economy.
This means less meat, less clothing, less driving, less traveling — less of all of the consumer behaviors we have been accustomed to of modern life. Resulting job losses can be addressed by sharing jobs between people and all having all essential services subsidized or covered by the state, such as housing and health care. There will be less material wealth. In a shrinking economy, there will be less of everything to go around — except for time.
Consuming less means that we are producing less — which means we are working less as well.
With this time and freedom, perhaps humanity will choose a drastically different course than it has been choosing over it’s entire existence. Instead of linking success to the ever-increasing accumulation of wealth and status, our main concerns will involve relationship, mental and spiritual development. We we’ll get the chance to rediscover true community through sharing and collaboration.
It’s a lifestyle that involves buying secondhand goods, eating a more plant-based diet, walking more, growing food, and composting. It means more experiences instead of possessions, more home-cooked meals instead of restaurant meals.
Progress will no longer by measured by increasing GDP. We will have to find different ways of judging advancement, perhaps something like the Gross National Happiness instituted by Bhutan since 1971.
If this suggestion seems radical, it’s because it is radical. However, there are very few non-radical solutions to address the climate disaster we are facing in only a few short decades. We need to start the transition towards a civilization of voluntary simplicity today. Not only through political action pushing our politicians to impose taxes on carbon, but also in our own lives.
Doesn’t sound all that bad right?
Regardless of if it does or not, it will happen. Whether it will be a peaceful transition into minimalism, or a catastrophic throw into poverty is our decision. And we should make the right decision while we still can.