OK. The title sounds over-grand, I'll admit. But below you'll find the last installment in my debate with Break Through author Michael Shellenberger, which I've just realized sums up my position on what we need as a culture.
As you know, he has been arguing that reducing our cultural carbon footprint is not the way forward. He believes no one will go for it. He thinks we should make huge investments to find a renewable way to keep consuming. I don't think that's possible. The problem is too big for a single-pronged approach. You can find the first three installments of our debate here, here, and here.
The funny thing is, Michael, the point of the No Impact project has never been to be ascetic. The point was to use fewer non-renewable resources, but what we found was that our culture doesn't provide much that is renewable with which to replace the non-renewable! That meant we had to resort to less stuff, and the fact is that many of the gifts that we've received from our No Impact lifestyle experiment were related to the space left behind when we had less.
We learned, as a family, for example, that we were much happier without our attention and time being sucked up by all the screens--TV, computer, video games. We saw that these things have the tendency to make us all spend more time alone, when in fact, what makes people happier is spending more time together.
From our experience, I began to wonder about American cultural emphasis on gross domestic product (GDP), and the almost unquestioned idea that we should do what it takes to make sure we should all have more of what we want--namely, more TVs, computers, and video games. Economic growth.
As you know, many of the politicians have stood in the way of our joining the rest of the world in concrete carbon emissions reductions targets for fear that it would stifle economic growth, the idea being that this would mean fewer TVs, computers and video games (I'm being simplistic, I know) and therefore less happiness.
But if my little family found that we were happier without, for example, the TV, that we had rid ourselves of one obstacle to thriving family and community relationships, then maybe an emphasis on economic growth and getting more is not synonymous with happiness anymore (though I agree that it was 100 years ago in the US and still is in many parts of the developing world).
In fact, over the course of our No Impact year, we spent about half of the money we spent the previous year (negative growth). Yet, we spent more time with friends, spent a lot more time with our little girl, ate much more healthily by avoiding packaged and far-away foods, and got a lot more exercise and time outdoors riding our bikes. We were happier.
This is a long way from asceticism, assuming that what you mean by asceticism is deprivation. Because I would argue that, in fact, our culture is already deprived.
Most of us work so hard that we don't get to spend enough time with the people we love, so we feel isolated. We don't really believe in our work, so we feel prostituted. The boss has no need of our most creative talents, so we feel unfulfilled. We have too little connection with something bigger, so we have no sense of meaning.
To top it all off, not only are so many of us discovering that we've been working our years away to maintain a way of life that we don't really like, but we are waking up to the fact—hopefully—that this same way of life is killing our habitat—the same one we need if we are to thrive.
So while I agree with you that we need to find technological solutions in order to make consumption less harmful to human health, security and happiness, I disagree that we should be working only to find systems that can maintain the social status quo. I think we could do better. I think we can innovate not just technologically but socially to save energy. I think that we can work towards a society where people don't lust after the consolation prizes because they don't need to be consoled.
Much of what brings people together is also better for the environment. Doing things one at a time, as isolated people, is energy inefficient. Living together, traveling together, being entertained together, on the other hand, is more efficient and makes us happier.
Let's build villages instead of suburbs. Places where you can walk to the store or the post office and stop at your neighbor's for a chat along the way. That would mean less driving for the environment, more community for the people, and more exercise for the tummies! Meanwhile, as an example, studies show that the unhappiest of commuters are drivers while the happiest are bikers. Let's make it safe to bike--a virtually free innovation--and build excellent public transportation systems where people can talk to each other instead of honk at each other.
Let's also work less and make our work more meaningful. Because of the throw-away-product based economy, so much of what we make is designed to be trashed within months. We have to make things and buy things over and over again unnecessarily. Yes, recyclable materials would be great but what about durable products?
Not only would that help the eco-systems but think of the labor it would save. What if we turned that same labor to doing something more meaningful? What if we turned that same labor to figuring out how to provide water access to the billion that don't have it? That's called improving human happiness while saving the environment.
You've said that reducing our carbon footprint isn't enough to do the trick, and I agree that--alone--it is not. You've suggested that reducing our carbon footprint veers towards deprivation, but I believe that that reducing resource use, if it includes system change, can actually increase abundance--if what you mean by abundance is human happiness as opposed to economic growth. Therefore, it should be part of the equation.
As for people always choosing greater material wealth, I don't believe you (unless you juxtapose it with poverty). Take your own example. With your incredible smarts, you could work for anyone doing anything. You could make a lot more money working on the other side for Exxon. You don't. Why? Because once we reach a certain level of comfort, we want meaning. You write about this yourself. What's necessary is to provide a social structure where meaning is actually achievable.
What you say about breaking the link between energy use and emissions is absolutely true. It is also absolutely true that there will be and should be increasing energy use in the developing world. The wealth in standard of living must and should be spread. But here in the United States there is just so much waste that doesn't make us happier and often makes us less so. So while we need huge investment in renewable energy solutions, we should also be looking to cut the waste here in the United States (and the rest of the developed world).
So look, it's not really that I disagree with you at all. I first contacted you because I agree with so much of what you say. And I think it takes all kinds. What I'm adding to the agenda is that, here in the developed world, we can actually tighten our belts and end up less deprived, because some of the systems we've developed, that suck up so much energy, don't make us happier. And part of the way I came to this conclusion was by trying to live within these systems without sucking up as much energy, in other words, by living as No Impact Man.
Image courtesy of NASA, and it's worth clicking through to see it full size.