06 November 2008

It's not easy being green

I've written before on some ideas from the book Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel. In it, he prescribes a solution to the problem that we're using up considerably more of the world's resources than is sustainable. There are two main issues: first, there are too many people in the world, and second, some of those people are using way more than their share. He gives the example of billions of people in line at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where everything is pretty much picked over by the time the first billion have gone through. His solution is a radical downscaling in consumption (for the developed world) and population. Lest we get smug about those poor people and their large families, he reminds us that reducing population in the developed world would have a greater impact on overall consumption than reducing population in the developing world because of our much larger footprint.

What exactly are we talking about? Well, according to Jim, the planet can support about one billion people consuming about a quarter of what the average North American consumes today. Since no one is advocating any kind of mass die off, the only sensible way to reduce population is to stop having so many kids. Mathematically, this is surprisingly easy: if everyone alive today limited themselves to one child or less, the world's population would be one billion in a hundred years. Practically – well, it ain't gonna happen. For arguments sake let's suppose we were on the path to a billion people, now, how could we consume a quarter of what we do now? Well, it's simple but it's not easy. We would simply own a quarter of what we own, use a quarter of the electricity, live in a one quarter size house, drive a quarter of the distance, eat a quarter of the food, do a quarter of the things, and generally live a much smaller life than we do now. A simpler way of visualizing all of this is to imagine living on $5000 a year, roughly a quarter of what the average North American lives on.

What would that look like? Well, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm not going to count income taxes or government or employer provided benefits which are deducted from a paycheck, even though they represent consumption, just because it's way too complicated. So let's assume we have $5000 cash money for each member of our 3 person family. We're up to $15000 for the year or $1250 per month. The good news is that we'll have no expenses associated with owning, maintaining or operating a car. The bad news is we'll have no car. Living car-free is possible, but we'll have to be careful about where we choose to live. It will have to be close to work, shopping, recreation and public transit, so we won't get to take advantage of cheaper rents in more rural areas. I think we could budget no more than $600 for rent. A quick check of the rentals available in our nearest urban area finds nothing other than single rooms in private homes available at that price but there are a couple of townhouses in the $1100 range, so we'll share a 3 bedroom townhouse with someone else. Sharing a home will allow us to share the electricity and heating costs as well: so total housing costs will be about $650 per month. That's shelter taken care of - on to food: I spend over $600 per month on groceries, but I am prone to buying luxury items like fresh vegetables and coffee. With our global justice budget, no more than $400 per month can be allocated to food. This includes groceries, restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages. If each of us takes the bus 5 trips a month, at $4 per round trip, our monthly transportation cost is $60. The remaining $140 per month can be spent anyway we choose on clothing, recreation, toilet paper, haircuts, laundry, music lessons, telephone, internet service, bank service charges, tenants insurance, library fines, dentists or charitable donations.

Well, this isn't so bad. We're warm, dry, safe and fed and still better off than 85% of the world's population. But living like this would be difficult and stressful. A bout of strep throat could force a decision about whether to buy medicine or groceries. This budget obviously has no room for debt repayment, higher education or much in the way of “stuff”. On the other hand, 2 adults working 2 days a week at $10 per hour could earn all the money required. So there could be plenty of time. Time that could be spent trading music lessons for haircuts, reading, tending a garden or visiting with friends.

Keep in mind that this “simple life” is only sustainable with one billion people on the planet. With close to a billion people already living like this or better, and the remaining 6 billion or so aspiring to, the ability of the planet to support us all is going to be severely tested. You see how overwhelmingly large this problem is. As long as the capitalist religion is being preached from every government, academic and corporate pulpit and people are urged to spend out of patriotism and procreate for the New Jerusalem we're just not going to make any progress. We're told that the American way of life is not negotiable. We're told we can reduce our global footprint by changing lightbulbs, not lifestyles. Don't believe it.


  1. Awesome piece Bev, I really enjoyed reading it. I agree that we need to do a lot more than change lightbulbs and pay carbon offsets. The big question is how. Apathy reigns supreme in our iWorld and although the light does shine brightly in some small spaces there is so much darkness remaining. I know the light is brighter now after the US election results and maybe there will be space for change.

    Deb G

  2. Deb G, formerly of Swythamley? Welcome to the Shack!

    I think regardless of who is leader of the free world, the coming economic sh*tstorm is going to force a lot of people into a lower consumption lifestyle, like it or not. But that's just my cheerful perspective.



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