28 September 2009

Saying hard things out loud

Sharon Astyk has written another great post about how our lifestyle is going to change, like it or not, and how it should change, if we are to avert environmental catastrophe. I strongly recommend that you stop reading this post and go over to Sharon's right now. We'll continue when you get back. Go. Now.

Welcome back. I think she absolutely nails it here. Other folks have nibbled around the edges of the idea that there is no possibility of successfully maintaining western lifestyles, but very few have said it so plainly. Sharon makes a very good case in her books and blog that in fact, a very satisfying and rich life can be lived while consuming dramatically less, but I would suggest that she is preaching to the choir. The more mainstream writers and thinkers on the environment are very careful to conclude with something optimistic (meaning that there is something that can be done to keep things the way they are) or else they don't get heard. Madeleine and I went to a lecture recently about packaging and the environment given by an industrial design professor and his last slide, entitled "reasons for hope" was decidedly unhopeful, but I overheard him telling someone before his talk that he was told to include something positive by the talk's organizer. When I asked him during the Q and A why no one will say out loud how consumption must and will radically change, he said that the "suicide slide" (you know that picture of environmental devastation, somewhere else) had gone out of favour lately.

I think where Sharon succeeds is that she presents a vision that is not suicide and is not air conditioning powered by wind. Given the inevitability of less material wealth in the future, and the happy coincidence that beyond a minimum level, increased wealth is not associated with increased happiness, we might do ourselves a favour by dreaming a life for ourselves and our children that does not involve striving for more and in fact involves considerable striving for less.

Striving for less, it turns out, is hard. You are going against your internal wiring, your education, your religion, your spouse and kids, and the daily bombardment of messages from your culture. It's difficult to prepare for a different future when energy is cheap, food is plentiful, and the weather is fine. But change is coming and it's very possible that individuals making changes in how they live now won't make any difference in that, but it can't hurt to have people around who are prepared and content and comfortable with less, rather than angry and disappointed that they can't have more. We're heading into uncharted territory and I welcome hearing voices that go beyond protecting the status quo at all costs and offer realistic, if difficult visions of the future. And that remind us that it is quite possible to act in a way that is consistent with a reasonable life now and for our grandkids.

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