The kind of lifestyle that would save us from climate change disaster might not be too hard to picture. I picture drastically reduced car usage and drastically increased mass transit options, heavy dependence on local food, gardens in most backyards, solar panels on roofs (for electricity, hot water, and heating), forests of wind turbines, a huge push for energy efficiency and conservation, completely revamped industrial processes, a change in entertainment from electronic and passive to social and engaged, and more than any of that, embracing a much less luxurious–but incontrovertibly happier–lifestyle.
To life so that we’re really fighting climate change, I believe we have to give up a lot of the assumptions and expectations we currently have, but that the things we’re giving up are the kinds of things that research seems to show are not nearly as important to us as they seem. Our culture is heavily focused on electronic entertainment, on heavy use of travel, and on consumption, consumption, consumption. None of that really makes us happy. Sure, it might provide some temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t address any of the basic human needs that contribute to happiness. (If you’re interested, take a look at my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”)
So far, so good: living that kind of lifestyle doesn’t worry me at all if it’s according to that mental picture, everyone changing the way they live together, understanding and responsibility spreading throughout the culture.
That would be the easy way to deal with the problem–“easy” in terms of the toll it would take on us individually, not in terms of the cost or amount of effort involved, which of course would be huge, though manageable if we were all to pitch in together. In truth, though, I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to take the easy way. People are used to living the lifestyles they have now, and people who have the most privileged lifestyle–and therefore who have the most impact–have the least motivation to wake up and smell the catastrophe.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
― Margaret Mead
So if it’s not going to be the easy way, what are the hard ways? I believe there are three of them.
Choice number one is nobody doing anything until it’s much too late. Many of us die; the rest of us are subjected, almost every one, to lifelong suffering as we scrabble to feed ourselves, maintain homes that won’t be destroyed by weather, fight off disease of spreading pest populations, and make our peace with all of the suffering and death we see in the lives of our loved ones.
Choice number two is a little better, though not much: choice number two is our culture waking up to the problem when it’s late, but not too late. In this situation, the poorest and least powerful people will have to give things up first, and the most privileged people will give things up last. We’ll be dragged, kicking and screaming, into some half-baked semblance of sustainability. It might be enough to save us, though not to shield us from all of the trouble we will have bought already. Food will be scarce, energy will be too expensive to afford, and infrastructure will breaks down in many places where nobody’s able to pay to keep it working. Dark Ages, here we come.
Choice number three is still hard, but as you can probably guess from choices one and two, it’s my favorite of the “hard ways.” In choice number three, some of us push very hard now to model how a sustainable lifestyle looks. We figure out in our own lives how to live sustainably and throw ourselves energetically into doing so even though almost everybody else will just go on partying as usual. We would need to be able to look around us at people who are still driving SUVs and blasting the air conditioning with the window open and chowing down on McDonald’s and to continue living with care and consciousness even when nobody else is required to.
"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."
― Albert Einstein
It doesn’t really seem fair. After all, apart from a sense of satisfaction and maybe a certain amount of preparedness, living sustainably doesn’t benefit the people who do it any more than it benefits their unsustainable neighbors.
Yet the unfair way is the way to go. If it were easy, or fair, or obvious, everyone would already be doing it. It’s not easy, and it’s unfair, and most people will look at that sustainable lifestyle and dismiss us a eco-freaks.
Here’s what I’ve been asking myself: How do we think about that in a way that drives us forward rather than holds us back? How do we think about what we’re creating instead of what we’re giving up?
"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
― Barack Obama
(We can debate whether or not Mr. Obama has embraced this point of view himself yet, but either way, that statement is on the money.)
I think I have an answer for that, for how we can look at all of this work and begin to feel all “Bring it on!” about it. I’ll post about that soon. In the mean time … your thoughts?
Photo by Wonderlane