Dreaming a life
A few months ago, I had an email exchange with Bill McKibben about the commonly perceived but, we both agreed, false distinction between lifestyle changes and political acts. Those of you who have read _Depletion and Abundance_ know that I spend a good bit of time on just this subject - on the idea that our ordinary daily activities are not political acts, or that we can resolve our problems in a way that isn’t whole, that doesn’t include our personal way of life *along* with our political and community activism. Bill expressed it rather more concisely (I quote with his permission), saying, “I find the split between working on politics/working on lifestyles to be frustrating as hell. the lifestyle-centric can’t do math, and the political-centric don’t understand how culture works.”
The reference to not being able to do math was an articulation of the fact that we don’t have time to change the world “one lifestyle at a time.” And that’s completely true. But also isn’t necessary - lifestyles, if nothing else in the world, are never changed one at a time, past a certain critical mass. Instead, they are changed en masse, as people’s dream of what constitutes a good life changes. And this is the central point that those who disdain lifestyle alterations (and by life changes I do not mean “oh, wow, last month I started using a cloth bag and next month I’m going to change my lightbulbs” - there’s a case to be made for taking baby steps, particularly at first, but the reality is that babies walk, and then run - a few baby steps are enough to get you moving.) miss - is that much of what we do is based upon our dreams of what kind of life our actions move us towards.
And this is something that worries me about our present course of climate activism - as we move towards Copenhagen, I’m thrilled to see a rising tide of activism and commitment among those who understand the urgency of our climate situation. I’m obviously far less thrilled to see the retreat of governments from serious commitments - Chinese officials recently claimed that trying to keep warming under 2 degrees was not “realistic” - never mind that China itself will suffer enormously if we cross that tipping point. And only last night, news came out that the Danish Prime Minister may be backing out of a climate treaty.
Why, when there is so much new attention to climate change, so much scientific consensus and so much activism, are governments so reluctant to act. It isn’t because of lack of knowledge of the long term consequences. My own take is this - that it is simply because they recognize what many climate activists have not - that their own people may agitate for climate change action now, but they do not fully grasp what it will entail - a change in way of life. There are plenty of other reasons - business interests and political realities, but the truth is that we will continue merrily on our way to disaster if the world’s politicians believe that the people don’t want them to act - not really. And it does not take a great deal of critical thought to realize that the average person, at this stage, would like, all things being equal, for politicians to take care of climate change, along with all the other of the world’s problems, without inconveniencing them, but are far less clear on what inconveniences they might be willing to tolerate.
The reason that people don’t grasp what addressing climate change will entail is in large part the fault of climate activists themselves who have been afraid to utter the words “sacrifice” and “radical change” - instead, they cite studies that say that we’ll be richer if we just convert to renewable energies - never mind that those studies are almost always done on much lower emissions targets and over longer time frames than the science supports. They cite studies that suggest small changes, or that ignore other, equally pressing crises like global dimming and energy depletion; or that leave out the methane that is already leaking out into the atmosphere. They might talk about 350 targets, but they don’t use research that takes those numbers into account - or they still talk about the politically motivated 450ppm.
Even climate activists who mostly get it, often do not get their attention drawn to the incongruities between their way of life and their actions. Coal, for example, is one of the world’s most pressing climate issues, and much activism centers on shutting down coal plants - a truly good and noble idea. But at demonstrations and such that I’ve attended, I find myself asking people what they believe is going to replace the electricity powered by coal. They generally mention solar plantations or vast wind farms - assuming, comfortably, that something will. But there’s plenty of research pointing out that we can’t replace the near-half of our electricity produced by coal with renewables rapidly - that means closing coal plants will mean higher electric prices and must lead to vastly lower usage.
Were it not for the stakes of the issue, I couldn’t blame climate activists for not pointing out “you do realize that as you are trying to close down this coal plant, this means really you should be giving up your a/c” much less the high costs and lifestyle changes that are the logical outcome of truly dealing with climate change on the scale to which it needs to be addressed. For a long time, before we realized that climate sensitivity was much greater than expected, before we realized that the time window for action was growing much shorter, it seemed just possible to imagine that addressing climate change could be done without radical lifestyle shifts, or at least, that we could work up to them gradually. Once it became obvious that this was completely false, the urgency of the work of addressing climate change rose, and the need for a political consensus to match the scientific one became more acute - and it was more terrifying to imagine trying to get that consensus through a language of self-sacrifice and radical changes than by selling the idea that we can fix the climate and still stay rich and comfy.
But it is hurting us now. Because it is not possible to honestly tell people that they can have much the same life they wanted. In George Monbiot’s superb _Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning_ he argues “By ‘feasibility’ I mean compatibility with industrial civilization…whether or not we enjoy the soft life…it is politically necessary to discover the means of sustaining it.” Monbiot makes a very nearly credible case for a means to stabilize the climate and simultaneously maintain a near-normal life. It involves virtually no air travel, a completely different shopping model, a lot of money invested very quickly and a lot less concrete, electricity and heat. That he leaves out agriculture, responsible in some way for nearly a third of all climate gasses is the book’s big weakness, and why I do not think he quite succeeded. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter - because the climate target that Monbiot used, while cutting edge for 2006, has now been superceded. If he could just-barely-but-not-quite pull off a maintenence of modernity with a 450ppm carbon target, what are the chances of doing it with 350? None at all, I fear.
And other analyses are equally problematic. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that radical lifestyle changes are coming, whether we like them or not - whether they come from adapting to a deeply damaged climate or from addressing the crisis, whether they come from adapting to depletion or from enduring it, our lifestyle will not be the same for very long. And the danger of telling people that they can have all the things they want - a future for their children and an affluent present now - is that when they realize (and they are realizing right now) that this is not true, that there’s not enough money, or time or alternative energy to provide it, people will be very, very angry indeed. It is not pleasant to tell people hard truths. It is less pleasant to deal with people facing hard truths who believe they have been lied to. I believe we are seeing the early stages of the political unrest that will accompany this sense of being lied to, of having lost more than is being accounted for on both the left or the right, and I also believe quite strongly that unless a true and comprehensible story is offered, false ones will be taken up, and used as bludgeons.
The breaking of false idols is good, honest work. But in the wake of iconoclasm, there must be a truth to set in the place of the shattered idols. Telling the truth itself is not enough - nor is portraying the disaster we face and leaving people to imagine the alternatives themselves.
Even if it were possible for this to happen organically in some places, we cannot forget that at every moment of our lives, each of us is being bombarded with dreams that we did not manufacture, and that these collective, advertised dreams of what constitutes a decent life are going to be more powerful for most people than autonomously created private narratives of goodness. All of us live in the world, and most of us want others to approve of us. Moreover, quite honestly, most of us aren’t all that creative in our dreaming - we imagine ourselves as unique because we choose among a large range of commercial options - we can decorate our kitchen with baby ducks, pigs or flower; can choose between coke or pepsi, can decorate our bodies within a range of a dozen or so arbitrated “personal styles.” Given the sheer number of commercial choices, it is perhaps no wonder that we imagine that this is sufficient to constitute an identity and a dream. Nor is it any wonder that ecological programming on television seems poised to offer us the purchasable green lifestyle as one of these alternatives - you too can have an e-bike, a set of solar panels and an eco-mattress.
But this, of course, is the commercial version of this dream, and people buy it - a lot of them literally buy it, and more accept that this is what constitutes a viable future - lower toxicity, recyclable cell phones for everyone, your personal hybrid vehicle in your choice of designer colors, mascara that doesn’t give you cancer and organic cotton undies. But no real changes, no alteration in our basic consumer patterns. Never mind the fact that there will never be a society in which everyone can have mascara, much less a personal hybrid. Never mind that even the rich having them is a disaster - if all the world but North America and Australia were simply to vanish tomorrow, we’d still cross the 2 degree mark eventually without substantial lifestyle changes. The math is really clear - there’s not enough climate leeway, not enough water, not enough food, not enough money, not enough oil, not enough gas, not enough dirt, not enough phosphorous, not enough rainforest…. not enough left in the world to avert disaster if we have rich people, who see themselves primarily as consumers in a consuming world, and who live as we do now.
Which means we need an American (and European and Australian and Japanese…) dream that can work - and we need it fast. Because the reality is that we are increasingly close to having to confront our crisis. For all that people are heated up by issues of justice and politics, what people really, deeply care about is the future of their own lives, their own children, their ordinary hopes and dreams. You simply cannot live a life on “this will prevent your grandchildren from starving someday” - that’s important, it is part of the story, and it works for a short, concentrated period. But everyday life depends on a dream, on a set of hopes and imagined futures that are “a decent life, a happy future.” And as long as people in the rich world have no way to imagine a happy life and decent future without wealth, without constant striving and consuming, without more and more and more, in the end, the politics of this is bound to failure.
All of us need beauty in our lives, all of us need to believe that we are working for something that matters. For the last many decades, what mattered was consumption, the achievement of greater wealth. For the last of many decades we have sought, as people always have, to give our children better than we ourselves had. The problem, of course, has been figuring out what “better” means in a world where the average household has two cars, four tvs and a wardrobe sufficient to keep them dressed for the rest of their lives. It can’t mean three cars and six tvs, right?
It is a counter-intuitive, and thus difficult thought, that after a certain critical mass of affluence, better comes from less, not more. A better future for our children comes not from greater affluence, but less, and the preservation of resources for the future. A better life for us in the present involves fewer hours of work, and thus, more freedom - and fewer possessions and less affluence.
In order for a majority of the world’s rich people (and here I mean rich by world standards) to choose less, to actually recognize that giving their children better means choosing a life of less, there has to be a vision of what the life constitutes - and it has to be immediately accessible. It cannot require vast creative energies, because honestly, most people don’t have them. It cannot require that everyone go against the grain, because, quite honestly, most of us go with the grain. It cannot require that we build an imagine entirely internally - you have to be able to go look at it.
It isn’t as shiny as political activism, and it is harder, of course, because there’s not much money in selling non-consumerism, radical simplicity and not buying stuff. It isn’t going to show up on HD-TV anytime soon, except, perhaps as a comedy show. And yet it is essential - the beauty and accessibility of an ordinary life, without the trappings of industrial consumerism has to be modeled, it has to be offered up, and it has to be available. It has to be because otherwise, we can never say to people “shut down the coal plants” without them noticing that they’ve been betrayed into iconoclasm without any truth to take the place of the false idols. But with a dream - with a sense of the beauty of simplicity, with a dream of an ordinary human life that is both good and humane and uses vastly fewer resources, you can say to people “we must shut down the coal plants” and the answer comes back “we weren’t using them anyway.”
Note: Of course, this essay is deeply derivative, I’m hardly the first person to think of this. The always-thoughtful Risa has a post up at her blog showing just how derivative, and it is well worth a read - Plato doesn’t guest-post everywhere, so don’t miss this one: http://risashome.blogspot.com/2009/09/unlimited-accumulation-of-wealth.h...
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.