In a 1970 poster for the first Earth Day and a cartoon the following year, Walt Kelly’s Pogo offered a hard truth about ecological crises: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That doesn’t mean there are no differences in individuals’ contribution to those crises. Landowners, not agricultural workers who harvest crops, bear responsibility for chemical contamination of the soil. A fast-food restaurant cashier who has to drive to work and the CEO of an oil company cashing in on hydrocarbons are not equally culpable.
But how much are landowners’ choices constrained by economic realities outside their control? If all the energy companies stopped producing fossil fuels in the coming decades, would consumers happily embrace a major down-powering and the accompanying lifestyle changes? Kelly’s statement may have lacked nuance, but so do many of the environmentalists’ platitudes that ignore the depth of change necessary in both economic institutions and people’s expectations.
We assess people’s choices and understand that those with a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and power are more of an enemy than the “us” who lack such status. Those judgments are necessary, but not sufficient to deal with the multiple cascading ecological crises we face. Whatever our individual contributions to an unsustainable society, collectively we have to embrace down-powering in a dramatically different world, like it or not.
We use “crises” deliberately, to focus not just on rapid climate disruption but soil erosion and degradation, chemical contamination, and a dramatic reduction in biodiversity. Climate change be the most compelling crisis, but all of these threats are a derivative of overshoot, of too many people consuming too much overall.
We know that consumption is wildly skewed. We can focus on the worst offenders in the top 1% or top 10%, and at times that can be an effective strategy for incremental change. We shouldn’t hesitate to go after people who own yachts.
But the larger problem is the routine expectations of people in the developed world more generally. Even if resources were equitably distributed, the ecosphere cannot sustain 8 billion people indefinitely at anything like the current level of aggregate consumption. Politicians of all stripes love to champion the middle class, but middle-class living is unsustainable. Eliminating disparities is the first step. What comes next?
It’s time to talk honestly about “fewer and less”: fewer people consuming less energy and materials.
No current political formation—right, center, or left—embraces that goal. The right generally ignores ecological realities; the center argues for minor tweaks to the current system; and the left imagines that deeper democracy and some version of socialism will lead us to the promised land. All of those folks are betting on technological miracles to maintain, or even expand, an affluent society. This technological fundamentalism may well be the most dangerous fundamentalism.
We are on the left side of the political fence, blunt in our criticism of capitalism, economic growth, and global disparities. But we recognize the danger of embracing the illusion that such things as renewable energy and electric vehicles will allow business as usual.
Developing more sources of renewable energy is important. Electrifying transportation is important. But far more crucial to a sustainable human presence is committing to a dramatic reduction in energy consumption and the number of vehicles on the road, part of that down-powering. Fewer and less, with a commitment to staying home.
Why is that simple statement unspeakable in contemporary politics? One reason is that people rarely want to give up material comforts to which they have become accustomed. Not all the comforts that fossil fuels provide are healthy for us, but they are comfortable.
The bigger impediment is that no one—including the two of us—has a plan for achieving those goals without considerable disruption to what so many of us have come to think of as “normal.” But our living arrangements today, in the scope of human history, are anything but normal.
We’re reminded of Lao Tzu’s endorsement of simple living arrangements that leave people so content they do not yearn to travel. Though they live close enough to hear the cocks crowing and the dogs barking in a nearby village, they never visit (Tao Te Ching, ch. 80).
Modern people likely would label that parochial, but the human future is almost certain to be more parochial that the cosmopolitan present that defines the lives of so many, and the aspirations of even more people.
Like it or not, the new normal is going to be more like the old normal. Whether we get there humanely is up to us. The first step is to tell the truth about us.
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Teaser photo credit: Statue of Lao Tzu. By Thanato – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4129186