“Mitigation of the present ruinous situation, the recycling of materials, the diminishment of consumption, the healing of damaged ecosystems—all this will be in vain if we do these things to make the present industrial systems acceptable. They must all be done, but in order to build a new order of things.”
In my mind what must undergird any energy transition is the building of a new way of being that is made possible by a much lower-consumption world coupled with living more communally. Focusing on the diminishment of consumption is not merely to do the right thing as individuals with a goal of reducing harm, though that is of course good. The main reason to radically lower every facet of consumption, including the miles between people and their food sources, however, is in Michael Dowd’s words to “ecologicalize” ourselves. Without recognizing our utter dependence on the plants, animals, rocks, water, and air around us, and cultivating practices that reciprocate with these sources of our well-being, we will not be capable of creating the needed “new order of things.”
Although Milton Friedman and I would differ on many subjects, a second main reason to pursue dramatic downsizing could be illustrated by paraphrasing one of his better known quotes: crisis is the only time when real change is possible; what gets built back depends on what ideas are lying around. I want to increase the chances that the ideas of radical simplicity and renewed capacity for communal living are lying around, as ready to go as possible.
Most people who live in this part of North America have a huge challenge ahead in that we’ve been educated and acculturated to hold certain anthropocentric beliefs that run counter to the kind of thinking and living necessary to protect the already fragile ecosystems from slowly failing around us. In my mind, the only way to have confidence that our education, policy proposals, and nonviolent direct actions are pushing for the right goals is if we ourselves have fundamentally changed how we interact with Earth, her countless other equally valuable inhabitants, the natural cycling of materials, and the rhythms of seasons and stars.
A change to a lower energy world will have a wide range of implications. I used to teach students to use the least dense amount of energy possible to complete tasks. Why use an elevator requiring the density of fossil fuels when the energy density of their sandwich for lunch is adequate to move their weight up the stairs? They could question leaf blowers, or driving when the destination is walkable. Any “ease” is likely paid for somewhere else in pollution or exploitation. It’s also a priority to recognize where disaster could occur – any system that needs dense energy to be safe, such as nuclear waste storage (by definition thousands to millions of years of attentiveness) must be avoided.
The artificial world of excess created by this short period of abundant, cheap fossil fuels can’t continue. All of us who are food-and-housing secure can limit ourselves now. Thirty years ago would have been a better time to start. Having a much lower standard of living, and relying on our own and our neighbor’s resourcefulness and creativity are the only viable ways forward on a planet that already has eight billion inhabitants and more toxicity and environmental harm than we want to imagine. We definitely don’t need any more mining activity than we already have, which much of the renewable energy transition would require.
In earlier writings I’ve advocated for modeling our energy consumption and waste generation on Cuba’s – both because it’s a country where I’ve spent a good bit of time and also because by many measures, when the electrical grid is functioning and its oil supply is uninterrupted, it sits at a point of global sustainability. (Estimates of equitable global ecological footprints are approximately 2 hectares/person, and Cuba’s is 1.95 compared to 8 for the US.) Although the current challenges to daily Cuban life, including routine shortages of food, fuel, and water, make it more difficult to use as a model of making do with less, Cuba’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly in the areas of sustainable agriculture, support of the arts, and providing a universal social safety net, while complicated politically, brought attention to innovative, affordable possibilities for living in a post-fossil fuel era.
Here in the United States I have found this shift to lower energy, ecosystem-based decision-making to be slower and more challenging than I expected. I moved from an average environmentalist life (solar panels, compost pile, walk to work…) to a rural intentional community to grow my food using regenerative farming methods and make as much of what I needed from scratch as possible. I initially thought that just by being outside much of the day, doing physical work, and no longer being immersed in the “regular” world that I would be changed, that I’d be able to move outside the way of thinking I’d been immersed in the first fifty-some years of my life.
Evidently it takes more than good intentions and new routines to implement a new way of being. The “tentacles” of the current economic system are everywhere in invitations to more comfort, entertainment, and travel. Taking specific actions that limit energy use, waste, and new things requires a lot of discipline. But self-restraint builds a kind of empowerment as well as a solidarity with the natural world. Not meeting my “wants” for a while opens up a clearer way of seeing and discerning. I’m also finding that the lower my consumption gets, the more capable I become of seeing new ways to go lower still, which surprisingly has increased my sense of satisfaction and hasn’t caused a feeling of deprivation.
Just using the rough guide of ecological footprints mentioned above, the average resident of the US would need to cut consumption by 75%. That drastic cut is more or less confirmed by other studies (including Brian Milani’s estimate of 90% reduction), and is becoming more vitally important as the environmental cost of renewables becomes more clear. Establishing our current levels of energy usage as our goal for renewable production in the transition from fossil fuels would be disastrous.
The other main area I want to emphasize—recognizing and cultivating our interdependence with each other—will require enormous work for most people in the United States. Being self-sufficient has been held as the pinnacle of financial achievement; not needing to depend on others has been a sign of competence and success. But the cost of this individualist thinking has been very high. It certainly has contributed to our inability to feel as our own pain the pain of the plunder of places and people in our current system. So I’m working on how I can approach that goal as well, hand in hand with striving to live like there is only one planet.
All forms of effort to move the world toward an ecosystem-centered way of being, toward using nature’s ecological design principles instead of profit and growth economics, will help. My decision to focus on personal change is not because I think that a few, or thousands, of global North individuals lowering their standards of living will affect the global carbon budget or levels of biodiversity in a measurable way, though it would. Rather, I’m persuaded that radically lowering the amount I take from the Earth and from those on whose labor my ease depends, will change me. I will be shifted away from my human-centeredness, and my civilizational inheritance of separation from the Earth and her inhabitants and the cosmos.
And I suspect from my experiences in global South settings, that a side effect will also be more belonging, more creativity, and more joy. Not to mention being able to look the children of the future in the eye and say that recognizing their plight made me want to respond in proportion to the unfolding catastrophes, not just develop strategies to shift the sources of energy used. I want to make these changes because they increase my sense of connection, not because I’m grasping frantically at solutions. I also want these changes to be “lying around,” fully in use before chaos and collapse become everyone’s reality. I believe that my choices, and yours, matter. Simply changing to renewables won’t save us. Recognizing a new, smaller sized place in the world might be the lifeline that could.
Photos by Laurie Cone
 Berry, Thomas. Selected Writing on the Earth Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 142-44.
 Dowd, Michael. Post-Doom Interview with Joanna Macy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h1wdh3yEc4&t=4s
 Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom (1962) Preface to 1982 edition, p. ix
 Milani, Brian. Designing the Green Economy: The Postindustrial Alternative to Corporate Globalization, p. xvi (2000)