Act: Inspiration

Against the Economic Grain: Addressing the Social Challenges of Sustainable Livelihoods

January 27, 2023

Living and working, having lifestyles and livelihoods that are truly regenerative and sustainable look nothing like how most of us currently live and work.

When we are told we need to cut fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 we not only need to completely reorganize our energy systems (deep decarbonization), we also need to completely reorganize our day-to-day lives. When thoughtful authors speak of the need for “the deep transformation” of our values and sense of connection to Earth, the need for transformative or “quantum” social change, what exactly are they getting at? What would that transformation look like on a day-to-day basis for the majority of us? And what is getting in the way?

I hear a lot of vague talk about the need for a shift in our spiritual orientation and economic goals in order to move forward more sustainably and grapple with the inevitable stressors fueled by the climate crisis. Some authors also refer to the greater levels of happiness we could experience living more simply. Gratefully these latter authors are coming close to describing the changes that the large majority of us need to make implied in the idea of living more simply. But notions of increased happiness and simplicity while helpful, are not sufficient to get us going, because they omit reference to practical strategies that are available to us and overlook significant sociocultural barriers in our way.

There are perhaps two main types of sociocultural barriers in the way of making the needed local level practical day-to-day changes. Easily seen are the hands-on practical barriers to living more simply and getting out from behind our desk jobs, such as the need to increase our know-how and ability to create regionally self-sufficient communities. These activities involve learning new do-it-ourselves skills such as food production and preservation, small animal husbandry, organic gardening, rainwater collection, solar energy and hot water strategies, in addition to learning community priority setting and decision-making procedures (Castil & Levine, 2005; Karen, et. al., 2014).

But because we derive our sense of identity and socioeconomic status from work embedded in a profit driven economy, transformative day-to-day self-sufficient activities, when they are applied in an urban or suburban setting, give rise to second set of intangible sociocultural barriers that involve taking significant social risks. Peter Lipman the former (founding) chair of Transition Network and Common Cause Foundation encourages us to take these social and cultural risks. But what exactly are the more difficult risks needed to move us in the right direction? It is important to identify intangible socioeconomic challenges in order to side-step them.

Let’s look at one example of a practical activity that the majority of us will need to adopt. Most of us who have a yard rarely take the trouble to transition our yard to growing and raising food. Food bearing yards are well, “messy,” maybe even smelly if we’re talking about raising sheep, rabbits or ducks, not too mention the work is time consuming. Urban and suburban farming activities introduce the need to acquire new knowledge and skills, some of which have a steep learning curve. So we end up continuing to depend on inflated privatized profit driven sources (i.e., grocery stores) for all of our food and other essentials and rely on earning a wage to purchase these essentials rather than doing it ourselves. Another example is the sociocultural barrier surrounding air travel. The greatest fossil fuel dependent luxury we have had since 1914 is the last that people want to give up. Those who have the means to travel by air continue to travel and often do so by air! Travel is seen as too valuable culturally and socially to give up by those who can afford it. As a result of having had access to national and international air travel many of our families and friends have become and continue to be spread far and wide across the globe. Circular causality means that flying has come to seem essential to maintaining important social connections, if not our God given right! Urban farming and air travel are just two examples of unrecognized economically embedded sociocultural values about time and beauty (in our yards) and privileged beliefs (about air travel) that get in our way.

To paraphrase something I heard Chris Hedges say, unidentified and unseen forces cannot be resisted effectively. An unidentified and therefore un-resisted force is embedded in these cultural values and beliefs about air travel and urban food production. Most of us understand now that we ‘swim’ in a Capitalistic global economic system, but we cannot see the way in which associated values are deeply embedded in our sense of selves, in our identities, and our status (read socioeconomic status or SES). It is necessary to appreciate that socioeconomic values and metrics that guide our decision making everyday form the basis of how we measure our own success and that of others. For instance, many of us think the idea of using a compost toilet is very extreme and repugnant, the idea of a bucket an even worse version of primitive living! We instead continue to rely on water consuming toilets that require massively expensive infrastructure with a huge eco-footprint. And yet sustainable (non-fossil fuel dependent) organic agriculture strategies depend on animal/human waste in some form. How do we transition to more sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles if we hold these kinds of “outdated” values and beliefs?

In addition, consider how occupation more than any other aspect of our lives defines our identity. It is the first thing that people ask one another, “What do you do?” Social status and associated identities are reflected in unseen mainstream economic metrics determined by income, education, and professional status. People like Tim Jackson helpfully discuss the barriers to change that materialism creates due to how we use it to signal who we are [identity] or how we feel about others [gifts]. Materialism, signaling who we are, is a reflection of our SES identities. We also use material metrics to judge and compare ourselves to others and these metrics underpin our self-esteem. We are conscious of what we want to reflect to others (i.e., what clothes we want to wear, the car we drive, the home and neighborhood we live in), but we rarely examine the meaning and impact of our identities, identities that are tightly braided in with livelihoods and the social status associated with our work. Rather than challenge our core occupation-based identities (our socioeconomic identities), it is frankly easier to talk vaguely about potential gains in our spiritual lives and happiness from a simpler localized less technological world than actually make the necessary changes to our work and lives on the ground (or ask others to do so). Most of our values, beliefs and assumptions regarding livelihoods need to be radically transformed in order to move into activities that are sustainable. If this transition is ever to occur, we must be able to visualize and share the details of these alternative occupations and embrace new social metrics to support those occupations.

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We can begin by imagining the transition into sustainable work lives and explore what it would mean for ourselves (our sense of selves) to fit into simpler sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles. For instance, not that long ago the small family farm was everywhere and valued, but in ‘modern times’ frugality, subsistence living and self-provisioning has been viewed as backward – hippy land! However, at this point leading a subsistence-based urban farming lifestyle seems “unrealistic” and socially out of the question for most of us. And we know internally and from research that here is literally a “glass floor,” beyond which those pursuing frugal simplicity, truly sustainable work and lifestyles suffer social backlash (Cherrier, 2012). The existence of this glass floor currently requires us to be prepared to go against the economic grain in order to deal with the likely challenge of some negative social repercussions. This identity shift is not just about embracing transformative activities on a day-to-day basis, but is also about a social transformation that occurs when we make these activities visible (for criticism) and viable to others for emulation.

In short, our identities are tied up in what we do for a living and how we do what we do for a living must radically change. Because, let’s be honest, living and working, having lifestyles and livelihoods that are truly regenerative and sustainable look nothing like how most of us currently live and work.

Take me for example, I love learning and science and resources. I have a couple of graduate degrees. I love my computer and the internet. I respect and admire educated people and authors. However, I cannot deny that my sense of self has been built in a culture that values these accomplishments greater than managing a small family farm. What would it mean for me to shit in a bucket, to harvest food in my yard, to swap goods with neighbors, and coordinate within my neighborhood such that I could avoid paying an ever-increasing profiteering price tag at the grocery store? What would it say about me to give up flying, buying new clothing, and other unessential items? Sustainability requires downshifting and downshifting requires seeing personal success and accomplishment in very different terms. It requires taking pride in having less, needing less, sharing more with others, repairing things, knowing how to grow things, raising small animals, and of course, composting human waste and reusing it.

I try to imagine myself making a move into a livelihood that would be fundamentally sustainable like the critical but overlooked work done by a young man I know who shuttles vegetable waste from homes in his neighborhood to a small composting center in his community by bicycle. He then sells and delivers by bike finished compost to neighbors with gardens. If I chose to move into this “career” my friends would think I had lost my mind. My friends might ridicule me. Certainly, they would worry about me! And worse, some people, perhaps even including my spouse, might simply think they no longer had anything in common with me. It’s like giving up alcohol in an alcohol inundated world. You stand outside, you are not one of the group any longer. In reality, I would need to build an entirely new social network with different values and notions of success, a network that would respect my choices and understand their importance. Because living and working, having lifestyles and livelihoods that are truly regenerative and sustainable look nothing like how most of us live and work now. The cultural transition and change in our values and the metrics we use to measure our sense of success, therefore our identities, is hard to imagine, not too mention implement.

Nevertheless, I have interviewed people with very low carbon livelihoods and lifestyles, highly moral people who work and live outside of mainstream jobs and careers. And guess what? They did indeed initially have to suffer social backlash from family and friends for their lifestyle and work choices. In fact, Nick, a young university educated man who has developed a permaculture-based community was taunted and made fun of when friends remarked “Are you still shitting in a bucket”! His decision to develop a permaculture-based community provoked a set of nasty recriminations by others who needed to justify their personal plans for the future as a means of preserving their self-esteem and social status identities. Nick had to deal with how mean people can be to defend their own choices when you chose to dramatically downsize and move out of the economic mainstream. Breaking through the glass floor indirectly implies a critique of another’s life choices, just like choosing not to drink alcohol can make others uncomfortable around you, or even offend them. Downsizing or downshifting can and does turn the “North American Dream” on its head. It breaks the unconscious economic rules, the cultural rules that are reinforced and maintained by our internal recriminations (“the cops in our head”) and external social push back. Social backlash is what happens on the ground due to “cultural values and meanings” that are built into and reinforced by our capitalist economic system. It’s that “unidentified and unresisted” backlash that I believe is holding many of us back from making more radical livelihood and lifestyle changes.

The difference between people like Nick and the rest of us is they have persevered, kept their eye on their goal of doing no (or minimal harm) to nature/Earth systems both in their work lives and at home. They have learned new metrics for evaluating themselves and their accomplishments. They have created supportive social networks. And maybe most importantly, they have not been able to rationalize their way out of making these changes and adhering to them. Having developed new social metrics has allowed them to be able to handle the truth and respond individually and collectively.

Stabilizing the Earth System requires many things. At the policy level it requires developing a net zero economy, nationalizing the fossil fuel industry, and a WWII style mobilization in order to decarbonize all of our domestic and commercial activities in a just and proactive fashion. But perhaps foremost, on an individual basis – it requires a fundamental change in our occupations, our identities, our sense of selves and the values and beliefs that sustain the work we engage in. Even with the ideal policies, funding, and defunding in place – we will need to drastically reduce the toll of our livelihoods and lifestyles.

I believe that more of us can “shift our values, our identities, and career/job goals” once we understand that people may look askance at us. With that anticipation, we become self-conscious about our identities and shielded in large part from any negative sociocultural backlash we might encounter. Let’s become trendsetters for the change instead of blindly following the socioeconomic rules and values about status, financial security and income that are leading us off a cliff. And think about it, we can begin to jump off the merry-go-round of debt and ‘working for the man’ and leave that all behind. Practically speaking, we can actually become more fundamentally prepared for the future, imbedded in community, able to provision for ourselves, and OK, happier. In this process, we greatly reduce our eco-footprints and provide role models for others around us. Role models are how trends become what everyone does.

Finally, honesty about what is required is often avoided and recommendations for guides and resources omitted. For those brave and morally courageous enough to begin the effort of downsizing your livelihoods and lifestyles regardless of the interim social backlash you might encounter, I offer the following summary of what is needed to save the planet and ourselves (along with a few guides and references)… Drum roll…

  • No air travel – little travel at all, unless by bike or train
  • sharing our homes
  • growing food around our homes and apartment buildings in all nooks and crannies
  • raising neighborhood-based chickens, goats, and other small animals for food and manure
  • collecting water near our buildings, reusing grey water
  • using composting toilets (shitting in a bucket)
  • trench composting strategies among many other earth building strategies
  • heating water with the sun
  • heating and cooling homes passively
  • rationing meat
  • rationing fuel
  • rationing many goods and services

to name just a few necessary actions. The only way to make these changes more palatable is to share the challenge with others who share your values and who have learned how to take pride in these accomplishments that reside outside the economic mainstream.

Almost every current job I can imagine at the moment requires fossil fuels – we can change that requirement at a personal level with a little help from our friends! If you have access to a yard, a boulevard, or a community garden, find those friends and get to work! Figure out how to make a different kind of living by doing something you love. I highly recommend that we get over “our former selves,” do what really makes a difference, and take pride in doing it well. Get serious about downsizing and be willing to accept some backlash as a necessary part of moving in this vital direction.

Annotated Practical References

Castil, J. and Levine, P. (eds.) (2005). The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Karen, S., Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S. And Berger, D. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Third Edition. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Hemenway, T. (2015). The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.

– Permaculture design with an urban twist, design and techniques for urban and community gardens, urban water and energy strategies, with chapters on livelihoods and becoming valuable, and other tools for resilient cities.

Holmgren, D. (2018). RetroSuburbia: A Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future, Mellidora Publishing, Victoria, Australia.

– For any one interested in going against the economic grain in order to live more sustainably – This is best reference I have found to date for moving in this direction. In this book, you will find help identifying the work/jobs that will be needed, specific advice about hands-on strategies for pursuing the skills ( and new identities) that create and support more sustainable communities, and steps for gradually transitioning to some form of “self-employment”. Training is also provided for those who want to help others do the same.

Morrow, R. (2022). Earth Restorer’s Guide to Permaculture, Third Edition. Melliodora Publishing, Victoria, Australia.

– This book is more of a classical approach to the permaculture design process with an emphasis on regenerating biodiversity, working with patterns of interconnectedness through the flow of materials, energy, food and water networking, the work of small local farmers, suburban and urban communities. It also includes a chapter on incomes and livelihoods (“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”)

References on socioeconomic identities, downsizing, and community decision making:

Becker, G.S. (1974). A theory of social interactions. Journal of Political Economics 82(6): 1063-1093.

Breakwell, G.M. (1986). Coping with Threatened Identities, Methuen & Co., London, UK.

Cherrier, H., Szuba, M. & Ozcaglar-Toulouse, N. (2012). Barriers to downward carbon emission: Exploring sustainable consumption in the face of the glass floor, Journal of Marketing Management, 28(3-4), 397-419.

Durlauf, S.N. and Young, H.P. (2001). The new social economics, in Social Dynamics, ch.1, pp. 1-14, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kendall, K.E. (2019). Against the economic grain: moral exemplars build visibility and model the viability of low-carbon livelihoods. (


Teaser photo credit: By Claire Gregory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kim Kendall

Kim Kendall is a retired Clinical Psychologist and Political Ecologist with a specialty in social barriers to adoption of sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods.

Tags: building resilient societies, powering down, social identities