Hair Shirts, Hypocrisy, and Wilkins Micawber

I’d like to go into a little more detail about the core theme of the last several posts, the proposal that using less – less energy from nonrenewable sources, that is, and less of everything made using energy from nonrenewable sources – needs to be central to any serious response to the predicament of our time. It’s both a more complicated and a more practical project than it may seem at first glance, and some of the comments I’ve fielded over the last week have pointed up some of the challenges involved in getting to work on it.

One of the problems with the project is that it sounds too much like the kind of fashionable faux-activism that was skewered a few years back in a wickedly funny song by the British singing group Fascinating Aida. I’m sure we’ve all met people who make quite a show of boycotting anything environmentally destructive on loudly proclaimed moral grounds, just so long as they can replace it without any actual change in their lifestyle or decrease in their comfort level. That’s not the sort of approach I have in mind, of course, but I’m also not suggesting that my readers put on a sustainably harvested hair shirt and retire to a Bat Conservation International-certified bat-safe cave in the mountains to offer up their sufferings in the hope of assuaging the wrath of Gaia.

America’s Puritan heritage being what it is, it’s not surprising that the idea of using less has at times been applied in both these unproductive ways, and rather more often been mistaken for them. Still, the point I tried to make in last week’s post is that under many circumstances, making yourself much less dependent on the resources provided by a failing system is far and away the most practical thing you can do. Those circumstances, I’d like to suggest, are very much in evidence right now.

Here’s an example. I field emails and comments a couple of times a week from people who are seriously troubled about the future. They see themselves as trapped in a system that’s already started to go to bits around them, and lacking the money and other resources that would be needed to make the preparations they’d have to make to weather the approaching crash. A good many of them are living in apartments with nowhere to garden and few options for energy retrofits, and they quite reasonably worry about what’s going to happen when access to energy becomes intermittent, food prices spike, and what now counts as a comfortable urban lifestyle begins the long downhill skid into the shantytown existence facing something like half of the American people within a few decades. They want to know what options I can suggest for them.

The core strategy for people in this position? Use much less, so that expenditures drop well below income, freeing up money to be used to get out of the current, unsustainable situation. Most Americans can cut their expenses by anything up to a third in short order by simply giving up the energy- and money-wasting habits of the consumer economy. That may involve moving to a smaller apartment with lower rent, fewer amenities, and a bus line close enough that you can get to work by public transit; it may involve not buying the new computer every two years, the plasma screen TV, and any number of other expensive toys many people think they have to have; it may involve learning to cook, eat, and enjoy rice and beans for dinner instead of picking up meals at the deli; it will likely involve plenty of other steps of the same kind. The payoff is that you get the extra money you need to learn the skills that will make sense in a deindustrial economy, and can save up a down payment for a fixer-upper house with good solar exposure, a backyard well suited for an organic garden, and a basement where you can get to work learning to brew good beer. For people in that position, using less now has nothing to do with hair shirts or hypocrisy; rather, it’s the entrance ticket to a better future.

More generally, it amazes me how many people seem to think they can downshift in a blink from a modern American lifestyle, with all its comforts and privileges, to the close-to-subsistence lifestyle most of us will be leading in the middle future. It’s reminiscent of those old-fashioned survivalists whose idea of being ready to feed themselves once the rubble stops bouncing is a nitrogen-packed tin of garden seeds, a random assortment of tools, and a manual on how to garden, which they read halfway through on a slow afternoon ten years ago. Those who adopted that approach have been very lucky that their doomsteads have never had to function as anything more serious than deer camps, because if they’d tried to feed themselves that way, death by starvation would have been the inevitable result. Growing food in an intensive organic garden is a skilled craft requiring several years of hard and careful work to master, and if you hope to rely on it for even a small part of your food, you need to get through the steep part of the learning curve as soon as possible.

The same thing is true of most of the other skills that are needed to live comfortably in hard times. If you don’t know how to do them, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and suffer a great deal more than you have to. The sooner you start that learning curve, the easier the curve will be, because you’ll still have the resources you need to pick up the pieces when your early efforts fall flat. If you wait until you have to live with less, you won’t have that cushion, and the potential downsides can be drastic. It’s entirely possible, for example, to live through summers south of the Mason-Dixon line without air conditioning; people did it for a very long time before air conditioners were first marketed in the boom times following the Second World War, after all. Still, it’s not simply a matter of gritting your teeth and sweating. It requires certain skills and, in most recently built houses, certain modifications to your home, and if the thermometer hits three digits when you haven’t yet installed the attic fan or figured out how to open a couple of windows at the right angle to catch the breeze and keep heat from building up, you could be risking heatstroke. Starting the learning curve now provides a margin of safety you’ll be glad to have.

Furthermore, most current talk about the impact of peak oil assumes that the end of the industrial age is a nice, cleanly marked point located conveniently off somewhere in the future, and that’s a potentially dangerous oversimplification just now. Those Americans who have run out of their 99 weeks of unemployment checks and become members of the new class of economic nonpersons, after all, have just been pushed out the exit doors of industrial society. For them, the end of the industrial age has arrived. That same eventuality could show up on any of our doorsteps with 99 weeks of warning, and quite possibly less. If that happens to you, will you be better prepared to meet it if you’ve been spending everything you earn and then some, in standard American middle class style, or if you’ve cut your expenses, cleared your debts, mastered the fine art of getting by with less, and learned the skills and bought the tools you’ll need for a backup profession or two? You tell me.

All this amounts to variations on a common theme, which is that the rules governing life in a stagnant or contracting economy are precisely the opposite of the rules governing life in an expanding one. In the growth economy of the recent past, it usually made sense to spend money freely and gamble that you could always get more, because the sheer fact of continued economic growth meant that more often than not, you were right. With the end of economic growth, the Micawber Principle – "annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness; annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery" – once again comes into force. Most Americans haven’t yet grasped this or any other implication of the end of economic growth. For all of that, most Americans wouldn’t recognize Wilkins Micawber if W.C Fields rose from his crypt to reprise his sole (and brilliant) serious dramatic role on screen. Still, ignorance is not bliss; the consequences of the former of these blind spots, at least, are likely to include a horse doctor’s dose of economic misery.

So much for the practicality of using less now. The complexity deserves a few words as well, though partly that’s a matter of finding the right way to talk about the subject. Choosing a term can have remarkable consequences. The wife of a good friend of mine pointed out the other day, for example, that part of what tripped up climate change activism was the choice of the phrase "global warming" as a label for the problem the activists hoped to address. To most people, "global" sounds positive and "warming" even more so; the resulting phrase simply didn’t have the threat value to inspire a mass movement. She suggested the alternative moniker of "radiation entrapment" – a good description of what excess CO2 does in the atmosphere, you’ll notice, but also a a pair of words that have unsettling negative connotations of their own. If a politician insisted that radiation entrapment wasn’t a danger to anybody, can you imagine anyone within earshot thinking anything other than, "He’s lying"? I certainly can’t.

I don’t have anything so elegant to offer. What comes to mind at this point, rather, is an acronym – LESS – that stands for "Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation." In outline, that’s the strategy I’d like to propose for those who want to weave the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in these posts into a broader way of life; just as it’s a lot easier to heat a house with solar power when you’ve already got to work with insulation and weatherstripping, so that the house doesn’t leak heat from every wall and corner, it’s a lot easier to live a life in an age of decline when you’ve made sure your life isn’t leaking energy and other resources from every available orifice. That’s what the LESS strategy is meant to do; think of it as a way of weatherstripping your life.

The last part of the acronym, "stimulation," may seem surprising to my readers, but it’s a crucial part of the recipe. For the last thirty years and more, Americans have been pushing their nervous systems into continual overload with various kinds of stimulation, and I’ve come to think that this is another symptom of the deeply troubled national conscience discussed in recent Archdruid Report posts. A mind that’s constantly flooded with noise from television, video games, or what have you, is a mind that never has the time or space to think its own thoughts, and in a nation that’s trying not to notice that it’s sold its own grandchildren down the river, that’s probably the point of the exercise. Be that as it may, recovering the ability to think one’s own thoughts, to clear one’s mind of media-driven chatter, manufactured imagery, and all the other thoughtstopping clutter we use to numb ourselves to the increasingly unwelcome realities of life in a failing civilization, is an indispensable tool for surviving the challenges ahead, and one that I’ll be talking about at more length in a future post.

"Stuff" may seem a little less puzzling, but getting out from under the tyranny of excess ownership may be every bit as challenging for many Americans as shaking off the habit of stimulating the mind into a state not far removed from coma. As far as I know, ours is the only civilization in history in which storing personal possessions that won’t fit even in today’s gargantuan McMansions has become the basis for a significant economic sector. It’s a critical issue to confront, though, because our passion for what I’ve elsewhere termed prosthetic technologies – machines, that is, that are designed to do things that human beings are perfectly able to do for themselves – has built up habits of dependence that could easily, and literally, prove to be fatal if they’re not broken before demand destruction puts the machines and the power needed to run them out of reach. In an expanding civilization, your success is marked by what you have; in a declining one, your chances of survival may well be measured by what you can readily do without. That’s another point I’ll be expanding on in a later post.

"Energy," finally, may be the most obvious factor in the equation, but some of its aspects are far from obvious to most Americans today. A very large fraction of the energy that props up the American lifestyle, for example, gets used to manufacture, package, ship, retail, power, maintain, and dispose of the heap of consumer goods that people in this country commonly mistake for having a life. Another very large fraction, as just suggested, goes into technologies meant to keep human bodies and minds from doing things they’re perfectly able to do, and as often as not become unhealthy if they’re not allowed to do. For every watt-hour that can be saved by direct methods of the sort I’ve discussed in this blog already, there’s more than one – very often, many more than one – that can be saved by indirect methods such as buying used goods from local sources rather than new items from chain stores with intercontinental supply chains. That, too, is a point I’ll be developing in a post later on.

Still, the basic concept should be easy enough to grasp. The habit of living beyond our means is as much an individual problem as a collective one, and it’s a significant factor keeping many people stuck in a set of lifestyles that are as unsatisfactory as they are unsustainable. Freeing up the money, the time, and the resources to make the shift to a more sustainable way of life needs to be high on the agenda of anyone who’s seriously planning to deal with the cascading crises of the decades ahead of us, and using LESS may be the single most important and accessible tool for doing so.


On a different note, I’m delighted to announce that my third and latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as though Survival Mattered, is hot off the press and available for purchase. Those of my readers who remember the series of posts a couple of years back on ecological economics (and why you can get better economic advice these days from a randomly chosen fortune cookie than from a professional economist) will find the themes from those posts explored at greater depth; those of my readers who are new to the journey we’re making together on this blog may find it useful, or at least interesting, to check out some of the basic concepts underlying the Green Wizardry project.