Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why I have yet to choose voluntary simplicity, some thoughts on consumption in a depleted world

So I've been very, very slowly reading Sharon Astyk's book, Depletion and Abundance, and she talks quite a bit about the Riot for Austerity. It's a brilliant idea she and a friend had for trying to reduce the total emissions for their households by 90%, the staggering estimated necessary reduction in total greenhouse gasses to make a dent in climate change. By and large she's been successful, hovering very close to the target for some time.
Here's the thing though: Sharon Astyk is an exceptional person willing to make great personal changes in her life to do what she thinks is right, up to and including completely altering every facet of her daily existence.
I have to say I admire her dedication immenselyy, but I'm not certain I'm willing to give up my prepackaged Trader Joes Indian food, or use a composting toilet, or farm every square inch of my yard.

Cool? Yes. An assload of work? Also yes.

I know that eventually many things I love will become either unavailable due to shortages or impractical due to rising petroleum prices (Internet, mangoes, car trips, etc) but I really enjoy many of those things, and if at some point soon I suspect/ know they will be taken from me, I plan to (not excessively) enjoy them while I still have them.
My house uses about the average for electricity, maybe a little above- but mostly because there are 5 people living in my home, including four adults. (we rent out the master bedroom to a couple) If I divided it into 2 households, which would be more accurate, or per capita (excluding the baby, of course) it looks pretty good.
Anyway, I enjoy the idea of living simply.
I would like to live a more streamlined, elegant, natural life- less TV, fewer lights, less heating and a/c, more misting bottles of cold water, afternoons gardening, and natural light. But I don't want to do these things because we will soon deplete our worlds natural resources.
I want to do these things because they sound nice.

 With nearly seven billion people on this planet, I see depletion as being absolutely inevitable.
We're like an algae bloom- a red tide. We've acquired the ability to extract and utilize massive natural resources, but as they dwindle, so too will we, but not willingly, I think- and probably not gently- algae don't say
"Oh, sorry, there doesn't seem to be enough for all of us anymore so I guess me and my family will just starve and let you chow down. Cheerio, mate!"

Are you gonna eat that?

My best friend (and great mind) Paris said to me, regarding someone who attempts to live a carbon neutral life:
"It's like a fart in a blizzard."
I laughed hysterically when she said this, only partially because of it's crass charm. More than anything, it's so deftly accurate that I think perhaps the saying was coined specifically for this occasion.
I understand the virtue of setting a good example, or consuming less because you feel morally obligated to pick up some of the slack of your energy-obese countrymen. I understand these things, and I see that using less is a good way to prepare for a future of using less, but if this is the last decade I'll ever be able to have my a/c, then by George I'm not going to feel guilty for enjoying a little artificial cooling in the brutal August afternoons.
We are, as a species, going to use up whatever energy and resources we can glom our claws into, and I'm not going to make a dent in that, no matter how much of my amenities I discard.
However, I'm not going to be a conscientious consumer, and I will try to use as little as I comfortably can simply because I aesthetically enjoy simplicity, I prefer organic food, I feel morally better about refurbishing instead of buying new, and the bus is convenient and cheap. There are tons of reasons I have for not going out and just being a resource black hole, but none of them is because we're running low.

Since I wholeheartedly believe that we are headed for a (possibly violent and brutal) collapse of industrialized civilization, and that said collapse is certainly coming within my lifetime, I don't see why the hell I should give up running water now, if I might be forced to do it eventually anyway.

Yes, please

Sharon Astyk argues convincingly that it's a great preparation technique, and that you buffer yourself for inevitable change by not depending on the things that are likely to become scarce, and I do see the merits of this approach, but at least for now I'm not willing to give up my Xbox.
Maybe I'll change my mind at some point soon, but for now. I'm just not willing to dedicate the time and energy to keeping chickens or using a wood stove (though they do sound kind of fun).

I would like to have, or to learn to use all of these things as back-ups, however. I've seriously considered building a simple brick oven in my backyard, learning to can and root cellar produce, etc.
I'm also beginning to try and garden as intensively as my small, shady yard permits, and have just invested in some wonderful blueberry bushes to occupy some of the choicest spots. I would like to make the transition as easy on myself and my family as I comfortably can, the key concept here being comfortably. If and when electricity becomes scarce, I will just have to make do without my fridge and stove. It will suck, truly, and be a really big pain in the ass, but I'll learn to cope.
We all will learn to cope.
We'll have to.

Preparedness is surely valuable- and asceticism is noble, indeed. Depending on as few external inputs as you can is admirable. If I lost my job in the conventional economy my family would likely be up shit creek. We'd be able to scrape by if we canceled netflix, Internet, our phones, and let the car get repoed- but boy, I sure don't want to let go of those things until I have to.
It seems to me that being aware of what's coming provides a huge level of preparedness in and of itself. I can take this time that we have left in this era of plenty to stock up on things like hand tools, re insulate my basement, and learn new skills at my leisure.
It's way too easy to get overwhelmed and stressed out about the future of our world, and may be good for those of us who are immersed in learning about this grim stuff to step back for a minute and take some of the pressure off.
I really admire the folks who do things like set up transition towns or exist on subsistence lifestyles. Maybe I'll get there someday too, but not yet.


  1. This all feels especially relevant to me right now, because I've recently made a lot of drastic changes in my life, including giving away half my stuff, moving into a studio apartment, and going car-free. I've been reading plenty of minimalism blogs lately and coming to a lot of the same conclusions as you. One is that there's lots of reasons to consume less, and people do so for different reasons. Certainly trying to preserve resources for everyone else is noble, but I think having a more personal reason, such as to get more fulfillment out of life, is more motivating in the long run. Another thing I've realized is that everyone has their own thing that they're not ready to give up, which is okay. I think cutting back is something that has to be done on one's own terms. My dad thinks I'm crazy to voluntarily live without a microwave or a dishwasher; I can do without those things, but no way am I ready to give up high speed internet.

    Anyway, I think it's awesome that you're thinking about these things. Enjoy your Xbox, don't feel bad about it, and change your life as it feels right to you.

  2. @carinalou
    Carina, you've really gotten the gist of what I'm saying and summed it up nicely here. It's not that I'm saying that excessive consumption is good; just that my reasons for wanting to live a more simple life are not because I think I can affect climate change or depletion through my actions. Living more simply is just nice.
    There are a number of things I'm not willing to give up, and many that I would love to drop but my significant other refuses to, or I already have and therefore may as well use (I grew up without a dishwasher and don't care if I have one or not, but there is one in my house now, and I will continue to use it until it breaks)- In any case, more than simplifying your life, I fell that *preparing to* simplify your life is maybe even more important.
    Ok, use the stove, but think about getting a woodstove and squirreling it away for the time when your electric stove will be no good, or learning to sew or repair things now, so that when it later becomes necessary to DIY, it won't be a problem. Whatever way you can prepare, that's in your best interest. But I don't see a benefit in depriving yourself of small amenities because the world is unfairly balanced in your favor. That simply won't help.

    I've been obsessed with climate change and resource depletion for some time, but it's reached critical mass recently in my head, and I simply have to blog now, or else I'm in danger of getting punched in the face by my family and friends who are sick to death of hearing me talk about nothing but. I'm glad you're interested, too.

    The decline of industrialized civilization is a big topic and has many, many facets, but it's all really fascinating. Catastrophic climate change, mass extinctions, paleoclimatology, climatology, peak oil, mineral depletion, coal and gas depletion, water availability, political instability, public debt, finances, the history of the American monetary system and the loss of the gold standard-
    All of these things are useful knowledge, and though overwhelming, are excellent preparation for the future. I'm obsessed- monomaniacal even- about these topics and what they bode for our future as a whole. I have to write a blog about what I learn or I'll explode!
    You should add me to your feeds, I'll be posting all kinds of interesting stuff about sustainability and simplifying our lives in a pleasant way. :D

  3. Esmeralda,

    A couple of other perspectives you might consider.

    1) Conspicuous consumption. Such as buying a huge, highly gadgeted washer and dryer, not because they are the minimum that meets your needs, but because they are "the best" -- that is, prestige items. You buy first-class so that you have the appearance of wealth to friends, family, and neighbors.

    2) Inherent harm. TV, radio, and other media with ads may be related to the rise in ADD/ADHD, in my opinion. As we lose the old-time story telling and oral history skills as previous generations pass, we continue with advertisers. Ads deliberately destroy our attention on a story being told, interrupting with a message deliberately distracting and loud/colorful/memorable with respect to the initial story. Distractions, especially deliberate distractions, are rude and discourteous. Thus, living with TV and Radio we become used to short and interrupted segments of stories, of walking in in the middle or not staying to the end. Parents that read infant-length books to their children and nothing more, raise children with little development of attention span. The reports of success from exposing infants to classical music may be less about the music and more about the longevity of the experience, again, in my opinion. Electronic activity before bedtime can affect sleep patterns. (Yes, even commenting on blogs!)

    3) Sharon and JMG share a recommendation -- become a resource to friends, family, and community, with established and dearly won skills. A sewing machine lives in a designated "sewing" room. A sewing basket, on the other hand, with a few buttons, needles, threads, pins, and a garment to mend or being created, can go to the doctor's office, to the break room at work, and even visiting the neighbors for an evening's conversation (ie, prior generation's "entertainment")

    4) Each new skill, each change, opens opportunities. You learn new words, new meanings to old words, often new people to respect and emulate.

    5) A follow-on from #2 above. So many advances in modern society aren't really healthful or helpful. Many people have allergies to artificial sweeteners and various preservatives. If you aren't reading Crunchy Chicken ("putting the mental, in environmental"), she has some important things to say about the toxic things we are exposed to from contact with various plastics.

    6) Fitness. This is one I am working on. Just think of how many times you avoid an extra trip through the house, or around the lot, because we are so used to advertising hype about "easy" and "efficient" and "labor saving". We have been taught not to work, that saving steps is a good thing. So we find walking across the parking lot at Walmart as a dreaded imposition, rather than an opportunity to walk correctly to keep the knees, hips, and ankles in working order, to relax the back and neck, and to consider (mediate on?) what we are doing with our day.

    We keep the cell phone handy so we don't have time to get bored. Heaven forbid we seek time to finish a thought.

    I am hopeful that as I get better at gardening, the potato bugs and grasshoppers won't strip all the leaves off the potatoes, that the bermuda grass and a few weeds won't overgrow everything, and that I get a better yield on the delightful, but few, potatoes I have dug this year.

    Something to look forward to, I guess.