Dreaming a Life

Sharon September 22nd, 2009

A few months ago, I had an email exchange with Bill McKibben about the commonly perceived but, we both agreed, false distinction between lifestyle changes and political acts.  Those of you who have read _Depletion and Abundance_ know that I spend a good bit of time on just this subject – on the idea that our ordinary daily activities are not political acts, or that we can resolve our problems in a way that isn’t whole, that doesn’t include our personal way of life *along* with our political and community activism.  Bill expressed it rather more concisely (I quote with his permission), saying, “I find the split between working on politics/working on lifestyles to be frustrating as hell. the lifestyle-centric can’t do math, and the political-centric don’t understand how culture works.”  
 

The reference to not being able to do math was an articulation of the fact that we don’t have time to change the world “one lifestyle at a time.”  And that’s completely true.  But also isn’t necessary – lifestyles, if nothing else in the world, are never changed one at a time, past a certain critical mass. Instead, they are changed en masse, as people’s dream of what constitutes a good life changes.  And this is the central point that those who disdain lifestyle alterations (and by life changes I do not mean “oh, wow, last month I started using a cloth bag and next month I’m going to change my lightbulbs” – there’s a case to be made for taking baby steps, particularly at first, but the reality is that babies walk, and then run – a few baby steps are enough to get you moving.) miss - is that much of what we do is based upon our dreams of what kind of life our actions move us towards. 

And this is something that worries me about our present course of climate activism – as we move towards Copenhagen, I’m thrilled to see a rising tide of activism and commitment among those who understand the urgency of our climate situation.  I’m obviously far less thrilled to see the retreat of governments from serious commitments – Chinese officials recently claimed that trying to keep warming under 2 degrees was not “realistic” – never mind that China itself will suffer enormously if we cross that tipping point.  And only last night, news came out that the Danish Prime Minister may be backing out of a climate treaty.

Why, when there is so much new attention to climate change, so much scientific consensus and so much activism, are governments so reluctant to act.  It isn’t because of lack of knowledge of the long term consequences.  My own take is this – that it is simply because they recognize what many climate activists have not – that their own people may agitate for climate change action now, but they do not fully grasp what it will entail – a change in way of life.  There are plenty of other reasons – business interests and political realities, but the truth is that we will continue merrily on our way to disaster if the world’s politicians believe that the people don’t want them to act – not really.  And it does not take a great deal of critical thought to realize that the average person, at this stage, would like, all things being equal, for politicians to take care of climate change, along with all the other of the world’s problems, without inconveniencing them, but are far less clear on what inconveniences they might be willing to tolerate.

The reason that people don’t grasp what addressing climate change will entail is in large part the fault of climate activists themselves who have been afraid to utter the words “sacrifice” and “radical change” – instead, they cite studies that say that we’ll be richer if we just convert to renewable energies – never mind that those studies are almost always done on much lower emissions targets and over longer time frames than the science supports.  They cite studies that suggest small changes, or that ignore other, equally pressing crises like global dimming and energy depletion; or that leave out the methane that is already leaking out into the atmosphere.  They might talk about 350 targets, but they don’t use research that takes those numbers into account – or they still talk about the politically motivated 450ppm.

Even climate activists who mostly get it, often do not get their attention drawn to the incongruities between their way of life and their actions.  Coal, for example, is one of the world’s most pressing climate issues, and much activism centers on shutting down coal plants – a truly good and noble idea.  But at demonstrations and such that I’ve attended, I find myself asking people what they believe is going to replace the electricity powered by coal.  They generally mention solar plantations or vast wind farms – assuming, comfortably, that something will.  But there’s plenty of research pointing out that we can’t replace the near-half of our electricity produced by coal with renewables rapidly – that means closing coal plants will mean higher electric prices and must lead to vastly lower usage. 

Were it not for the stakes of the issue, I couldn’t blame climate activists for not pointing out “you do realize that as you are trying to close down this coal plant, this means really you should be giving up your a/c” much less the high costs and lifestyle changes that are the logical outcome of truly dealing with climate change on the scale to which it needs to be addressed.  For a long time, before we realized that climate sensitivity was much greater than expected, before we realized that the time window for action was growing much shorter, it seemed just possible to imagine that addressing climate change could be done without radical lifestyle shifts, or at least, that we could work up to them gradually.  Once it became obvious that this was completely false, the urgency of the work of addressing climate change rose, and the need for a political consensus to match the scientific one became more acute – and it was more terrifying to imagine trying to get that consensus through a language of self-sacrifice and radical changes than by selling the idea that we can fix the climate and still stay rich and comfy.

But it is hurting us now.  Because it is not possible to honestly tell people that they can have much the same life they wanted.  In George Monbiot’s superb _Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning_ he argues “By ‘feasibility’ I mean compatibility with industrial civilization…whether or not we enjoy the soft life…it is politically necessary to discover the means of sustaining it.”  Monbiot makes a very nearly credible case for a means to stabilize the climate and simultaneously maintain a near-normal life.  It involves virtually no air travel, a completely different shopping model, a lot of money invested very quickly and a lot less concrete, electricity and heat.  That he leaves out agriculture, responsible in some way for nearly a third of all climate gasses is the book’s big weakness, and why I do not think he quite succeeded.  But in a sense, it doesn’t matter – because the climate target that Monbiot used, while cutting edge for 2006, has now been superceded.  If he could just-barely-but-not-quite pull off a maintenence of modernity with a 450ppm carbon target, what are the chances of doing it with 350?  None at all, I fear.

And other analyses are equally problematic.  It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that radical lifestyle changes are coming, whether we like them or not – whether they come from adapting to a deeply damaged climate or from addressing the crisis, whether they come from adapting to depletion or from enduring it, our lifestyle will not be the same for very long.   And the danger of telling people that they can have all the things they want – a future for their children and an affluent present now – is that when they realize (and they are realizing right now) that this is not true, that there’s not enough money, or time or alternative energy to provide it, people will be very, very angry indeed.  It is not pleasant to tell people hard truths.  It is less pleasant to deal with people facing hard truths who believe they have been lied to.  I believe we are seeing the early stages of the political unrest that will accompany this sense of being lied to, of having lost more than is being accounted for on both the left or the right, and I also believe quite strongly that unless a true and comprehensible story is offered, false ones will be taken up, and used as bludgeons.

The breaking of false idols is good, honest work.  But in the wake of iconoclasm, there must be a truth to set in the place of the shattered idols.   Telling the truth itself is not enough – nor is portraying the disaster we face and leaving people to imagine the alternatives themselves. 

Even if it were possible for this to happen organically in some places, we cannot forget that at every moment of our lives, each of us is being bombarded with dreams that we did not manufacture, and that these collective, advertised dreams of what constitutes a decent life are going to be more powerful for most people than autonomously created private narratives of goodness.  All of us live in the world, and most of us want others to approve of us.  Moreover, quite honestly, most of us aren’t all that creative in our dreaming – we imagine ourselves as unique because we choose among a large range of commercial options – we can decorate our kitchen with baby ducks, pigs or flower; can choose between coke or pepsi, can decorate our bodies within a range of a dozen or so arbitrated “personal styles.”  Given the sheer number of commercial choices, it is perhaps no wonder that we imagine that this is sufficient to constitute an identity and a dream.  Nor is it any wonder that ecological programming on television seems poised to offer us the purchasable green lifestyle as one of these alternatives - you too can have an e-bike, a set of solar panels and an eco-mattress. 

But this, of course, is the commercial version of this dream, and people buy it – a lot of them literally buy it, and more accept that this is what constitutes a viable future – lower toxicity, recyclable cell phones for everyone, your personal hybrid vehicle in your choice of designer colors, mascara that doesn’t give you cancer and organic cotton undies.  But no real changes, no alteration in our basic consumer patterns.  Never mind the fact that there will never be a society in which everyone can have mascara, much less a personal hybrid.  Never mind that even the rich having them is a disaster – if all the world but North America and Australia were simply to vanish tomorrow, we’d still cross the 2 degree mark eventually without substantial lifestyle changes.  The math is really clear – there’s not enough climate leeway, not enough water, not enough food, not enough money, not enough oil, not enough gas, not enough dirt, not enough phosphorous, not enough rainforest…. not enough left in the world to avert disaster if we have rich people, who see themselves primarily as consumers in a consuming world, and who live as we do now.

Which means we need an American (and European and Australian and Japanese…) dream that can work – and we need it fast.  Because the reality is that we are increasingly close to having to confront our crisis.  For all that people are heated up by issues of justice and politics, what people really, deeply care about is the future of their own lives, their own children, their ordinary hopes and dreams.  You simply cannot live a life on “this will prevent your grandchildren from starving someday” – that’s important, it is part of the story, and it works for a short, concentrated period.  But everyday life depends on a dream, on a set of hopes and imagined futures that are “a decent life, a happy future.”  And as long as people in the rich world have no way to imagine a happy life and decent future without wealth, without constant striving and consuming, without more and more and more, in the end, the politics of this is bound to failure. 

All of us need beauty in our lives, all of us need to believe that we are working for something that matters.  For the last many decades, what mattered was consumption, the achievement of greater wealth.  For the last of many decades we have sought, as people always have, to give our children better than we ourselves had.  The problem, of course, has been figuring out what “better” means in a world where the average household has two cars, four tvs and a wardrobe sufficient to keep them dressed for the rest of their lives.  It can’t mean three cars and six tvs, right?  

It is a counter-intuitive, and thus difficult thought,  that after a certain critical mass of affluence, better comes from less, not more.  A better future for our children comes not from greater affluence, but less, and the preservation of resources for the future.  A better life for us in the present involves fewer hours of work, and thus, more freedom – and fewer possessions and less affluence. 

In order for a majority of the world’s rich people (and here I mean rich by world standards) to choose less, to actually recognize that giving their children better means choosing a life of less, there has to be a vision of what the life constitutes – and it has to be immediately accessible. It cannot require vast creative energies, because honestly, most people don’t have them.  It cannot require that everyone go against the grain, because, quite honestly, most of us go with the grain.  It cannot require that we build an imagine entirely internally – you have to be able to go look at it.

It isn’t as shiny as political activism, and it is harder, of course, because there’s not much money in selling non-consumerism, radical simplicity and not buying stuff.  It isn’t going to show up on HD-TV anytime soon, except, perhaps as a comedy show.  And yet it is essential – the beauty and accessibility of an ordinary life, without the trappings of industrial consumerism has to be modeled, it has to be offered up, and it has to be available.  It has to be because otherwise, we can never say to people “shut down the coal plants” without them noticing that they’ve been betrayed into iconoclasm without any truth to take the place of the false idols.  But with a dream – with a sense of the beauty of simplicity, with a dream of an ordinary human life that is both good and humane and uses vastly fewer resources, you can say to people “we must shut down the coal plants” and the answer comes back “we weren’t using them anyway.”

Note: Of course, this essay is deeply derivative, I’m hardly the first person to think of this.  The always-thoughtful Risa has a post up at her blog showing just how derivative, and it is well worth a read – Plato doesn’t guest-post everywhere, so don’t miss this one: http://risashome.blogspot.com/2009/09/unlimited-accumulation-of-wealth.html
Sharon

50 Responses to “Dreaming a Life”

  1. Anion 22 Sep 2009 at 9:32 am

    Good post Sharon- this is a very difficult issue. Politicans don’t get elected by telling people that they will have to sacrifice, austerity is not what most people aspire to, and “having it all ” has become the mantra for most of the developed world, with the developing world aspiring to the same.

    Somehow we are going to have to construct, and soon, a new vision of what the “good life” means, and it cannot continue to mean what we in North America have come to believe it does. How we do that though is a problem…… or is it a predicament?

  2. Lydiaon 22 Sep 2009 at 9:33 am

    “We” did not damage the climate. It may be changing but not because of people. I use to think otherwise before I did massive amounts of research.
    So climate activists are sadly misinformed, as was I. :o )

    If I change my lifestyle-which I already have- it is because of other reasons. Some of which are more freedom, less stress, and more time to garden, build friendships and daydream.

    Getting someone to change based on “saving the planet” has not worked and never will work, whether they be individuals or governments.

  3. Betsyon 22 Sep 2009 at 10:01 am

    We basically have to make the switch from “how much can we take” to “how much can we leave” as per Daniel Quinn. Community is the only guiding principle that has a chance of replacing consumerism, but it’s going to be a hard sell. The benefits of community are not as immediately obvious as those of bright shiny things.

  4. Jimon 22 Sep 2009 at 10:34 am

    Sharon,

    There is an issue which is more emotional than agricultural:

    –You simply cannot live a life on “this will prevent your grandchildren from starving someday” – that’s important, it is part of the story, and it works for a short, concentrated period.

    I don’t have children. I likely never will, because of societal discrimination. How do you motivate someone on this, if they’re in my shoes?

    In other news, my pickles all got eaten Sunday and my sixty-day corn is doing fine. I ordered some perennial red clover for a mulch…experiment. We shall see.

    Jim

  5. deweyon 22 Sep 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Jim – I’m in a similar position in terms of Darwinian fitness (our only daughter is a spayed LOLcat, so she won’t give us any grandkids!). I think in terms of having intellectual descendants rather than biological ones. Think about the European monks who preserved libraries for centuries by hand-copying the books; at least officially, none of those guys was supposed to have children. In the future – I hope – there will still be “people like me”, no matter whether they have any genetic connection to me at all. If I can do things that just might help them to stay alive and have it a little easier, that’s something I’ll value. (And selfishly, if I can get my name attached to things that will be perpetuated for at least a little while after my death, that’s nice to think of too…)

    Another thing that motivates me where environmental justice is concerned is the interests of nonhuman species. Personally, I think a lot of animals are more likeable than us bald apes; I don’t want parrots and penguins to be killed off for the sake of our greed. Is there anything outside your own kind that’s worth the effort for you?

  6. Sarahon 22 Sep 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I like this comment in the article:

    “actually recognize that giving their children better means choosing a life of less”

    I’ve chosen a simple lifestyle for my children
    because I think its smart and it’s what the world needs and
    because I think its the best thing that I can do for them.

    It was so nice to read your article and know that someone else out there
    shares my perspective on what I think is plain common sense.

    Thanks Sharon!

  7. Katrienon 22 Sep 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Derivative it may be, but so inspiring and well-written!

    Jim and Dewey, I have been thinking along these lines as well, and the issue is relevant for those who have kids. I do have a child. She’s only four, so who knows whether she’ll continue the line, but as I foresee these crises coming quite soon, it doesn’t matter.

    So when I think of her (and our future), I am worried, first of all, about her health and safety, then, immediately after, of culture. Not culture as in fashion, and tv shows… but: will she be able to teach her children to read, will there be books, will there be time for singing and music making, will there be scientific endeavor. Or will all that be lost?

    So perhaps part of envisioning what that other dream might be – over and above the skills and resources we will need to stay healthy and safe – will be to look at our millenia-long cultures and choose what will be worth keeping (even reviving).

  8. veraon 22 Sep 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Lydia, I think too that the climate will do what it has always done: change unpredictably. Though I do allow that humans have altered regional climates, e.g. by paving over everything on the eastern seaboard. In the last 11,000 years, there have been 3 warmings warmer than this. What happened to the arctic methane then? My own concern is that we are plundering the planet in so many ways it is simply suicidal. And politicians are not going to change any of this.

    Sharons says: “life that is both good and humane and uses vastly fewer resources” — well, that is the key, isn’t it? Put up or shut up… Every individual family, and every business too. That is what it will take.

  9. MEAon 22 Sep 2009 at 1:45 pm

    A friend used to say, why worry about gobal warming (or cooling) we’ll just do what our ancestors didn’t and move to more moderate climes, until she realized just how few our ancestors were. She’s no longer advoacting standing on Zanzibar.

  10. Jesseon 22 Sep 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I think, perhaps, that the only way politicians could bring about change – REAL change – would be if they could bring the problems down to a PERSONAL level. Saying that the oceans will rise and land on the coasts will be under water means NOTHING to a person in the middle of the country, unless they also understand the personal impact that such a catastrophe WILL have on their own lives (not just what MIGHT happen, but what WILL happen). The questions that need to be answered are WHY climate change supporters are giving the advice they’re giving. Why do you say “grow a garden”? What evidence do we have that doing so will help? What, then, should people be growing first, especially if they don’t have a farm/land to grow on? And what will happen to me if I DON’T grow groceries…what will I see when I go to the store? People won’t worry so much about what MIGHT happen to their grandchildren – they will instead worry about how THEY will live. But so much of what we hear seems so big – and people will stay with the status quo if they think they can’t make a difference. When given a choice between two ways that they’ll have to live, certain changes are easier to make. And it has to hit their pocketbooks – people who have little to no money are already trying to make changes, but people with a lot of money will think they don’t have to – what will make them change but the actual loss of their life and lifestyle? So it has to be personal not just to certain people, but to ALL people, or else you’ll still have those who, say, chose not to have kids, or chose not to marry, who will think that the advice won’t affect them.

  11. Lifestyle Changes | MamaStorieson 22 Sep 2009 at 2:27 pm

    [...] Sharon has another great blog entry up: Dreaming a Life, about radical lifestyle changes – “whether they come from adapting to a deeply damaged [...]

  12. Katrienon 22 Sep 2009 at 2:32 pm

    This is another challenge, Sharon, to find that dream that is immediately accessible, that doesn’t require vast creative energies, or doesnt’ require that everyone go against the grain, or that we build an imagine entirely internally. Something, “you have to be able to go look at it.”

    It should be for each of us a personal challenge, to find what it could be and then, how and where should we show it?

  13. [...] Want to read about a vision of a better future?  You should. Read it from one of the best writers – Sharon Astyk: http://sharonastyk.com/2009/09/22/dreaming-a-life/ [...]

  14. homebrewlibrarianon 22 Sep 2009 at 2:43 pm

    With regard to creating a dream, I would recommend Gene Logsdon’s The Man Who Created Paradise.

    http://organictobe.org/index.php/2008/09/02/the-man-who-created-paradise-by-gene-logsdon/

    Yes, it does involve a man and his Allis Chalmers HD 19 bulldozer, but the story is all about vision and renewal and a life worth living; simply, mindfully and, dare I say it, elegantly.

    Read the comments; the imagery was so powerful that everyone could see themselves in that place (including myself!). Given the power of this one story, I don’t believe it to be unimaginable for similar stories to be created.

    I’ll leave this with a final comment by Gene:

    To learn to enjoy life AT HOME is the key to happiness, I think, and to society’s survival.

    Kerri in AK

  15. Jeffon 22 Sep 2009 at 2:57 pm

    If readers of *this blog*, dedicated as Sharon is to facts, are as clueless as to deny human-caused climate change, whose facts are so glaring they are now staring us in the face, we are in serious trouble.

  16. risa bon 22 Sep 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Kerri: Gene is always good for what ails us; that’s a GREAT quote. And if he runs out of oil for his beloved A.C. tractor, I’m sure he’ll willingly yield the podium to W. Berry et al.! :)

  17. homebrewlibrarianon 22 Sep 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Risa: The honorable Mr. Berry wrote the Forward to the story! Those two are in complete cahoots with each other…

    I just wish Wendell Berry had a blog!

    Kerri in AK

  18. Gewamseron 22 Sep 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I appreciate the sentiment, and I do not believe your facts are wrong…but you are WAY WAY WAAAAAAAY overthinking the issues, when a simple nod to Darwinism will do. NATURE, not man, is in control…people keep forgetting that. Like Professor Dinosaur says to his class of college level velasoraptors…”Hate to tell you this, but the climate is changing, there is a shortage of food, dino killing diseases are traveling all over the planet, there is a HUGE meteorite heading for the Gulf of Mexico…worst of all we only have a brain the size of a walnut!”

  19. Jesseon 22 Sep 2009 at 3:19 pm

    @Jeff, yes, but I can honestly say that we ARE in serious trouble – I can give one example, too. My mother, who I OFTEN tell about ideas I’ve read here or from other human-caused climate change news, STILL doesn’t believe that anything serious can happen. The fact of the matter is, most people I know DO NOT and WILL NOT read this blog or any other because they think of it as scare tactics. *I* think it’s mostly because it’s not personal for them.

    I am not able to (on what little I know, though I’m learning more every day!) tell my mother with any certainty what she will see in say, 5 years, that will make her willing to make changes. She won’t do the hard work life-changing stuff because there seems (to her) to be no reason to do so. And with my father gone often (he travels for his job – he’s railroad), she’s basically the one making their choices. He could honestly care less about how the house is run, so long as he has clothes, food, shelter, and a way to provide for her. And while I could say he’s helping to contribute in this way (inadvertently), HE doesn’t actually use much in the way of resources except for the gas it takes to get where he’s going (and he’s got a motorcycle now so it uses less!).

    If my mother were able to understand how such changes could be BETTER for her life, she’d make them. But so long as groceries are still convenient, food is fast, clothing is ready-made, etc…she WON’T change. If she knew that in, say, 5 years there would be NO groceries in the store, she’d have to try and learn to grow a garden now (she’s got a dead thumb..kills plastic plants lol) so she could prepare. As long as that’s not a possibility, she won’t even try. The same with running a clothesline or turning down her heat or even looking at alternative sources for electricity. And from what I can tell from others I talk to, this is how they think as well. People are, for the most part, too selfish to care until it’s too late. If change has to come, the people making the statements have to show both the changes that these people WILL see in the NEAR future, as well as how it really IS too late to change it.

  20. It's About Making Babies!on 22 Sep 2009 at 4:00 pm

    cb: The non-rally for climate change

    Sharon writes on Casaubon’s Book of her concerns that climate change activism and government support seem to be waning as the Copenhagen conference approaches.
    The Big Lie
    The first, and I think biggest, obstacle Sharon, Peak Oil, and Transition …

  21. Shambaon 22 Sep 2009 at 4:00 pm

    A marvelous post on serious thought we should all confront, Sharon.

    a question to all of you here: When we talk about the “near” future and how “fast our life is going to change”, what kind of time frames are you all talking about? I think 5-10 year but maybe it’s much sooner than that with climate, oil/resource shortages and the finance/economic thing. I’m also fascinated by what individual’s perceive as time frames or the indefinite numbers of “several, much, many, lots, a few” etc.

    I know the time frame isn’t set in stone but it’s useful to be able to picture what’s coming down the road based on other’s perceptions as well as my own. Aftera ll it looks like I’m spending my old age in this coming future ….

    Any responses will be greatly appreciated.

    Peace to Us All,
    Shamba

  22. ceceliaon 22 Sep 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Thank you for this very fine post – certainly is timely. I do think that one issue is the way the effects of climate change are communicated – people see a chart which says “by 2030 sea levels will rise such and such, or temperatures will rise by such and such”. So the response is – well we have 20 years to solve the problem or worse – well I’ll be dead by then so let the youngers take care of the problem. What people fail to understand is that things aren’t going to be fine for 20 years and then poof – become difficult.

    I do think you have hit the nail on the head – it is about communicating what a lifestyle which is better for people would look like and why it is better. We also need to stop pretending we in the West (especially the US) can continue to use so much of the world’s resources.

    I find myself already grieving for the loss of so much which is so extraordinary about our planet – the animals, the plants, the places.

  23. Guy McPhersonon 22 Sep 2009 at 5:17 pm

    There is no politically viable solution to global climate change, just as there is no politically viable solution to energy decline. We need to bring down the industrial economy to have the slightest chance of saving the living planet, and therefore our own species. It may well be too late, but waiting for a political solution to appear is a prescription for extinction.

  24. Liseon 22 Sep 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Sharon, I LOVE your metaphor about “baby steps.” I get so impatient with people encouraging “baby steps” all the time!

  25. veraon 22 Sep 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Gewamser, Guy McP., right on! Copenhagen Schmopenhagen. Like Greer recently said, the lefties keep on doing the same thing over and over, never noticing these tactics stopped working long ago.

  26. Carolon 22 Sep 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Dear Sharon,
    Excellent post. I think you hit the nail on the head in so many ways.
    However, I do not think there is anything that will make the ordinary citizen change until TSHTF! I myself am just an ordinary person who just happens to believe in PO, climate degradation and probably major population die-off and I am making baby steps, as fast as I can. But, the man in the street really knows almost nothing about the topics which are so passionately blogged about on the energy bulletin, etc.
    I read religiously your blog, Guy McPherson’s, John Michael Greer’s and others and see no way out of the mess we are in. In other words, I truly believe we’re f**ed!
    We are not going to have the American, European,Australian or Japanese dream-ever- instead we will be reaping the global nightmare.
    I’m sorry my comments are so negative. That is very unusual for me. I think I am just frustrated and your article struck a nerve.
    I do find all your positive and hopeful comments welcome. it helps balance people like me and helps spur me on to more radical changes.
    thank you, Carol

  27. Ed Strakeron 22 Sep 2009 at 11:29 pm

    That’s a pretty good essay against the technofix mindset. I’m dealing with that kind of mentality right now, and it’s hard to be critical because on the larger continuum, recognizing we have a problem at all is worth a modicum of respect. You know, with Joe the Plumbers and Palincrats all around us. But the old sauntering pace of 70s and 80s environmentalism is ill equipped for the challenges we face. I sense no urgency around here, and no sense of personal responsibility for environmental footprints. It’s hard for me to work through these feelings of bitterness in order to reach out, when I know I’m just going to be crucified as a heretic.

  28. Myrto Asheon 22 Sep 2009 at 11:33 pm

    The goal that makes the most sense for me is “10:10″ – 10% reduction in emissions by 2010. That’s easy for most individuals to do, and will save them money.

    For a government to try it though, is like jumping off a building with your eyes closed. I think people do have some imagination, if only they were to hear the message often enough: the building is burning NOW. What we’re advocating is to not wait until it collapses.

    However, I’m not sure exactly what the effects will be if that is successful. 10% drop in the GDP? 10% rise in unemployment? 10% increase in foreclosures, bankruptcies, defaults? Then how will we all pay back those credit card loans?

    This life we are trying to imagine, it involves less stuff, but also fewer stuff-making, and stuff-selling jobs. A 10% reduction in everyone’s work would be conceivable, but more likely, some people will have to decrease by 80%, while many others won’t be affected at all. This is what scares politicians. Let’s all resolve to watch out for that, and call our senators to insist we want a treaty in Copenhagen that will work, given the best science we have.

    ACC-deniers above, it does not matter whether we caused global warming or not. The CO2 emissions are accelerating the problem, however it started. (ACC=anthropogenic climate change).

  29. Marcin Gerwinon 23 Sep 2009 at 1:40 am

    I surely agree that as climate activists we need to tell our fellow-citizens about a new dream, about a new way of life. We need to shift focus from profit and growth to the quality of life, that is happiness. The “sustainable dream” is actually well known: it is life in directly democratic communities, with healthy social ties, that use ecological technologies and are largely self-reliant in fulfilling basic needs such as food, housing or water supply.

    The question is, however, how do we “sell” this dream? How do we compete with TV and other media glorifying the dream of consumer lifestyle? It seems to me that we can do a lot on a local level where it is possible to bypass TV and meet with people directly. It seems a good idea to encourage people to become politically active on the local level where they can make a real difference. By being political active I don’t mean signing up to a political party, but being involved in the matters of the local community, making decisions about budget spending etc. In order to make change possible we need to restore real democracy where people make decisions for themselves. I feel that leaving climate change to politicians and corporations is a bit risky ;)

  30. ceridwenon 23 Sep 2009 at 2:00 am

    Certainly some people have grasped the issue of the whole root cause of the whole problem (that “elephant in the room” of overpopulation) and there is now discussion going on behind the scenes in Britain about taking drastic action to cut the population (not in direct terms of course – but in terms of refusing to keep on the heavy State subsidising of childbearing that we still currently have in Britain). There looks likely, come the next Election, to be a cut in monies payable for having children (whoever comes to power)- and there is even a whisper of abolishing all benefits for having children. We have a large underclass here in this country of people having children deliberately just to get benefit for them (rather than because they actually WANT them). Many others with a genuine wish to have children for their own sake go ahead and add to the population on the basis that they will get Government help with the cost of funding this – Child Tax Credit, etc – and so I’m keeping fingers crossed that this drastic action (which will surely help a lot in keeping the rate of population increase down) does happen. I think maybe some interim protection might be needed for some of the child “handouts” we have for children already born – ie for the poorest only. But I think there is now a real chance that no money will be handed over by the Government for any children not yet born – and one can only wish that this had started back in the 1970s – but…better late (very late!!!!) than never if it happens.

    Still leaves us with the question about what to do RIGHT NOW – as the Consumerist Society rages ahead fullpelt and other countries are still busily adding to the numbers of people on the planet….

    ….and yes I too think its time the Truth is spelt out clearly to people (awful as it is…).

  31. Nancyon 23 Sep 2009 at 2:20 am

    Stirring stuff as always Sharon and all the very best writing is derivative.

    I wonder what those children, our own or children generally, that we fear for would dream about if we told them the earth’s story? Now, what do you want to be when you grow up?

    Someone like Oprah understands what stirs the child in us and how to communicate it. If only she read Sharon’s blog.

  32. [...] Astyk writes on Casaubon’s Book about her concerns that with the upcoming Copenhagen conference, governments are weakening on [...]

  33. oilmonkeyon 23 Sep 2009 at 8:00 am

    Derek Jensen was on a recent c-realm podcast and also made the point that ‘lifestyle changes’ have never changed the world- that it is not enough to do anything less than actively resist. I couldn’t disagree, and it is somewhat uncomfortable to be confronted with the fact that all of the changes I’ve made over the years to how I live, how much I consume, etc. really don’t amount to having much of an effect. So what next?

  34. Jillon 23 Sep 2009 at 8:22 am

    What a great post, Sharon. Stirring and thought provoking as always. Makes me take a deeper look at my actions, motives, and priorities. It seems like most people don’t live with a sense of urgency these days. People are adaptable, but they don’t like change until it’s thrust upon them. And then it’s usually too late. For the sake of my family and my children, I hope that’s not the case.

    My husband and I saw a news story the other day about GM’s electric car with the hydrogen fuel cell and the ability to ‘plug in’ so you don’t use petroleum… and so on and so forth. All praise, of course. But nothing practical whatsoever. (Living in Flint, Michigan it’s blasphemy for me to say so.) What about the plastics in the vehical? The energy to get/use/fill the hydrogen cells? The emissions from the coal plants providing your home electricity you plug into? Nothing new, nothing practical or innovative. They’re still working on something that will never succeed. The General Motors (American) way of thinking is a complete 180 from the dream of saying to people “we must shut down the coal plants” and the answer comes back “we weren’t using them anyway.”

  35. Brad K.on 23 Sep 2009 at 9:44 am

    Oilmonkey,

    There was an article in the last week, of a review of generations of folk in a small town. Records were kept of an original study,but the records turned out to cover just about everyone around.

    A review showed that overweight spread like a virus. Something like 40% of everyone family or close to an overweight person became overweight. They graphed the effect, the charts are startling and consistent.

    Livestyle changes are icons, examples to friends and neighbors. Look at it this way – you may inspire one person in the next 15 years to consider living low-carbon. In the mean time, you will have the relief that you aren’t contributing beyond your intent. Make the change in life style for yourself, for your self respect, for your honor. Just keep an eye and ear open for anyone with a related question, looking for a hand getting started.

    You may affect two or three people that you never know about. Your actions and choices may reassure someone else that struggles to live in a greener manner. The stores you shop at and services you purchase will all see a shift, maybe slight, in the kinds of products they sell. Certainly local sellers will appreciate your business.

    We cannot all be Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, leading national reform movements from oppression toward a better life. But we can all be the best we can be.

    And we can be alert for chances to help others.

  36. veraon 23 Sep 2009 at 10:32 am

    Myrto, I am not, strictly speaking, an ACC denier. I think that at this point there is anthropogenic damage everywhere, from a myriad sources, and that is really quite uncontroversial.

    What I do have a problem with is all the panic mongering and pretending we can KNOW what the planet/universe will do in the future. This is just more human hubris.

  37. PKSon 23 Sep 2009 at 10:48 am

    Uh, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but humans, especially in the west, will not accept a lower standard of living, full stop.

    If it is the case that the only way for us as a species is to accept less material well-being, then we are completely screwed. That scenario ends with the survivors of catastrophe fighting over remaining resources, which ends up (if examples like Angkor Wat or the Maya are instructive) amounting to “fighting for the privilege of being the last to starve”, in Ronald Wright’s words.

    But I don’t think, technologically speaking, that that is the case. Between things like nuclear power to keep the lights on, and biodiesel from algae (the ONLY, only, only viable alternative to fossil fuels) we can maintain our current high-energy lifestyle. All it takes is political will. An electrical engineer friend of mine and I did some “back of the envelope” calculations, and to replace all the oil the USA uses with biodiesel from algae would only require covering about 5 or 10% of Nevada with algae bioreactor/growing tanks.

    And it really isn’t that big a deal to replace coal with nuclear. We already replace your average power plant every 30 or 40 years, so we only need to speed that up by 10 years or so. And there are no real problems with current generations of reactors. Nuclear waste isn’t a problem (look up “breeder reactor” if you disagree) and meltdowns aren’t a problem (pebble bed reactors are throttled back with heat).

    Now, OK, that’s a big project, but c’mon, during WWII, the USA used to produce a battleship in 8 weeks or something. My point is, we’re lucky that the point we’re at now of 380 ppm CO2 happened now, when we have some alternatives, rather than say 50 years ago, when techs like fuel cells and LI-ion batteries didn’t exist.

    Our civilization, such as it is, is going to live or die as a high-energy civilization. If you ask people to go back to a lifestyle like what most of North America had around 1900, then it’s gonna lead to war, famine, and an eventual situation that looks a lot like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.

  38. gaiasdaughteron 23 Sep 2009 at 11:23 am

    Sharon, I was just having this conversation with my 83 year-old mother as we were out walking this morning. It felt so odd to come in and see it in print in your oh-so-much-more-eloquent words!

    It all comes down to this, how do we get society to voluntarily make the drastic changes that are necessary to prevent widescale deprivation and suffering? You cannot do it with legislation — to make the attempt would be to incite armed revolution. You cannot do it by laying a massive guilt trip on the population at large — it’s impossible to sustain. The only way to do it is to offer something better. And that is the point many of your readers seem to have missed.

    John Michael Greer has been exploring this same conundrum of late (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2009/09/terrible-ambivalence.html) but with a slightly different conclusion (no surprise there!). His remarks generated quite a heated debate. He sees only hardship ahead and believes that to suggest anything else is to deny reality. I am hoping that he is wrong.

    A while back, PBS ran a series called “Frontier House.” Three families were taken back in time to the 1880’s and lived for five months as settlers would have done. It wasn’t easy for any of them and there was a lot of bickering and complaining that went along with the whole experiment. But in the end, many of them were reluctant to go back to their former lives. They had found something of value in working the land, in the closeness of family and even in deprivation. One of the boys talked about how before he had so much and appreciated so little. On the frontier, each little thing meant so much more. Not having enough — food, shelter, clothes — is obviously devastating — but having too much isn’t as good as we’ve been led to believe.

    Risa, whose writing I find consistently inspiring, said it well just the other day (http://risashome.blogspot.com/2009/09/heart-knows.html): “I spent the afternoon making applesauce, and she filled the dehydrator with sliced tomatoes. For a grand finale, we cleaned up the kitchen and dining room to the sound of the Shirelles’ greatest hits. A soup of sweet onions, peeled tomatoes, zucchini and fresh parsley and chives simmered in the background.

    There are days that are more blessing than a heart knows how to receive.”

  39. ceceliaon 23 Sep 2009 at 12:15 pm

    This post was on my mind all day – I am an optimistic person so I tend to think eventually all will be well – people will wise up – roll up their sleeves, and do what is necessary to deal with the problem.

    PKS however makes a point that I too reluctantly realized – the history of humans dealing with resource scarcity is not encouraging. There is besides Angor Wat and the Maya the Easter Island gang. People who were willing to keep on the same path – even killing each other – to preserve a lifestyle that was doomed. The archaeological evidence shows that at Easter Island the last survivors resorted to cannibalism. Do you doubt we won’t do the same? I read yesterday that in the UK they have opened 15 new power plants – all coal burning. To me – this is a society committing suicide. And keep in mind that the Brits are actually pretty aware of peak oil and climate change – and have done more than us to deal with it. Yet to maintain an untenable lifestyle and economy – they are burning coal.

    I think it is well to keep the definition of insanity in mind – keep doing the same thing and expect different results is insanity. So it is time – past time – for those of us who recognize the troubles ahead to try new strategies. Certainly part of the incentive to consider new strategies is this – I wonder if there were some people in Angor Wat or among the Mayans and Easter Islanders who did recognize the danger and who did try to persuade people to try something less destructive? Were there Angor Watians or Easter Islanders who tried to raise chickens and grow their own veggies? We don’t know if there were such folks cause – they died like everyone else in those societies. Hens and a backyard veggie patch will not protect anyone from climate change or chaotic conditions produced by resource scarcity (not just oil – water too). It is a matter of survival to develop and implement new strategies that work-

    We recognize the denial among the general population but do we recognize it among our group ?
    Do we retreat into our gardens and hens and solar ovens, persuading ourselves that this is the best we can do? That this will save us and our loved ones? Is that not a kind of denial?

    As Sharon said – baby steps are not going to cut it. Neither is converting one or two neighbors with our example. I am not sure what the strategy should be – certainly non violent – but we have to do better to assure our futures and our childrens.

  40. Jeffon 23 Sep 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Right on, Guy McPherson!! Thanks for your work, by the way.
    And thank you, Sharon, your article is a necessary antidote to people who seriously believe a techno-fix can save us, eg PKS, as if the problem is only energy, and not water, raw materials (including ones crucial to techno-fixes such as batteries and fuel cells!). not to mention the absolutely ludicrous faith in nuclear power, or algae.
    Vera: what “panic mongering”? If anything, the media are selling complacency! There was a report in the last two weeks about a research study on the Arctic, found that even though the natural factors over the last couple of hundred years favored a *cooling* in the region, it has warmed up dramatically. This didn’t get a whole lot of publicity, did it?
    We are definitely in trouble if there is this much denial even amongst readers of this blog.

  41. Myrto Asheon 23 Sep 2009 at 12:40 pm

    @vera,
    I am fully on board with the idea that pretending to know what the planet will do in the future is hubris, and would not bring us closer to the humility that is called for. However, I do not feel that Transition, or the 10:10 movement pretend to know that this will save us. We do believe that it is a path more likely to succeed than either of two alternatives: one is human-engineered attempts at global cooling (some theories are knocking around on this), the other is continuing BAU, with fuel cells and Li-ion batteries. The latter is the case because scaling up is not financially possible, because it would cause carbon emissions to reach levels that have a chance of leading to permanent catastrophe, and also, because it fails to challenge the proverbial mindset that got us into this mess in the first place.

    I am not ready to give up on what the average American will accept. They have accepted disgusting food and time-sucking television, outrageous house prices and large personal debt. They/we are adaptable, above all else.

    I’m very excited about 10:10. The first component is personal, family, group, community 10% decrease in energy use. The second component is calling your elected representatives relentlessly, and telling everyone who will listen/read (what I am doing here and here (http://www.ecoyear.net).

  42. Gewamseron 23 Sep 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Sorry, I just couldn’t shake the depressing tone of Sharon’s last two pieces, and it occurred to me to let a devout Orthodox friend of mine since the Vietnam days, read the material, because I wanted to ask him if, with all due respect, if I was right in thinking that Sharon is suffering from the “Woody Allen Syndrome” which is a sort of ethnically derived neurosis about…well, about everything. He said: “Yes.” And to better connect with what you say, and to take it in its proper context that it might help a little to “hear” Woody Allens voice…or a female version thereof, in my mind when I read her material. Does Sharon wear tiny wire-rims? Nevermind…Scott, my Jewish friend, whom I deeply respect, also mentioned that Sharon seems to lack any of that famous Jewish fatalism…in that light, it is in the Jewish traditiion to kind of accept the world as it is: messed up, and not dwell on what you cannot change, and that’s the way it was meant to be. This is also a Zen and Hindoo thing. Now this doesn’t mean that Sharon is wrong about any of what she believes, only that she carries it as a burden, which ain’t healthy. Puts everything in perspective to keep that nuerosis in mind, and it’s OK!
    Scott does a GREAT impression of Woody Allen, and he read aloud a paragraph of the last essay in that voice, and he did it so good we were both rolling on the floor laughing hysterically…but, forgive us, Scott is as wise as he is brave, and he seriously reminded me of a quote by Rabbi Harold Kushner, on why people FAIL so much to live up to their ideals:
    ” There seems to be a moral law of gravity that pulls us down. A gravirty that makes it easier to sleep in rather than getting up to go to service, it makes it easier to keep our money for ourselves than give it to charity, easier to tell a convenient lie than speak the truth when it might make us look bad, easier to do short cuts than to take longer and do things the right way; easier to excuse and justify ourselves, rather than see the other person’s point of view with compassion and objectivity.”
    ” I would like to put the struggle between good and evil on a level playing field, and make it as tempting to do the right thing as the wrong!”
    Right on Rabbi Kushner. Right on Woody…errr I mean Sharon. I get it now.

  43. veraon 23 Sep 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Jeff, everyone is doing the panic mongering trip on us. The mainstreamers do it via “terrorism” and our kinda folk do it via climate change. I am sick of it all. Everybody has an axe to grind. Next time I am gonna hear about “space mirrors” I think I am going to throw up.
    Look, what does it matter if I you and I don’t exactly agree on what climatic vagaries are in store for us? What matters is that we agree we are in trouble on a zillion fronts. And this agreement should be the basis of going forward. Instead, there is this endless bickering… as though anyone really knew how to foretell the future.

    Myrto, I think that the transition movement is wonderful but will not save us; too little too late. As for decreasing energy use as a way of getting us out of our predicament, it will not work. Check out the rebound effect. (=energy is used less -> energy gets cheaper -> more people use more of it -> rebound!) I used to think that decreasing energy meant a lot of sense. But then I figured out that if I or my community decreases energy use by 10% all that does is give some other community or employer the ability to increase their energy use by 10%.

    There is no way out while saving civ. And that’s what’s going on right now, everybody is doing this big tap dance trying to figure out how to have our cake and eat it too. Sorry, but the cake has already been eaten.

  44. Lori Scotton 23 Sep 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Lets do a little mental exercise.

    Presume – I can’t feel responsible for the world. I can’t even imagine the world realistically. I know it exists out there but the reality fails to hit home. Therefore, I can’t change my lifestyle to suit the world. Or future generations who I also can’t imagine and probably wouldn’t like if I knew them.

    However, I am keen on me. And my immediate family. I find I can be very altruistic on a small scale.

    And something we are all concerned about is the western lifestyle condemning us to eat unhealthy mass produced food and to participate in medical and pharmaceutical science to an extent that we are not prepared to do.

    So we want to eat well and be healthy. As a result, our lifestyle is so similar to Sharon’s that we could play I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

    Result? The perfect sustainable lifestyle but our rationale is different. Maybe we are talking too big picture to attract commitment from diverse people. If they could find their own beliefs to encourage them to change their lifestyle for the better, they would be so much better off than being guilted into it by climate change and peak oil stories.

    And the end result would be the same.

  45. Free To Good Homeon 23 Sep 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Oh no, and Guy McPherson has landed in Sharon’s blog. His message is what it is, but boils down to “we” without connections and “we” without action, and so the preacher preaches. Derrick Jensen has said it will take all kinds of involvement and folks to help us navigate the challenges at hand. Sharon has reserved and preserved her corner, among many things, and maybe Guy should call Derrick to see what’s up.

    Guy McPherson is on the prowl for his lifeline: a constant glow of limelight upon his balding spot. Time to get off the lamenting pot, Doc, and get crackin’. High time.

    Surely,

    Thunder Thighs

    (not your ordinary Gal Friday, or Thursday, depends).

  46. Guy McPhersonon 26 Sep 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Free To Good Home, I’m not sure what your point is, if you have one. I propose connecting with the living planet on my blog with nearly every post, and I propose plenty of action, too. I correspond regularly with Derrick Jensen. And I really don’t understand your comment about lamenting instead of acting. I’ve quit my tenured imperial gig to work on my lifeboat in my community … how much more crackin’ would you suggest?

  47. Guys & Dollson 28 Sep 2009 at 2:37 am

    Dear Doug McPherson,

    I respectfully expect you do get crackin’ tons and tons between now and the faithful time nature bats last. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s your turn to bat into swinging action, and We, Of The Community Planet need your help.

    What you have listed appears to support my point to get down, get funky because I’m reading that you propose an awful lot to others, spend time exchanging with interesting electronic pen pals, and have gotten the me-myself-and-I floating home front in order.

    How about something radically different to get the blood flowing and add feathers to your personal contributing cap, and surely a couple of new sprouting gray hairs across your chest?

    I read your blog every now and again, and remember some tidbit mention about poetry in prison, a contribution that has come to pass, yes? Well, then, there it is, the perfect pet project for you:

    Build on those prior contacts and get involved with your local/regional network of prisons to bring organic gardening to each facility. Rules and regulations? Help modify them. Not enough land? Grow in pots (no, I did not say grow pot!), and wouldn’t all that fencing make a lovely trellis!! Explore the best crops for each locale and population; please raise worms (who needs another leather wallet made by an inmate, but many would buy bags of worm casings from a prison outlet in a heartbeat); compost in-house & other cafeteria food waste. Grow things = Teach skills. You know the kind: survival skills…

    You’ve reached Sharon’s blog for a reason, and so collaborate with her on some fine-tuning aspect of this (or some such) change-our-world journey, adding national uniformity to the mission if possible. Maybe help create a couple of decent green jobs here and there along the way, and if Sharon makes two or three consulting bucks somewhere down the line that would probably be okay. And doesn’t D.J. Himself have prison contacts of his own from past educational ventures? To operate from a helpful template to get things underway in one’s neighborhood could prove mighty inviting to an enterprising companion-someone.

    So, what say, Guy McPherson? Become poetry in motion and up your batting average in one year’s time?

    By the bye-bye, Free to Good Home was intended for you. You can call me Thunder Thighs whenever you’d like! ;)

    It’s Sharon’s airtime, off we go!!

  48. P.S., Guy Smileyon 28 Sep 2009 at 10:33 am

    Okay, okay, Doug McPherson, because you have the academic research skills then how about if you produce such a template that spells out the widespread concept from environmental and societal standpoints with a couple of existing case studies — but no need to reinvent the wheel with those facts and figures, though — and emphasize the vision of how we dream this to come to exist real soon) for national distribution within incarceration system by, what, upcoming January 2nd alongside involved participation at your local and regional prison levels?

    In your spare time (I know, I know), would you also undertake working with Sharon and produce yet another template stemming from her current involvement advocating for zoning law revisions. How about wide-spread availability (maybe spearheaded by official Transition Towns??) of a uniform way we wish to operate (clotheslines, fer sure, and chickens, and other small livestock) and introduce, say, December 1 as *the* National Day of Electronic Zoning
    Advocacy? What does an all-out “This is what we want, please!” look like flowing in electronically to local government offices across the nation? Creative busy signal that the message has been received? Let’s not forget to plan timely follow ups either!!

    Are you up for something along these lines? Me, I think you’re the Guy for it!

    Please….and thank you.

    TThighs

  49. P.P.S., Guy Smileyon 28 Sep 2009 at 10:35 am

    Doug must be your middle name, and I apologize for the typo.

    Gone for good……..

  50. Stephen Hintonon 04 Oct 2009 at 5:36 am

    hi Sharon! I actually did just this… dream of the sustainable world, but not dreaming as much as IMAGESTREAMING. This is an innovation technique I learned back in the 80s. After waking up to the need for sustainability, I started using the technique to “visit” a city living in a sustainable way and to explore how they got there as well as the way it works.

    Imagestreaming is THE most powerful innovation tool I know. The inventions that come from its use are often totally the opposite of what you might expect and more than often, surprising.

    If you or your readers are interested, the whole thing is described in my book, most of which is published on Planet thoughts at http://www.planetthoughts.org/?pg=pt/Whole&qid=2252. The video of the book is on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB22xyjh6kQ.

    One other thing I was trying, connected to the book was to write newsletters from the sustainable future, to stimulate thinking. These come from the book and are available on my website.

    I’d be fascinated to here all your comments.

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