Acts of Non-Consumption and the Riot for Austerity at Community Solutions

Sharon November 1st, 2007

First, the most embarassing part. I ran overtime on my talk in Yellow Springs last weekend, and I never mentioned the Riot for Austerity at all. I thought I had time, and then I didn’t, and it never got talked about. Which is really too bad, because when it did come up, later at the Community Solutions post-conference strategy session, the subject got a lot of attention and excitement. In retrospect, I think I should have made the Riot the focus of my whole talk.

Because the Riot for Austerity is a remarkable and powerful project, and one, I think, that demonstrates the sheer possibilities of personal transformation. It started out as a political gesture by Miranda over at SimpleReduce (the rules and FAQ for our project can also be found there) and me, thinking that if we could prove it was possible for people in the rich world to reduce their consumption by 90% in each category, we could answer the politicians who say that it is politically impossible to do what is necessary to stop global warming with the words “We did. Others can.” We hoped to live our lives using only a fair share of the world’s resources as a model.

But it became, almost immediately, something more than that. Instead of just a political gesture, it became a way of life, first for a few hundred people, and now nearly a thousand all told in 14 countries. We have a support group at yahoogroups, imaginary pie parties and sleepovers, and hundreds of people to ask any question you can from “How do I get to Ashtabula on public transportation?” “How do I engage my church community with this project?” “How much food can urban dwellers really expect to grow?” to “How do I make my shaving razors last longer?” and “What do you do about reusable menstrual supplies?” (The Riot is about 65% female, so don’t ask that last question unless you really want to hear the answer ;-))

The Riot is different from other environmental groups because we’re not mostly talking about buying high tech gadgets or expensive solutions. Oh, I’m sure there’s some of that, but mostly the question is how to transform our lives now, today, with what we have - and how to keep living this life year in and year out. We argue sometimes, but mostly we provide support, encouragement, solutions, ideas, analysis, suggestions.

It wasn’t until I began describing the Riot for Austerity to a room full of Peak Oil activists, including Richard Heinberg, Megan Quinn, Kurt Cobb, Peter Bane, Building expert Linda Wigington and others that I began to realize just how potentially powerful the Riot is. I was perhaps too close to it to realize how exciting it was that people were having fun, creating a self-organized democracy to support one another and enable them to make real change.

People were excited by this idea, particularly by my accounts of the most courageous members - the ones who came to this not from the perspective of having worked on reducing their impact for years before, but those who jumped in feet first, starting from the American norms or even above them, and who have bravely taken on a project far harder than my own - to make a 90% reduction or something very close to it, with great rapidity. Going back to my marathon metaphor of the previous post, I’m reminded of the fact that I read once that a marathon is far harder on the slower runners, because their joints and bodies have to endure far longer, and they strike the pavement far more frequently. I’m from Boston, so if you’ll forgive me, there are people right now making it up over Heartbreak Hill who have never run a block before, and they are damned brave people who I’m proud to know.

American Revolutionary War historian Timothy Breen has coined a term for the rituals of boycott, of self-restraint, of collective non-participation that enabled victory in the Revolution. He calls them “Acts of Non-Consumption” and writes at length about how powerful the collective choice not to consume, to resist, to restrain oneself for a larger goal can be. I’ve written more about this in an essay “Can Rationing be Made Palatable“, but the central truth that Breen points out is that in hard times, the pleasures of communal Austerity can be as powerful as any act of consumption - more so.

Thats what the Riot for Austerity is doing - and we’re not doing it in just one area. We’ve chosen to reduce our personal impact in 7 categories, not just Heat, Electricity and Gas, but also Food, Garbage, Water and Consumer Goods. We’re using only 10% of the American average each - or working on it. Some of us are already there (my running joke is that Larry Halpern, whose project I described in my previous post looked up a week into the project and said, “Ok, I’m done, what’s next?”), some of us are a long way away, and some people may never quite achieve 90% in every category. But we are doing something potentially powerful and transformative, that offers up the hope that other people might do it too.

Because if I can do it; if the people who had never run a step or changed a bulb to a CF before can do it; if people from every country can do it, if people in cities and suburbs and rural areas can do it; if rich and poor can do it; if men and women can do it; if people with big families and single folks, young and old can do it; then there is no one who can’t. And if all of us are doing it in part because we find fun, and pleasure and joy and delight in the rituals of non-consumption we’re engaged in, it is just possible that millions of other people might not only be able to do it, but want to.


28 Responses to “Acts of Non-Consumption and the Riot for Austerity at Community Solutions”

  1. Anonymouson 01 Nov 2007 at 8:19 pm

    Right on, Sharon!

    Thank you so much for your enlightening and informative posts. I’ve been reading your posts for a few weeks and have been acquainted with Peak Oil and the seriousness of climate change for two years. The “Big Melt” report was a very sad eye-opener to me , my family and friends.

    My husband and I embraced simplicity more than 35 years ago. We were inspired by the asceticism we discovered among mystics/sages of all traditions. Schumacher’s book “Small is Beautiful” influenced us as well.

    To live simply is so personally rewarding, so spiritual and so wonderful for our planet and every sentient being. It’s great for one’s pocket, the environment, and above all one teaches others (including one’s children) by example.

    North Americans must change their lifestyles (unlike what Cheney said) to attempt to mitigate climate change. As the biggest consumers in the world, we’re morally obliged to do so.

    ~ Vegan/Leaving So. FL

  2. RedStateGreenon 01 Nov 2007 at 8:28 pm

    Wow. I would have loved to be there.

    Well, as one of the ’slower runners’ I’ll have to say this has been a wonderful experience so far, four months into the project. Some things have been pretty easy, some I despair of getting down to the national average (although I know one day I’ll be there). Seeing what others have done/are doing is inspiring.


  3. Capturing Todayon 01 Nov 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you so much for your always informative, thought-proviking and action inspiring posts.

    Here’s one you might not have seen:

    Tennessee Town Runs Out Of Water:

  4. Anonymouson 01 Nov 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Why is everyone silent on this important topic? Aren’t we going to jam the culture (”Culture Jam”)by greatly reducing our consumption?

  5. Wendyon 02 Nov 2007 at 3:44 am

    I never joined you for Riot for Austerity, mostly because I didn’t have any support for that kind of project in my own home, but we have done many of the things the Riot is attempting to do, anyway, including finding alternatives to disposable feminine hygiene products (I’m a “diva” ;).

    Other changes include: eating local, reducing our energy consumption(oil, propane and electricity), limiting driving and having at least one car-free day per week.

    I love what you’re doing, and I believe reducing our consumption and simplifying our lives can be done. Further, it should.

  6. Green Beanon 02 Nov 2007 at 3:48 am

    Thank you for this post. So many focus on what we are giving up and the “sacrifces”. This isn’t hell. It is fun! Trying to beat last month’s eletric bill or water bill, looking to trounce last year’s spending, looking for creative non-consumptive things to do/make for the holidays, lurking in thrift shops when you need to buy something. It’s a challenge and who doesn’t love that. Of course, we’re doing it to save our species but, in the meantime, let’s have a ball cutting back.

  7. Annaon 02 Nov 2007 at 6:45 am

    Don’t change your lightbulbs, change your leaders.

    Please read Friedman and think about what he’s saying - it is mighty depressing to be putting my butt out there trying to collect Dem. signatures for the Draft Gore nomination papers, only to have every third person say “No, I’m in the Green Party” as they stroll by.

    Please, you guys, if you care, help where it counts most.

  8. Anna Hayneson 02 Nov 2007 at 6:56 am

    …and if your response is, “I’m just not comfortable getting involved in politics” - I can sympathize, I’m not either. But this is a time when we don’t have the luxury of staying in our comfort zones.

  9. Cherenkovon 02 Nov 2007 at 3:27 pm

    So, the really big question is: Can we reduce the birth rate to ten percent of what it was?

    Because, if your average human finds that they have time on their hands, they may decide to go out and entertain themselves by making a little whoopee.

    If the purpose of self-sacrifice is designed to enable further population growth, then we are doomed, only we will be doomed just a little further into the future and on a much greater scale.

    I truly wish I could avoid being the hard-core doomer that I am, but I see this as primarily an exercise in cheerleading, backslapping, and me-tooism as well as way to avoid getting involved in the political process and a fun way to meet like-minded people who would rather hide than engage the society at large.

    I think that the divide between those who would like to actively force a change, much like the Cuban Special Period, and those who seem to believe that they can build pseudo-isolated outposts of “civilized” communities which hope to ride out the troubles and emerge to repopulate the earth with “correct” thinking eco-friendly people, is one of the most interesting social experiments to ever be conducted during immensely trying times.

    I hope my kid’s kids live to see the results. (I am on the side of the granola crunchers.)

    May at least a breeding pair win.

  10. Anonymouson 02 Nov 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Let’s face it, Democrats will not “save” us. Perhaps with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, they’re as much a part of the corporatocracy that rules this country as the Republicans. BTW, I voted for Gore in 2000 and for Kerry in 2004.

    This might be of interest:

    “Our Masters, Ourselves” by Dale Allen Pfeiffer

    Vegan/Leaving So. FL

  11. Anonymouson 02 Nov 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Better link to Pfeiffer’s treatise.

  12. Annaon 02 Nov 2007 at 7:33 pm

    From “Our Masters, Ourselves” that Anonymous linked to -
    > “each of us has the power to stop this madness, simply by ceasing to take part in the system that perpetuates this madness.

    oh god. That’s New Age magical thinking and it will doom us. If you opt out, if I opt out, the system’s no dummy, it just routes around us.

    Come on people, think with your heads, not your hearts. Please. And if you haven’t watched An Inconvenient Truth, step away from the keyboard and go do so - or face explaining to your grandchildren in future that you were just too busy hanging out online.

  13. Annaon 02 Nov 2007 at 8:13 pm

    But before you step away from the keyboard, here’s Gore in…:

    Text - “Are we so scared of this challenge that we cannot lead?” - Moving Beyond Kyoto, published July 1 in NY Times.

    Audio - Sept. 27 U.N. speech
    (”What were you thinking? Why didn’t you act? Didn’t you care?”)

    Video -
    Jan 2006 hour-long speech to the American Constitution Society.
    or (shorter) his press appearance after winning the Nobel Peace Prize

    Please. Don’t say he’ll do nothing if you haven’t read/heard/watched these - that would be willful ignorance.

  14. Anonymouson 02 Nov 2007 at 8:55 pm


    “… simply by ceasing to take part in the system that perpetuates this madness.”

    No New Age madness! Mohandas K. Gandhi used this tactic and its effectiveness throughout history has been proven. It simply means to stop participating in the system in whatever way you can. In fact, “acts of non-consumption and the riot for austerity” is very effective in reducing your participation in the system.

    Just imagine, if the average American reduced their consumption by 50%, or even better, by 90% or 100% (which is what is needed to mitigate the effects of climate change), predatory global capitalism would be greatly reduced. We are less than 4% of the world’s population and consume at a minimum more than 25% of the world’s resources.

    “Live simply so others may simply live.” ~ MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

    ~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

  15. Annaon 03 Nov 2007 at 2:07 am

    > “if the average American reduced their consumption by 50%…

    Not gonna happen. Magical (Lennonist?) thinking, to think that it could. Go out and talk to people outside your subculture; they will educate you on this.

    (and furthermore - we have no Gandhi, and the average American’s life is a whole lot more comfy than the average Indian’s was. Don’t underestimate comfy as a demotivator for change.)

    Please, think with your head, not your heart.

    Did you read the Friedman “leaders not lightbulbs” article?

  16. Anonymouson 03 Nov 2007 at 3:37 am

    You are being more “magical” to think that Gore would run for president, which he has said he would not. In any case, the corrupt Democratic party apparatus would never allow his nomination. To think that a transformed Gore could change the corporatocracy is delusional and naive. Gore had a chance to show his stuff already for 8 long years and failed miserably. He could not even articulate in favor of the Kyoto Protocol.

    Yes, probably the American public will not embrace powerdown or “non-consumption.” Too much arrogance and bread and circus, etc. among the U.S. populace — (See sociologist Morris Berman’s book “Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire”). Nevertheless, those of us who are aware of what’s transpiring right before our eyes are morally obliged to reduce our consumption for the sake of every sentient being and our Earth. It’s my hope that many will embrace a simple lifestyle, but I’m not counting on it or deluding myself.

    In my experience, many local members of NGOs like Sierra Club, and NRDC give lip service to Gore and environmental causes while personally continuing their affluent lifestyles: eating factory -farmed meat, driving their SUVs and flying everywhere on vacation several times a year. Pure hypocrisy!

    As Richard Heinberg explained in his book “Powerdown,” the ruling elites of the U.S. (primarily) and of the world have already decided that it shall be “the last one standing.” Sadly, given the current lack of action regarding the urgency of climate change, the die-off will be inevitable.

    So what can the common people do? I and many others would say prepare, prepare, prepare … Relocalize … Learn how to grow your food organically, move away from low coastal regions, deindustrialize your lifestyle. Take care of your family and your community. Our government will do nothing for us. Think Katrina. The coming terminal triangle of Peak Oil, climate change and economic meltdown/dollar tanking is coming.

    Sharon was right when she said in an earlier post that change must come from the grassroots. Yes, it must come from the inside out.


    ~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

  17. Annaon 03 Nov 2007 at 6:22 am

    > “Take care of your family and your community. Our government will do nothing for us.”

    That sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Please consider opening your mind to the Friedman column and following the other links I provided upthread.

  18. Anonymouson 03 Nov 2007 at 3:41 pm

    IF Gore came back, and IF the Dem party leadership allowed it, and IF he won, THEN he might TRY to change some things. He would be largely unable to change significant things, because the President doesn’t have very much power, the RULING PARTY does, and the dems as a whole are simply not behind the global warming issue the way the Gore is, and you all know that, otherwise there would be no point in trying to tempt him out of retirement.

    The REASON Gore could not be effective even if elected, is because he still believes in the system and using the system to bring about change.

    Go back and read the Federalist Papers sometime, the debates between the pro-Constitution people and the anti-Constitution people back in the Revolutionary period. Both sides agree that an entrenched party-system would ruin any hope of genuine democracy. Both sides agree that you ought to work hard to prevent an entrenched party-system from forming. The anti-Constitution side worries that the Constitution doesn’t do enough to prevent a party-system, the PRO-Constitution side argues that America is a small enough country that a party-system won’t develop and if it ever does the people can just rebel again.

    Sadly, neither side realy understood the mathematics of voting systems yet. Llull had worked a lot of it out, but his works were lost. Borda and Condorcet in France were just beginning to explore the math. Duverger’s law means that plurality voting systems are practically fated to evolve over time into divisive two party politics. Wikipedia has an extensive overview of the issues at

    In a plurality system which already has a stable 2 party system, you don’t really get the chance to vote FOR someone, you only get the chance to vote AGAINST someone, because it is always in both parties interests to run a candidate who is only slightly off of the political median. Now primaries reduce this effect a little, but not a lot. So the best you can hope for is marginal improvements in leadership. A Dem candidate might be just barely better than a Rep one in some ways, but neither party can afford to be very far off the median of their electorate. Plugging for one party or the other in a plurality system is always the equivalent of changing lightbulbs, you might make a little progress but not much. And boy you seem to be pouring effort and passion into it for your little progress. Its a marathon not a sprint remember? The Dems could have fought for more when they were in power, but they didn’t. You say “how much progress would he have made?” How much progress do you think Gore would make today if elected? The Dems could have fought for a sane farm bill THIS YEAR, but nope we got more of the same. And even if the Dems win big in 08, there is no way they will win big enough to prevent the remaining reps from obstructing, and providing cover for dems who want to defect in votes to protect their own corporate allies.

    So what can we do? Vote in a Dem? A green? Revolt against the system? Build our little local communities? The reps are committed to “last one standing”, the Dems waffle a little, but won’t get out of their comfort zone. The greens and counter-cultural folks will remain tiny mostly ineffective minorities, especially since the party-system is designed to keep them that way. But many, many people are already disaffected with the whole system. As the system functions more and more poorly, more people will be disaffected with the whole system. Non-voters win every election. The first person that learns to really tap into the passions and concerns of the non-voters is going to be riding lightning.

    This year the choice looks like this: dem, rep, 3rd party, or don’t vote. But soon the political choice will look quite different: support the system, actively rebel against the system, or simply wait for the system to collapse under its own weight for lack of support.

    If you REALLY think that political change is the answer, then get out your your little comfort zone and become a revolutionary, like the American revolutionaries of old! If you think that Gore will save us, then do your petitions, but when the Dem party finally makes it clear to you that they have no interest in serious change, even to save the planet, then “find the moral courage to rise and solve this crisis … Not with your promises, but with our actions.”

    I’ve read your links (the written ones anyway), but they don’t move me. Changing our laws would help a lot, but neither side has the courage to make more than surface changes, until they are forced to. And the few outliers who do will be blocked. A genuine change in leadership might accomplish something, but that would be a much harder and more dangerous task.

    Or realize that the problems are more than just political, they are political, economic, cultural, based on lifestyles, jobs, values, really every aspect of our society. Changing lightbulbs won’t be enough, and neither will changing parties. We need to change the whole frickin’ culture and that won’t be easy, but it will become slowly more possible as more and more people become desperate and scared, instead of comfortable. Magical thinking is most popular when people feel powerless before the difficulty of what needs to be done.

    Change doesn’t need to come from the top or the bottom. Change is coming from all levels and soon, whether we like it or not. That is what unsustainable MEANS, neither the top nor the bottom has the power to hold back the changes built into the system. It is too late to prevent the coming changes. Changing the system is not the issue, that will happen anyway just because the system is unsustainable. The trick is channeling the changes into something useful, something that looks decent rather than horrible. Will the changes manifest as poverty for all, or American dictatorship, or something milder? Will the changes help the global warming issue or not?

    Me, I’m of the camp of Kant and Solzhenitsyn on this one. When a regime is coming down anyway because of its inherent unsustainability, you don’t need to actively rebel against it, just withdraw your support. That is hard enough to do in reality, I haven’t accomplished it yet, but its a marathon not a sprint. Go ahead and try to change leaders, that might help a little. But don’t think that will save us, don’t belittle efforts to change the culture, and don’t treat Gore as a political version of the technology-fairy that will somehow save us.

    -Brian M.

  19. Annaon 03 Nov 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Six degrees - Our Future on a Hotter Planet

  20. Ameliaon 03 Nov 2007 at 8:01 pm

    Anna, those of us who were going to read the Friedman have read it; that we have reached a different conclusion to your own does not mean that we didn’t understand what we were reading, or appreciate the urgency of the situation: you have not added anything to your original point beside volume and frequency of posting, and I would respectfully suggest that you let it go.

    Sharon, if you were to do a more in-depth write-up of reaction to the Riot, I would enjoy reading it.

  21. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2007 at 12:27 am

    Brian, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post.

    True that “change is coming from all levels and soon, whether we like it or not.” However, our culture would be spared much unnecessary suffering if people in our society would voluntarily realize that downsizing or simplifying our lifestyles is necessary to avert the extinction of our species and that it is the ethical and noble thing to do. With that realization, then, it would be easier to address the actions needed for the transition. As opposed to, say, people thinking that the magic elixir of technology or a particular leader would remedy our problems and ignore the fact that radical lifestyle changes are needed. This is what I meant when I said that change to be effective and least chaotic must come from the inside out.

    I’m rather skeptical about the possibility of the majority of Americans pursuing simplifying their lifestyles. I don’t think that it would be voluntarily pursued en masse.

    ~Vegan/Leaving So.FL

  22. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2007 at 12:48 am

    Here are George Monbiot’s reflections on the Clinton/Gore Administration as stated in the foreword to the U.S. edition of his 2007 book “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning”:

    “But the inconvenient truth we seek to forget is that the Clinton-Gore administration did even greater damage [than the Bush administration]. Bush might have pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol, but the Clinton administration destroyed the Protocol as an effective instrument — for everyone. It insisted on measures which allow countries to trade hot air and launder fake cuts. It encouraged other countries to reduce their targets (and thereby allow a higher level of emissions). In his speech to the Kyoto conference in December 1997, Al Gore used the same mendacious formula George Bush now employs, claiming that limiting carbon emissions the U.S. might otherwise have produced in a hypothetical future equates to real cuts in actual emissions. It was one of the most disgraceful moments in the Clinton presidency, and is impossible to reconcile with the subsequent career of the former next president of the United States. Clinton failed to submit the protocol to the Senate, Bush refused to do so. There is little practical difference.

    In other words the china had already been smashed when Bush took office: he simply ground it into dust. I admire Al Gore’s film and Bill Clinton’s Climate Initiative, but they also stick in the throat. Like many former leaders, they do a much better job of governing when out of office.”

    ~Vegan/Leaving So.FL

  23. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2007 at 3:40 am

    Waste not, want not: making conservation #1, #2 priority
    By Lauren Heaton

    Yellow Springs community members Larry Halpern and Gail Keen have spent the past several years reducing their household reliance on energy and are now using one-fourth of the energy they used in the past.

    for DVDs of the presentations, including Larry Halpern’s and Sharon’s:


  24. jewishfarmeron 04 Nov 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Anna, I admire your enthusiasm and hope for Gore. As I said in a prior thread, I don’t share it - I think relying upon people complict in mass murder to transform society is generally a bad idea. But, I also reluctantly approve of the draft Gore idea - I doubt it will work, but sure, go for it.

    On the other hand, I think relying on Thomas Friedman, the advocate and to an extent architect of the absolute cultural presumption of globalization to direct us to real change is beyond unwise - Friedman has made it absolutely clear in _The World is Flat_ and in his columns that what he seeks is the status quo made more so. The idea that one of his columns would guide us in the direction of real change is ridiculous.


  25. jewishfarmeron 04 Nov 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Cherenkov, the birthrate is still falling worldwide - even the highest TFR rates in the world have seen 20% drops and more in under a decade, which is astonishing. But the reality is that falling birthrates take time to show up - while dramatically reduced consumption rates can happen quite quickly.

    The reality is that impact is a multiple of consumption and population - both need to be addressed, but the first most important project is to get consumption down in the rich world.

    As for whether people will ever voluntarily reduce their consumption or change their society in any deep way - well, the only models we have are historical, and in fact, revolutionary change has happened before. Whether it will in this case, I can only speculate upon.


  26. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Corrected link to the great article submitted by sgl:

  27. Barwebowon 05 Nov 2007 at 3:38 am

    I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned the pending economic collapse. This will automatically cause a reduction in our consumption. It will be a huge motivator for the currently uninspired.

  28. danon 27 Dec 2007 at 3:14 am

    I am surprised no one has mentioned the concept of “polar cities”, also called “ark cities”, also called “arktopia,” also called sustainable polar retreats,, that humankind just might need in the year 2500 or so, if all the fixes and ideas we have now don’t work. What do you think? Do you think it could come to that, and should we start thinking about polar cities now, planning them, designing them, locating sites for them, now, while we have time and transporation to get there, or do you think the fixes will work? Love to hear your opinion on polar cities, pro or con, yes or no. This is all just a non threatening thought experiment, i like to tell people. Your work with Riot for Austerity is a very good idea and I applaud it. We need to stop all car and plane traffic now. NOW.

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