Economics, Ecology, And Us

Towards a gentle - and enjoyable - way of life

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 10
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Can we lead our lives in ways that:

  • are deeply satisfying, fulfilling, and appealing, and at the same time
  • are environmentally benign, so that everyone else could live in similar ways without damaging the Earth?

This simple question, which has always been at the heart of IN CONTEXT, is becoming the central question of our time. If the answer proves to be "No," our future will be bleak indeed, for we will have no good options. The destructive consumption of the "haves," the desperate struggle to survive of the "have-nots," and the inevitable conflict between them will tear both the human and the natural worlds into shreds.

But I don’t think the answer needs to be "No." Indeed, all that I’ve learned in the past decades convinces me that a resounding "Yes!" is well within our reach.

This confidence is deeply rooted in my own experience. When Diane and I met and married in the late 1960s, we were both oriented to living well on a low cash-flow. Our student-level income encouraged us in that direction, but there was more to it than just that. We both came out of backgrounds with a strong do-it-yourself flavor, and in the idealism of the times, we wanted to explore ways of living that would be environmentally sound and globally fair.

At the beginning of the seventies we lived for 21 months on $50 per month plus food stamps (our only use of such assistance). Throughout the rest of decade the occasional jobs we had were all relatively low-paying, and our family (then three of us) averaged under $5,000 per year in total income. The figure was well below the poverty line, but it didn’t feel that way to us. We traveled extensively in North America, built our own energy-efficient solar home, and started the North Olympic Living Lightly Association (the forerunner of Context Institute).

Needless to say, we learned a lot during that time. On the plus side, it was clear to us that unpaid work within the household could reduce or replace many expenses that most Americans take for granted – in areas from food and health care to housing and transportation. We also found that there was much we simply didn’t need. Whenever we weren’t tied to a job, our freedom gave us opportunities for low-cost yet fascinating adventures of all kinds. Our unusual life also helped us to have a rich family life and give our son attention that would have been difficult to purchase.

This kind of lifestyle is often referred to as "voluntary simplicity." We used to chuckle at that because, compared to the simplicity of having one job and handling everything else by paying someone else to do it for you, ours was definitely a life of voluntary complexity! It was both enormously stimulating and enormously challenging.

On the minus side, we naturally found that we could not replace all expenses with our own labor. More problematic, we found that the paid-labor world was often downright hostile to anyone who was not devoted to it full-time. It was hard to find a middle ground that combined sophisticated paid work with substantial personal time.

We were never truly poor, but we did get tight enough at times to appreciate the desperation that being without resources (not only financial but social and otherwise) can bring. Yet in our case, whenever we got to the "end of our rope," new rope always seemed to grow out of the old end. There were always new opportunities coming up over the horizon – often just in time.

Above that level there was, and is, a broad income territory where wealth and poverty are clearly states of mind and not measured by our bank account. In this territory, our sense of fulfillment depends almost entirely on the degree to which we are able to express our values and have reasonable control over how we spend our time.

In the 1980s, as we have devoted more time to developing IN CONTEXT, our family cash-flow has drifted up. Partly this reflects finding a better balance between what we do with cash and what we do in other ways, but it also represents some "compromises with the system." We have chosen to make these compromises so that we can more fully affect the larger system around us. We carry with us, however, in addition to valuable habits, a clear understanding that a totally first class life – no apologies at all! – can be lived at a consumption level well below what most Americans would think of as a minimum standard of living. It is a wonderfully liberating realization.

Along the way we always felt that our goal was not some private salvation, but rather to lead our lives as an experiment in search of a family of lifestyles – of ways of being – that are both appealing and gentle enough on the Earth to be shared by all. Grounded in our personal experience, we gave a lot of attention to this larger challenge as well. In the rest of this article I’d like to touch on some of what we learned.

Let’s begin with the environmental impact side of this challenge. How gentle is gentle enough? We don’t really know just how much human abuse the natural systems of the Earth can stand before they are seriously disrupted, but we do know enough to give us pause. The major factors that contribute to the human impact on the natural environment can be put together in the following formula:

Population x Technology x Standard of Living = Environmental Impact

There are several points to consider in light of this formula:

  • During the 20th century, each of these three factors has been growing rapidly, so their combined effect has been growing very rapidly.
  • Many natural systems exhibit apparent stability up to a critical threshold and then deteriorate rapidly when the stresses on them go beyond that threshold.
  • There are already many signs – the dying of trees in Europe, the growth of deserts in Africa, and the deforestation of the tropics – that many natural systems are near their critical thresholds.

The net result is that even if we are not yet at the maximum allowable human impact on the environment, we will likely get there soon if population, technology, and standards of living all keep growing at the rates they have been. What hope is there of lowering our impact? Let’s look at each of the three contributing factors.

Population The world population level will be shaped by what happens to both birthrates and deathrates in the coming years. Dramatic declines in birthrate are quite possible, as the experience of Japan, China, Chile, and Columbia illustrate. Each of these countries was able to cut its birth rate in half, down to approximately replacement levels, often in less than 10 years.

Yet even if such steep declines in birth rate spread to all countries, the world population would still grow from its current 5.5 billion to about 8 billion before stabilizing. What about trimming birth rates even further? Tthis would slow population growth, but it can lead to massive social problems – as China is starting to realize with its "spoiled child" one-child families, which in a few decades will result in too few working adults to support the large number of elders – and unstable societies aren’t very gentle to the environment.

Could the death rate rise? Of course it could, but almost any scenario that would raise the death rate enough to put a major dent in the total population size, such as massive starvation or a world-wide epidemic, would probably also lead to great ecological and social damage, not to mention terrible human suffering! Also, higher death rates and greater social stress don’t necessarily lead to overall population decline. Consider, for example, sub-Saharan Africa where starvation, AIDS, ecological deterioration are all significant and at the same time population growth rates are among the highest in the world.

So while there is genuine hope that the world population can be stabilized, it would be a mistake to look towards rapid population decline as a primary strategy for reducing humanity’s current level environmental impact.

Technology In considering technology, what is important is not just some vague sense of the "level of technology," but the specific environmental impacts that particular technologies have. We need to think of technology quite broadly – for example, slash-and-burn agriculture is as much a "technology" as nuclear power is.

What is the potential for significantly reducing the environmental impacts of the broad range of technologies? There is a great deal that could be done. For example, as Hunter Lovins noted in the last issue (IC #25, p. 20), "[W]ith the best demonstrated technologies it’s now cost-effective to save nearly four-fifths of all the oil currently used in the United States." All of my research over the past years suggests that 1) proven, cost-effective technologies are available that could cut our general environmental impact to less than a third of its current level, and 2) we have hardly begun to develop what is possible in terms of environmentally friendly technologies.

Standard of Living Yet for all that can be done with better technologies, if we attempt to rely on technological fixes alone we are likely to get at best only a temporary reprieve. As long as we base our society and economy on the idea of never-ending growth in consumption, we will sooner or later find that we have exhausted Nature’s tolerance. We have a choice. We can either decide what is enough – set our own limits (as people in developed countries have done with family size) – or have limits disastrously imposed on us.

Can we develop self-chosen limits that are genuinely "Earth friendly" and at the same time satisfying and appealing? As the articles that follow illustrate, many people have found, as we did, that they can develop such a life. Indeed, many have found that limiting their material consumption has been the key to improving their quality of life.

Why Aren’t We Doing It? Putting all these pieces together suggests that we have the know-how and the capability to be leading satisfying, sustainable, and globally shareable lives. Why, then, aren’t we, as a society, living this way?

There are many reasons. Some relate to the pace of change in such things as the magnitude of our environmental impact, which has been so rapid that the normal pace of cultural evolution hasn’t been able to keep up.

But the truly essential reason, as far as I can tell, is that our socioeconomic system has been constructed in such a way that it works well when it is growing, but it is awkward, unstable, and pain-producing when it shrinks. We have chosen, as a society, to avoid the pain we associate with decreasing economic activity (recessions and depressions) by attempting always to increase the total volume of economic activity rather than by restructuring the system so that it could gracefully handle contraction as well as expansion.

This choice first became an issue in the U.S. during the 1920s, the first decade when production comfortably surpassed basic needs. Businessmen at first fretted because workers seemed more interested in expanding their leisure time than in increasing their income. Such a move would have slowed economic growth and lowered business profits. But by mid-decade advertising and the "new economic gospel of consumption" came to the rescue, turning workers into consumers and tapping what seemed to be an inexhaustible wellspring of demand. As was clearly recognized in the 1929 report from Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes, the growth of the American economy now depended on a constant expansion of demand for "optional consumption" beyond basic needs.

This basic idea – that economic growth is our abiding national goal, and that everyone should serve that goal by consuming as much as they can – survived the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the decades that followed. Republicans and Democrats have disagreed over the details of how the benefits of this growth should be distributed, but no one questioned the need for consumption-driven growth.

Now, however, after many decades of such growth, we are starting to see that it is not the "endless" solution it was thought to be. The environmental price is high and keeps growing. The demands of constant work and consumption have destroyed the social fabric of our communities and severely frayed that of our families. The ever more sophisticated intertwining of media and advertising needed to drive consumption threatens to completely destroy the integrity of journalism and the arts. And on top of it all, we have to keep going deeper and deeper into debt just to keep up the pace. For these and other reasons it is clear that we need to slow down, yet we seem to be stuck in high gear. Now that we need models for a more sustainable socioeconomic system, as a society we don’t even know where to begin to look.

What We Can Do Fortunately, there are steps we can take to get out of this mess. Some of these are at a macro-level, a topic we will return to in an upcoming issue on sustainable economics. But even the best macro-level designs are unlikely to work unless they are built on a profound shift in our cultural values – away from the goal of ever-greater consumption towards a better balance between consumption, personal time, and the health of the environment. This shift will only come out of the personal choices you and I make, and out of the experimentation we are willing to do with our lives.

The articles that follow come from the frontier of this exploration. I hope you will find them to be as encouraging as I do.