Stop talking about lifestyle

Today’s episode of “Sacrifice is for Suckers” is dedicated to Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski, who recently warned that climate change is going to force some difficult choices on Americans who are used to having their cake and burgers and ice cream and SUVs too:

> “Other than taxes,” he added, “the hardest thing I find to talk with my constituents and my citizens about is about changing lifestyles.”

David Roberts brings the good news to Governor Ted:

> **Americans are always changing their lifestyles.** In just my living memory, shopping has moved to the web, interpersonal communication has become ubiquitous, urbanization has accelerated, newspapers have all but died, etc. etc. Lifestyles are never static. It’s just that people don’t tend to notice lifestyle changes as such because they happen gradually.

Just as importantly, we *enjoy* changing our lifestyles, because change is generally for the better. This is true for our high-definition televisions, and it will be true of our low-carbon lives as well.

I’ve made these points before. One additional point. Governor Ted also said, “There’s a lifestyle issue involved in this, about our penchant for consumerism and consumption.”

You hear this a lot from certain quarters, this notion that we’ve simply got to “consume less” if we’re going to live in harmony with the planet. I’m never really sure what this means. We can keep living exactly as we do now, but we just need to buy 23% less stuff? We should fast every other Tuesday? We should spend two nights a week in the dark?

Of course, we do need to consume less of some of the things we’re presently consuming — fossil fuels in particular — but it’s nonsense to suggest that in the future we’ll consume less overall. We’ll just consume different stuff, stuff we can’t imagine right now, stuff we’ll like a lot.

(As an aside, Governor Ted seems like a nice guy who rides a bicycle to work, so I don’t mean to pick on him. I just find this framing of the climate change problem to be counterproductive.)

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adam

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  1. Tom Harrison - May 12, 2009

    Wow, Adam —
    I normally agree pretty much completely with your assessments of things. I consider myself pragmatic and realistic, and what you have written in the past seems to be so, too.
    I would have to say that one of the things people hate most is change. In particular we dislike the kinds of change we have to make that weren’t our choice. And since I think people generally are happy with the status quo, this applies to most cases.
    Your quote from David Roberts doesn’t contradict the Governor’s, it just puts a fine point on it — people are more willing to accept gradual changes in their lifestyles as they happen and they decide the new (changed) things are good for them. My 83 year old mother isn’t particularly thrilled with the changes Roberts notes — they do nothing but make like more difficult.
    So, I guess I would say that people are willing to accept change, as long it’s on our own terms (or we believe it is :-).
    The reason this quibble is important goes to your second point about consumption. Do you really not understand why people say we need to consume less? I think it’s pretty evident that this statement is true, plain and simple — our “lifestyle” is unsustainable unless we change by using up fewer of the limited resources we’re chewing up now. You mention fossil fuel. There are others.
    I think a key point here is that while we need to stop using up stuff that is running out, we may be able to accomplish this without getting less “value”.
    If we insulate our houses, we use less fuel but are just as happy. We don’t really care how we get electricity as long as we get it, and so on. So in some ways of thinking we can have our things in a way that is sustainable. From this viewpoint, on my optimistic days I think we might be able to continue to have “more”, just in a way that uses things wisely, efficiently, etc. I think this is the gist of your conclusion.
    But there’s another more important point that relates to “lifestyles”. We (Americans) are often labeled “consumers”, and there’s something inherently wrong about that label. I prefer to think of myself as a citizen, or father, or person.
    This consumer label is a new thing, and over the last 5 or 6 decades we have embraced an almost willful, flagrant, consumerist world, where things get used up and tossed on the junk heap. It’s not just that we have more — we have intentionally defined a lifestyle that leads us to consume, and consume a lot.
    This is a lifestyle that, if we thought about it, doesn’t necessarily bring us additional value (happiness, etc.) in all cases. Things are made to be cheap and get tossed so we’re dealing with low quality junk. We continually “trade up” to new things. This seems almost a little pathological to me. Indeed, I think we’re just used to this way of interacting with our surroundings because it’s what most of us have done for our whole lives.
    To be sure, being consumers has helped jazz up the economy (part of the intent), and we have bigger houses, more cars, and more crap in general. Oh yeah, we’re also obese.
    But now what we “need” is usually just what we want. In my view, this is a result of a long-standing, gradual set of changes that we have accepted into our lives. It seems opulent at first glance — but in truth, it’s obscene.
    The companies that sell us stuff to consume would have us think that we asked for them. In many cases (like SUVs) we didn’t, and instead a little savvy marketing planted an idea (like “bigger is better”) that we have taken to a rather incredible extreme.
    I personally don’t think that we can simply invent our way out of our current woes — possible, but I doubt it. I do think we need to re-asses our lifestyles — and if we do I do believe that we can rediscover some ways of living that allow us to have the comforts, leisure, and other things we want (as well as the things we need).
    But this is exactly the kind of change that I think it’s hard for us to get our heads around, so we resist, deny, and object. I think this is what the Governor deals with.
    Change is good, and it’s needed … and unavoidable in any case. We just need to find ways to help ourselves see that some of the changes we’ll go through may look like “less” but turn out to be far more.
    (Sorry for the tome. This one hit a bit of a raw nerve for me.)
    Tom

  2. Anonymous - May 13, 2009

    Tom-
    Absolutely agree. There is a distinct cultural aspect to our materialism. Defining one’s worth or happiness by the quantity of the ‘stuff’ we posses isn’t exactly a new phenomena and isn’t unique to America but I think it’s gone to excess in recent decades. I’ve noticed the change in my lifetime (which isn’t all that long) and I can clearly see the difference when I speak with people like my 90 year old grandmother. I’m not against ‘stuff’ in general – I like being able to call people while walking outdoors, wearing comfortable shoes made from synthetic plastics, etc. And I’m definitely not in favor of someone else deciding what stuff should be allowed and what should not. I don’t own an SUV (and for several years when I lived in NYC didn’t even own a car) but I’d be really upset if it hadn’t been my choice.
    So yes, change will always happen and some of the changes will require us to use less of certain things (fossil fuels being just one) and we will adapt. But the adaptation will be a lot easier, I think, if we find a way to reduce our psychological (and borderline pathological) dependency on always needing to have a lot of ‘stuff’. And if one of the side effects of the changes we experience in the coming decades is that we all grow a bit less attached to our ‘stuff’ and focus a bit more on things that really matter (spending time with family and friends, enjoying nature, experiencing new things, etc.) then it won’t be a bad thing at all.
    Andy
    PS – while I didn’t always appreciate George Carlin’s humor, his ‘stuff’ routine was classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac

  3. richard schumacher - May 13, 2009

    One change: Oregonians will no longer pay $0.06 per kW-hr for electricity. After we build a continent-wide electricity grid to increase reliability and share expenses they’ll be paying about $0.20 just like everyone else. My household already pays about that much for 100% wind power; we keep the house as bright, warm and cold as we like it year-round without any global warming guilt.
    We can use all the carbon-free power we want. We just have to pay for it.

  4. Steve - May 13, 2009

    I have never commented here but today I am having a bad day as far as all this “stuff” goes. I read an essay early today regarding our decline as an empire and then Tom’s posting and am sorely confused and perplexed – so much so that I feel helpless in effecting change, today anyway.
    I feel most people are clueless as to the train wreck that our society has become regarding our consumptive lifestyle. I recently drove my wife to the White Plains,NY airport for an unfortunately, a late afternoon flight. Returning to my home in New Haven was a tedious and frustrating process due to it being rush hour. The Merritt Parkway becomes a linear parking lot from 4-7 PM everyday. A 70-mile trip took over 2 1/2 hours with the cars crawling, no inching along. I must admit it was beautiful, driving along the historic parkway built by the WPA during the last depression, since we had sooooo much time to actually look at the scenery – I saw quite a few deer. And it is always like this from 4-7 PM. A man in a huge Land Cruiser beside me was busy texting, and reading some financial printout, then talking on his cell phone. I am sure he was driving home to his palatial suburban estate on Round Hill Rd in Greenwich, pulling through the gate and into the garage and into his own little cocoon where all the world is beautiful people and beautiful things. I have to agree with Tom, that the change is comfortable if you are able to “get with the program.” But I believe the things that we are going to have to change are going to make life much more unpleasant and most of us will look back at this time as “the good ‘ole days longingly and wistfully and thinking to ourselves, gosh if I had just changed when I could. So I read this Culture Change essay and then saw one of GE’s “Ecomagination” commercials on TV and I felt so much better. OK, I tell myself- technology will get us out of this mess. And off I went, walking the five blocks to work on a pleasant morning while being hounded by panhandlers on Chapel Street, particularly in front of the Starbucks at High St. So, I am really, really confused by all this “stuff” and end up thinking that something is wrong with me because I am really obsessed with all this and am changing how I live but get the feeling that it really does not matter what I do. Everybody else is driving to work and the mall and shopping and buying $3 cups of coffee and shopping and driving …… so I am the fool.

  5. Karl - May 13, 2009

    He is not framing this as a climate change argument. Read between the lines. He is hinting about the upcoming liquid fuel shortages (peak oil). This will be a permanent condition, and consumption rates will have to fall.

  6. Patrick - May 13, 2009

    Steve:
    I felt a little like you described, but only back in 2006 or so. Very few people around me seemed to be interested in conserving anything or even recycling then. These days, however, I find more and more that green living and conservation of natural resources has started to gain a significant foothold in the public’s awareness. A couple of years ago we were still seeing articles in mainstream media outlets questioning the validity of global warming predictions, but most of that “debate” has been pushed to remote corners of the blogosphere. Those of us who pay attention to our consumption habits, incorporate energy efficiency into our personal lives, and care about use of our resources in the long term are swiftly becoming the “everybody else” while the folks who don’t keep up are becoming the “fools.” It’s more embarrassing these days to have a house full of incandescent bulbs than one full of CFLs, or to drive a Hummer rather than a Prius, so keep doing the right thing even when those around you aren’t.

  7. Melanie - May 13, 2009

    I am looking forward to the time when the “green” lifestyle isn’t labeled as green anymore. When it is just the normal American way. I keep hoping for a time when municipalities quit charging for recycling and having trash pick up free. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I think if everyone did just a little bit, we would be better off.
    I also think that the people who may be little more savvy about this should be more helpful than judgmental. We can’t assume we know anything about someone’s lifestyle by a brief glimpse. Someone may see me driving an SUV, for instance, but obviously have no way of knowing that I drive it about a total of 20 miles per month, and only when I am using it to haul something. All my everyday errands are done either on foot, on a bike, or in my little Honda Civic.
    We need to make it a little easier to make the right choices, and really press for education. Businesses should let those who can work from home go ahead and do it. Businesses should maybe get some kind of tax credit or something to make showers available to those who decide to commute on bike. Plus, businesses who encourage this would have the added benefit of healthier employees, who cost them less in health care/insurance/missed days due to illness, etc. It would also alleviate parking issues. Plus, the cost would be next to nothing to do this.
    I am also hoping that one day it will cease to be a political issue.

  8. Tony - May 13, 2009

    I agree, many people resist change, especially if they do not see themselves being active agents who shape the changes that they would otherwise fear. I grew up conservative and stayed conservative when liberals ranted their frustrations and anger in my face. My mind finally opened when I noticed that some liberal friends were actually happier with change, especially change that they controlled (conservatives thrive on control). Now, when I show my happiness before my advocacy for sustainable living, I find that closed minds tend to open and my advocacy becomes far less frustrating for me and others. It also helps to not identify myself as being liberal, though I know others do, and I’m very happy with that too.

  9. Frank - May 13, 2009

    Fortunately, with the installation of the new administration in Washington, we’re no longer hearing the tired rhetoric about “defending the ‘American Way of Life’.” Slice and dice it however you wish, the American way of life–as most Americans currently exercise it–is not sustainable. Buying more (or even the same) of anything is just not an option.

  10. megacleve - May 13, 2009

    I really like this article! But I completely agree with Sen. Ted: we need to consume less! However, just like your observation of lifestyle changes, I think everyone WANTS to consume less. Seriously, want consumer is not completely sick of the culture of crap that our manufacturers throw at us these days? What about getting rid of the phrase “planned obsolence”? Take HD TV, for example. We have a 20 year old TV that works just fine with bunny ears, then we have to spend $20 (with a voucher) for digital that we can barely see. How many acres of landfills can we really fill with cameras that break in a year, cell phones that are out of style in 6 months, 5 year old computers that can’t connect to the Internet. I don’t know anyone that WANTS to buy a new dishwasher because theirs broke right after the 3 year warranty ran out! THAT’S the consumer culture we need to fight, and it comes from the manufacturers, engineers, and CEOs, not the actual consumers who will BENEFIT.

  11. Anonymous - May 13, 2009

    I agree with Megacleve. My mom and dad bought a washer and dryer set when they got married in 1968, and they were still running in 1990. Same with the toaster, which still works, by the way. My mom actually just gave me said toaster, which I am now using. If manufacturers made things that lasted, like they used to, we wouldn’t have so much garbage. Everything has become disposable. You can’t even keep your old cell phone, because they tell you that their current plans do not support the “old” device. It is getting ridiculous. Trust me, I hate shopping and would love to not have to buy anything for a long time. I am waiting for the next thing to break, though.

  12. Susan Thompson - May 14, 2009

    AMEN!
    I certainly agree. I can add another:
    A manufacturer makes a healthy and good product for the times. IE: Prius
    They are selling like hotcakes because no other hybrid on the market comes close to gas use reduction, especially in urban areas where we wait at a red light for five minutes. I have been following these cars since the time they were on the market and as all autos have gone in the past, so goes Prius. They now are a bit bigger with more “bells and whistles” and the price has risen while people wait for the delivery. Last year a new Prius sold for 25,000. This year they are priced at 28,000. The first Prius sold for around 20,000. How green is that????
    And the kicker….the new ones don’t get as good gas mileage as the years before. I own an ’05.

  13. rao yalamanchili - May 14, 2009

    The moment someone suggests that I should consume less in the interest of human race I get jitters that I am being being deprived of my comforts. It looks as if I am asked to sacrifice something for others.
    Also such attitude is looked down as being miserliness that many of us would not like to be branded as one.
    The better way to make us to change our attitude is to let us adopt “consuming less” as a game. Let there be awards for the one who has managed to reduce six months average power or gas bill from the previous six month average. Similarly for fuel and for groceries.
    Let there be recognition at community level, at county level, at state level and at national level. Lot of enthusiasm will be generated and lot of new ideas will be generated and we would also be looking at how and where we are really wasting our money.
    There could be many more such ideas that can draw our attention to save the planet.
    Rao

  14. Susan Thompson - May 14, 2009

    Yes and we could legalize euthanasia so that elderly people could stop using up air,space and food when they decide that these items are no longer useful to them. As well as saving in medical situations that Drs. know are for naught.