December 9, 2019

The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2019 is “climate emergency”. Yes, I know that’s two words, but never mind.

All year, we’ve had striking school children and Extinction Rebels tell us that time is running out and that we must take radical action now. They’ve made themselves heard and the politicians are pretending to listen: “OK, Zoomers — we’ll stick up a few more windmills — now, run along back to class.”

But according to environmentalists like George Monbiot, that’s not nearly enough. Clean tech alone won’t save the planet — we have to drastically reduce our consumption too. That way we can kick our fossil fuel habit much sooner, plus all the other ways in which we mess up our world. In short, our lifestyles are unsustainable, no matter how we power them. It’s an argument he sets out in his compelling Confessions interview with Giles Fraser (he also makes his case here).

OK, let’s assume that things are every bit as bad as Monbiot says they are. Let’s also assume that people would vote for the radical reduction in consumption that would be required to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. You may think that deadline unrealistic, but it does allow us to ask an interesting question: what would living with less actually mean?

Extinction Rebellion swerves the question by referring it to the ‘citizen assemblies’ they want established. Other campaigners, including Monbiot, focus on the extravagantly wasteful appetites of the wealthy — whose private jets and grotesquely oversized yachts have got to go. Then there are the full-on Savonarolas, who look beyond the lives of the rich and famous, to humbler folk. They want us to give up our cars and stop eating meat, pronto. As for all of our stuff — the gadgets, trinkets and fast fashion — that too can fuel a modern bonfire of the vanities. (Though not literally, considering the emissions.)

In short, living with less means minimalism, veganism and bicycle-friendly cities — plus a hefty dose of egalitarian politics. From a youthful, Left-leaning, metropolitan point-of-view that doesn’t seem too bad. Rather agreeable, in fact.

Except that actual de-consumerism would be a lot harder. We know this because we’ve done it before. Go back 50 years and we were living with less; and a hundred years ago, even less than that. So, let’s use the past as a rough guide to the future.

The first thing worth noting is that a lower level of overall consumption does not require economic equality. Quite the opposite in fact. Rich people tend to spend a lower proportion of their money than the rest of us. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with the current age of inequality: because they tend to sit on their cash piles, millionaires and billionaires act as a drag on consumption and therefore economic growth. The conventional Left argues for more redistribution on the grounds that it would boost consumption. However, that goes against the logic of radical environmentalism. A seriously green agenda wouldn’t just need to re-invent capitalism, but socialism too.

In any case, it’s not the Gulfstreams and Daimlers that are making all the difference. It’s the era of mass mobility that’s put such a burden on the planet — all those millions of cars and billions of air miles. Lifting that weight from the world means rolling back freedom of movement for the many, not just the few. Access to affordable air travel and the private car would have to be heavily restricted.

As well curbing emissions, this would change society. The history of liberalism goes hand-in-hand with the history of transport — specifically the individual’s ability to physically escape the ties of family, community and place. We wouldn’t have to sacrifice all our gains, of course. There’d still be room in the new dispensation for bicycles and buses (indeed a great deal more room, with cars off the streets). Nevertheless, by limiting our options for getting around, we’d be shrinking our horizons.

“Think global, act local” is an old environmental motto. But in a less mobile society, would we continue to think globally? After all, it’s hard to be a citizen of the world if you can’t get there. We’d have to forget foreign holidays, wave goodbye to the gap year: luxuries that our ancestors couldn’t imagine would become unimaginable again. Moreover, what applies to tourism and travel would also apply to migration. A globalised economy that depends on millions of workers moving back and forth across continents doesn’t fit with a living-with-less regime.

There might, however, be a new source of labour. Or, rather, a return to an old one as colleges and universities were emptied of their students. That so many young adults today can study for so many years is a sure sign of our great wealth, but would it survive the economics of ‘de-growth’? I doubt it.

Another relevant pattern from the past concerns family structure. One of the reasons why people were able to live with so much less is that social bonds were stronger and a whole lot more restrictive. The only welfare state was the household and, perhaps, the immediate community — which is why our forebears couldn’t afford to be as socially liberal as we are.

Some environmentalists see fit to lecture people on the number of children they have. And, fair enough, each extra mouth places an additional burden on the environment; but then so does living in ever-smaller households so that the same population requires a greater number of resource-consuming homes. Learning to live with less would mean learning to live together — at the expense of personal autonomy.

It’s hard to think of a single stable society that lives with much less than we do that isn’t much more conservative than we are. Take attitudes to crime and punishment, for instance. These are typically harsher in places and times where the impact of theft and vandalism is more deeply felt. A simpler, less consumerist society may appeal in theory to the green Left; in practice it may prove more pleasing to the reactionary Right.

But, hang-on, a de-consumerised future wouldn’t have to mimic the pre-consumerist past, would it? Though we’d need to make difficult choices, we could prioritise the things that mattered most to us. Indeed, part of the attraction of this whole agenda to radicals is that the process of priority-setting would allow society to be reordered in keeping with their values.

Perhaps, but if the climate emergency does compel us to change our ways, democracy won’t allow one side of the cultural divide to load most of the pain on the other side. We saw what happened in France when President Macron tried to introduce a fuel tax that hurt the left-behinds more than the well-connected. So if we do need to radically cut our consumption, those in the forefront of the cause are going to have to accept that the sacrifices will be as painful to them as to anyone else.

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