Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do Something an Alive Person Can Do

Ran Prieur had a couple of interesting posts this week. I hope he doesn't mind me taking his words and posting them here.

Personal conservation does nothing to avert climate change. It might, if everyone had their own oil well. You could convert your house to solar, cap your well, and leave your oil in the ground. In practice, all the oil (gas, coal, etc) is sold to whoever wants it, and nobody is talking about leaving the oil in the ground. All of it will be burned, and anything you conserve will just be burned by someone else. Now, there will come a time when the remaining oil is so expensive to extract that renewable energy is cheaper, and then it will be left in the ground for economic reasons. So the best way to reduce climate change is to spend money on renewable energy research, and burn oil to build alternatives to the present system. I'm reminded of the permaculturist who said that five gallon buckets are the best use of fossil fuels. . . .

A few readers have argued against yesterday's post, but I haven't changed my mind. No fossil fuels will be left in the ground until they are outcompeted by other energy sources, and your personal conservation has negligible effect on when this will happen. More generally, I disagree with the moral system in which you imagine your actions being magically multiplied. The test of an action is not what would hypothetically happen if everyone did it, but what will actually happen if you do it.

This is related to a test proposed by Bruce Sterling, and described in this Ribbonfarm post, Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class. The idea is that you're wasting your life doing anything that your dead great grandfather, in the grave, can do better than you. You're using fewer resources? Your great grandfather is using no resources, and if he could talk to you, he might say, "Stop doing stuff that a dead person can do. You're alive -- do something that an alive person can do."

Of course, I'm totally in favor of shifting out of the industrial consumption economy, but for a different reason than ecopuritanism. If you learn to live on less energy and less money, then you become stronger. You have more unstructured time to learn internal motivation, more mental space to think independently, and more skills that everyone will need as the industrial economy continues its decline. You're not "saving the world", but becoming a seed of a better world to come.

This is something I struggle with constantly -- I want to live more sustainably but doing so is not always possible and frequently not practical. Sure, I would rather take a train to visit my new grandson in Oregon, but the connections are just not there. So I fly. And I console myself that that jet is going to Oregon with or without me and I might as well take my seat along with everyone else. I hang my clothes to dry -- except when there is a pouring rain, and then I use the dryer -- knowing that waiting a few days for the sun to reappear makes no difference to the global situation but a big difference to our own convenience.

I have noticed that in the world of permaculturists, there is a lot of 'do as I do' advice and I find it off-putting. We don't need more group-think; we need to consider what others have to say, but think for ourselves. Each of us is in a unique situation and we need unique solutions to the challenges of life. I believe in diversity and in a diversity of options. And I like Ran's point -- the idea of doing something an alive person can do -- and instead of trying to save the world, to focus on planting seeds of a better world to come.

Today, I am thankful for all those people out there planting seeds of a better world to come.

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