Why Live Better; Using Less?

Global consumption of fossil energy and raw materials continues to rise. Doubling consumption (and extraction) every decade, or even every 50 years, has to stop sometime.

Were there no concerns like putting more greenhouse gases in the air, this system is running down. It will not run out, as if drawing water from a fixed, finite tank. Instead the industrial economic system has relied on getting a lot from a small expenditure of energy, as from an old-fashioned oil gusher. But getting smaller bangs from larger expenditures of energy, as in gas fracking, signals that this system is starting to run down. This effect is evident in the current turmoil in the oil & gas industry, explained from its own point of view.

We are depleting our resources, and not just of fossil fuels. L. David Roper probably has the best site projecting the depletion of common ores over the 21st century, and his projections even allow for increases in recycling.

A well-known approach to pegging the limits of human consumption is by ecological footprint analysis, based on estimating the hectares per person needed to support human life. This coarse calculation concludes that for the past 20 years or so, the human population as a whole has been consuming beyond earth’s carrying capacity.

A conclusion we prefer to ignore: We can’t just level off. We have to decrease resource consumption. And the global population is still growing.

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Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, p. 40, and other sources. The index bases 100 on total global primary (traded) energy in the year 2000.

Consider energy as a marker for most other consumption. The question is what it would take to cut year 2000 consumption in half by the year 2040.

The table above is a look at the implications of rapidly slashing resource consumption. Consumption has continued to rise rapidly. In 2000, about 75% of consumption was in the developed industrial societies. Major cuts must come from the industrial societies, but they have not begun to slow consumption to an index of 80 by the year 2020. On the other hand, developing societies do not have huge usages to eliminate. However, they do have a lot of waste that can be trimmed, and in most cases they can learn to make better use of what they have instead of using more.

Demonstration projects have shown how industrial societies can make huge cuts in consumption and still live very well – maybe even better. The issue is the social will to make such changes. Without vision, people accustomed to high consumption may think that they have to give up civilization, not merely work and live smarter.

But how can undeveloped regions improve quality of life while minimally increasing resource consumption? Obviously, they have to give up Western high-consumption visions of economic development – but so do the industrially developed economies.

How can we do that? An emerging consensus of practitioners is that in both industrial economies and developing economies, localities have to work out their own future, largely using what they have. People take responsibility for learning to do differently. If they do that well, they are into Vigorous Learning. Advanced technology can help if it is not energy intensive.

At first thought, dealing with such huge problems in local communities and on the planet seems too depressing to even start. Cheer up, create a vision of a “new us” and vigorously learn to “live better using less” using Compression Thinking.

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