The solution to all that ails us keeps being sought, and it keeps being an answer that is simple, straightforward – and probably wrong. “Growth” here, somewhat greened. Or undesirable, supposedly “back to the caves”-lifestyles there.
Meanwhile, we can see the alternatives that we actually need and that are really being developed. They are being lived. Not by those who fly to fancy events to call for confidence and consumption, not by those who go to celebrate their warnings about the future, present planet-saving ideas, and call still more for action (if not just awareness). No, they are more simply lived – and they are truly radical. Going to the roots.
These roots of better lives, of #ecohappy living, are not ideologies, nor even always power struggles, but the ecological relationships of our lives.
We have our certain common natures, we think and act in particular, always similar and always divergent, ways. And we stand in certain relationships within our societies, cultures, and environments, down to the very ecological workings of this Earth we are a part of.
Of course, cultural contexts shape what we think of as possible, and even as good. Still, ecological limits exist for all of us (and the sooner, the more we think in terms of fairness and humanism). The things that make happy still are universal, at root, too.
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” Wendell Berry
We all would rather like to be happy, to live well, to feel that we have some control over our lives – and we all need to find a balance between the different desires and needs we have, and the ecological contexts that shape them.
Thus, we will not want (or need) to live in the caves, nor will we achieve some sort of perfect and stable harmony. Neither can we survive if we think we have dominion over all of nature and forget to work with ecological processes, maintaining the functioning of natural ecosystems, and indeed creating human ecosystems – as people have done with cultural landscapes for thousands of years – that provide more services for humans, exactly because they function as working and resilient ecosystems.
We are smart, we can learn to do that.
In fact, there are examples of traditional societies, far away from “the caves” (and in two examples of some renown in them, but rather comfortably), which created cultural landscapes that served – or indeed, have been serving – them well. The terrace rice farming of Southern China and Southeast Asia? The Maya cities and gardens (which also, in thinking of their earlier high civilization, serve as potential warning against overshoot and collapse)? The whole range of systems of farming around the Mediterranean, which did cost forest ecosystems there, but created farming landscapes that still function, and are more biodiverse mixed landscapes than those of before?
In the comparison with today’s affluent consumer cultures, these societies may have been rather poor – but that shows the existence and necessity of “the environmentalism of the poor” all the more: When you live off the land, with the bounty that a commons provides to a community, you can only survive and thrive when you make sure that these sources of your sustenance do not get destroyed.
And indeed, there have been quite enough traditional societies and high civilizations that developed like that, long before industrial civilization and consumer culture. They ensured good-enough standards of living and created surplus on which great works of culture, art, and science were built, too… None other than the Renaissance that we see as one great impetus in the development of modernity was built on ecological productivity, producing surpluses in farming and the craft production of goods.
(And yes, there were problems, too. As there are with our “modern” lifestyles – but those have only existed for the last few decades!)
It is well-worth quoting Vandana Shiva extensively here:
People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.
Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life—when measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives . Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those “left behind”.
If “green” were a luxury, as it is often argued, it would be luxury to take care of our homes. (“Ecology,” after all, means nothing other than “the study of a house/dwelling place/habitation.”) Of course, it is not luxury, it is a necessity!
As it is stupid to trash a place, and then clean it up at great cost and effort – if it is still possible at all – thus better living requires not to “get rich first, clean up later” but to realize the connections, and to work with them. Much of modern economies comes from a time of expansion, unfortunately, in which it looked as if these connections did not exist any longer. Hence, the dream and supposed necessity of unlimited growth.
For the same reason, and this is indeed how that disconnect was achieved, the costs of economic workings are not reflected in the prices, and the impacts tend to be far-away. Affluent Chinese have an impact same as affluent Westerners, but they both typically live where only the positive impact is felt, the purchases provide pleasure (at least for a picosecond), not where the raw materials are extracted and the factories pollute. (And even if, they can still interpret lost nature and grey skies as hopeful signs of growth and progress…)
Last we looked, what was gone was gone, and this world was still quite round, without an escape, though.
Thus, when greener products have a higher cost, it is – or certainly, should be – because they reflect the truer costs; they aren’t too expensive, “normal” products are too cheap – and we all pay for it.
All well and good, but how does that help in *your* personal life when you need to be spend-wise?
The same way that ecological limits are a challenge to creativity, and a business that “fits in” socially and ecologically can be better in many ways beyond financial profit, ways of (making a) living that pay attention become multiply better. We have looked at that before (see “ways of better“), and we’ll look there again…