We all learn to live in certain ways; the ways we see our parents or our peers do things. It hardly warrants mentioning, for it is how societies and cultures continue to exist. It is how generations are made by these age groups’ growing up in similar circumstances with similar concerns, giving them particular shared values.
It is also part and parcel of how cultures and societies change when technology or similar infrastructural context, or values and perceptions, or dominant practices,… change because these changes’ effects ripple through them.
Now, though, we are in dire straits.
We have a way of living that is comfortable in only too many respects. It is convenient, affluent – obviously, in many regards, bringing benefits. Average life expectancies are high, communication and travel is possible and rather easy no matter the distance, many people have been raised out of poverty, and the chances for raising oneself into another social class have never before in history been better. Everyone wants to join that Western, capitalist, consumerist lifestyle.
At the same time, it is easy enough to calculate that the world simply does not have enough resources for everyone to live the affluent Western lifestyle, and that ecological planetary boundaries are already being exceeded. We are embarked on a dangerous experiment with this our planet home’s climate because of the historical carbon emissions of industrialized countries already, and developing countries follow the same model, even as fossil fuel use and thus emissions from “developed” countries continue unabated. Wilderness is paved under, sold off and dug out in the drive for riches, and the riches of cultural, bio-cultural and biological diversity are being lost. With them go diverse ways of living and diverse resources that may well hold keys to the future.
Even the benefits mentioned before look less untaintedly positive when considering that, for all the affluence and comfort, we are not really getting happier, nor necessarily even living healthier lives. A longer life with obesity and heart disease only makes one realize that it’s not how long, but how well-lived a life is, that might matter. The chances for a rise out of poverty also, increasingly, come coupled with a chance for suffering from exploitation and going from “poor” but livable conditions into slum-dwelling or outright homelessness – and the middle class is increasingly threatened with “social mobility” that only spirals downwards, too.
In the midst of all that, it often appears as if there were no ways forward, to better.
We are still seeing quite a few environmental conferences – easy to say at the time of writing, with Rio+20 in session. Talk about the un-sustainability of present lifestyles is even easier to find. Greener products are still marketed as if buying a hybrid – or for that matter, a non-plastic shopping bag – would make the world flourish.
The majority of our, humanity’s, impact on the world does not come from great events and highly influential/regarded technology. It is a result of our everyday, pedestrian (or actually, not pedestrian enough – who’s still walking?), “normal” lives. A few “green” products, some money for a green cause – it’s an excuse, not a solution.
That is not a reason to do nothing, however – and particularly so as the good life also does not come from a few great experiences alone, but from the constant practice of living better. It’s a good life, after all, not a quick high.
Moreover, in looking at certain peak issues alone, the network of interactions – the ecology – of happiness (as well as of negative impacts) all too often gets overlooked.
Convenience food may be made “green,” but the problem is really the high-volume business model that makes it “necessary” to produce ever more, push more and more of the foods to consumers, driving overconsumption and obesity.
Sedentary lifestyles with miles upon miles traveled, but hardly a few steps walked, don’t get solved by gym memberships , and neither do the problems of traffic congestion, pollution, and fossil fuel consumption get solved by more environmentally-friendly, alternative energy cars.
Efficiency is hailed as the solution to environmental impact and resource overuse, but the savings it enables only result in higher consumption that eats up any gains made through higher efficiency if there is no social convention and cultural orientation working against that.
The real issue is making far-ranging car travel less of a necessity, and car ownership less important , making for friendlier neighborhoods and lives where the break-up of marriages can’t be predicted by the number of miles the partners have to spend away from each other on their separate ways to work. It is shaping lifestyles that are less sedentary and less focused on the quick hit of fast food.
Ultimately, thus, it is our ways of life and of making a living that are really to blame for our negative impact and for our common dissatisfaction – and they are also where the solutions lie.
Green consumerism alone doesn’t change enough to be of the necessary positive effect; and neither does protesting against a system without creating the practical alternatives to change it.
Changing what is wanted and socially acceptable, changing what is seen as good and showing that it is better, and ultimately changing what is simply the normal way of life and of making a living, down (up?) to what the business of business is – which does not have to be efficiency and financial gain, but can also be employment and total benefit… That will change it all.
In the same steps through which people try to change the ways they live in the attempt to “escape 9 to 5” when they realize that it is hardly delivering on the promise of a decent life/living anymore (if it ever really had), ways of life can also be changed for better in terms of that living’s impact on the world. Often enough, in the midst of a common discourse saying that “greener” lives can only be achieved by poverty, by giving up on so many comforts – or as a luxury once having achieved a certain level of wealth, perhaps – the two concerns come together synergistically.
Ways of (making a) living that are better fitting into – or better yet, growing – the ecological web in which they are embedded also contribute to better lives in terms of well-being, happiness, flourishing.
And ways of life that contribute to more happiness, to the good life, are often also ways of consuming less, and they may get even better when they start to contribute positively to the web of communities and ecological relations in which they are lived.
In following posts, we’ll be going through examples of different “alternative” ways of life that are currently – and have in some cases always been – providing such an orientation on better: minimalism, frugality, location-independence, new homesteading, off-grid/transition ways, as well as (digital) lifestyle design, looking at the ways they are or can be (made even) better for personal happiness as well as communities of life, whether they start from the one concern or the other.