Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Convenient Truth

The idea that simpler living means more sacrifice and more drudgery is the biggest obstacle to environmentalists’ political success.
Environmentalists’ fascination with hanging out your wash on clotheslines is one example of simple living as drudgery. For example, the New York Times featured the story of a woman who said she was following “energy-saving tips from Al Gore, who says that when you have time, you should use a clothesline to dry your clothes instead of the dryer.” When she tried it, “I briefly gave up – the dryer was so much easier – but then tried again.” She finally got in the habit of doing all this extra work, but she found that her electric bill was “still too high, so we’re about to try fluorescent bulbs.”
Doing your laundry with a tub and washboard and then hanging it out to dry was one of the most hated of women’s traditional tasks: Monday was usually wash day, and the work was so hard that women called the day “blue Monday.” Do environmentalists really believe that they can attract wide public support by calling for more drudgery?
If environmentalists advocate forms of simpler living that involve a harder way of life, we are just pushing the public toward the “drill, baby, drill” crowd. Instead, we should call for simpler living that reduces work and make our lives more satisfying.
For example, the average American drives twice as much now as in the 1960s, because we have built so much urban sprawl. There is no real benefit to spending all this time on the freeways, but there is the real stress of doing the extra driving, the real economic burden of paying for it, the real environmental damage done by the from the automobiles, and the real wars that we have fought to secure gasoline supplies. New Urbanists now are designing walkable neighborhoods – and most people can see that these walkable neighborhoods are better places to live than sprawl suburbs, even apart from environmental issues.
New Urbanist neighborhoods are a model for a politics of simple living that could attract widespread public support. These neighborhoods have become popular because they are more attractive, more comfortable, and more convenient than conventional sprawl suburbs – and their residents also happen to consume less land and less gasoline.
A politics of simple living would apply a similar model across the entire economy. Many people would find their lives easier and more pleasant if they had the option of downshifting economically by working shorter hours, if they had the option of living in walkable neighborhoods rather than in sprawl suburbs, and if they had the option of taking care of their own children rather than using child-care.
This, as economist Dan Aronson says, is the “convenient truth” that could help us deal with the inconvenient truth of global warming. We can help save the earth by working less and having more free time for ourselves.