Three weeks is a long time in the blogging world, but I hope it’s not too late to address some of the ideas broached in John Michael Greer’s post “A Fashion for Austerity”, and some of the comments left there. Greer, among others, is raising the idea that intervention in culture is just as important as (if not more than) sexy technological innovations. I think this is a crucial idea, and I’m going to address it in this post and its follow-up (and, most likely, in many posts to come).
1. Greer begins one branch of the post by responding to a post by Fox at Tiny Ouroboros, and it strikes me that he misreads her point there. Fox is not “denouncing the idea” that “Americans can and should use a great deal less energy and resources.” Nor is she, as Draco TB claimed, falling prey to the Myth of the Middle:
Oh dear, the person who wrote that blog has fallen into the Myth of the Middle. These people who have so fallen take two positions, label them extremes and then say that the answer to all our woes is in the middle. These are the people who have taking the truism Everything in moderation – even moderation to heart (although they seem to have missed the warning at the end) and will oppose doing anything that they see as radical.
Fox has responded, at The Archdruid Report (here) and on her own blog (one, two). But I don’t think you need to read a bunch of back issues of Tiny Ouroboros to get the message. It’s pretty clearly a critique of one particular form of minimalist lifestyle, which maybe we should call ersatz or bonehead minimalism. This is an unreflective practice in that it doesn’t stop to reflect on what’s valuable, and instead blindly sticks to the number of possessions owned as the measure of how virtuous one is. Whether this blindness is for punker-than-thou reasons, or, as Fox suggests, for commercial ones (bloggers got to get paid), the point remains: the number of things you own is not a reliable index of right living.
This should be obvious. Two people, each of whom own exactly 100 things, can have radically different lives. Person A might own two cars, commute 45 minutes to work, buy prepackaged industrial food, use air travel for fancy eco-tourist vacations, and skimp on clothes and shoes. Person B might have a fancy wardrobe but ride a bike, work near home, have close ties to neighbors, and get a portion of their food from a community garden. By any sensible measure of “green” living (including Greer’s L.E.S.S.), one of these people is doing far better than the other. But the boneheaded “but how many possessions do you have” misses this difference. (And that’s even ignoring further difficulties, such as the matter of how one goes about counting things. Check out, if you haven’t, the video Fox linked on this.)
2. The very fact that Bonehead Minimalism exists is evidence that living with less is already a fad. You can tell it’s a fad because its practitioners aren’t thinking very hard about what is—and what isn’t—worth owning, preferring simply to count things. Further evidence comes from some of the comments in the thread at TAR (e.g. this one by Janne), and from news stories like this one in the Paper of Record. And still other comments on TAR attest to the fact that minimal living enjoyed another fit of popularity back in the ’60s and ’70s (Don Mason).
So we shouldn’t ask, I think, for L.E.S.S. to become a fad or, more generously, a fashion. That’s for two reasons. One, similar ideas have already caught on. Two, any faddishness the idea possesses is going to discourage people from thinking about it too hard, leading to more Bonehead Minimalists.
3. Bonehead Minimalism is very much worth criticizing, for two reasons. First, to repeat the point above, it fails to reflect any thoughtful conception of what kind of life is worth aiming for. Second, and correlatively, it will fail to win lasting converts. Eventually the Bonehead Minimalist will wake up and think, this is not worth the work, because unless the privations lead to a good austere life, that thought will be correct. People will relapse, and say things like “Yeah, back in the ’10s I dabbled in minimalism” in exactly the way today’s boomer conservatives talk about their hippie youth.
I take Fox to be making both of these points in different language. She says ‘balance’; I’d say ‘a life worth aiming for’ or ‘a good life’ or even ‘eudaimonia’ (it’s hard to shake the language one’s familiar with); but this is tomato/tomato: we both agree that we need to do better than Bonehead Minimalism.
4. Which is to say that we need to be having a conversation about exactly what, in the face of the numerous problems presented by contemporary industrial society, a good life is; and that’s a conversation both Greer and Fox are already having (not to mention the many commenters at The Archdruid Report). It’s good advice to say that in general we need to use less, but there are hard questions to sort out. Is it better to sell your car, buy a motorcycle, and keep a driving-commute job; or is it better to quit that job, find one close to home, use a bicycle, and swear off internal-combustion engines entirely? Simply observing that the bicycle requires the least amount of fossil fuel does not settle the question—perhaps, e.g., the commuting job will help contribute to smarter energy policy, affecting a whole nation’s energy use. In a similar vein, there are comments like these (The Cosmist):
John Michael, don’t you see the irony of using the Googleplex — the very apex of technological hyper-complexity — to spread your message of imminent and inevitable collapse of our hyper-complex technological civilization?
To which Greer’s response (as I understand it) seemed exactly right: the wisdom of using a particular approach cannot be discerned simply by looking at whether it belongs to “the system.” (One might as well eschew solar ovens on account of their belonging to that most diabolical category, Technology.) Instead, we need to think seriously about which things are important, and which are frivolous. Computers in general, and the Internet in particular, are incredibly helpful tools, and they might be more so in a future where societies are more decentralized than they are now. Barath has made this point in print (as has Bill McKibben), and in consequence is investigating ways to maintain computer networking in the age of energy decline. Yes, computers are an energy-consuming technology, but we might need to keep them even in hard times.
Likewise, consider Fox’s point that owning more than one towel, or a set of formal clothes, is important for social reasons. This could—but shouldn’t—be taken as the point that when owning less conflicts with social norms we should acquiesce to social norms. The better point, which I take Fox to be making, is that some social goods are crucial for a good human life. Sharing meals, providing hospitality, participating in rituals—these are universally prized parts of human life, and they might, depending on your culture, require you to own a few towels (for putting up your friends) or some formal clothes (for attending a funeral).
Now maybe the natural rejoinder to this point is “But we need to change the culture so that people can do these things without using so much energy/stuff!” And I agree. But until that change happens, we shouldn’t deny the value of the material prerequisites for social goods.