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Sustainability Through Sufficiency

Most of you are probably familiar with the term ”prepper”. For those unsure about it, a ”doomsday prepper” is someone who prepares in various ways for a possible doomsday. Such a doomsday can be an economical collapse, the arrival of the new world order, or a lot of other things. The preparations themselves are also varied, though they typically center around provisions. Imagine if all the regular means of obtaining your daily needs became unavailable. Food supply would dwindle, and our very survival would be at risk. Hence, many people who suspect such things to occur soon often stash foods with long expiration dates, like grains and canned meats, as well as supplies like first aid kits, lanterns and gasoline. Some preppers approach it as a minor safeguard, keeping their pantry full just in case, while others go to extreme lengths and practically structure their lives around the bunker that they’ve personally dug out.

While the reasons, particularly in the more conspiracy-laden circles, can verge on fanatical and ludicrous. There are things that may very well happen that could significantly impact our way of life. A solar flare could damage electromagnetic equipment, which is responsible for delivering many modern necessities. An asteroid could hit or a massive volcano could erupt, drastically changing the environment. A nuclear war could erupt between various nations, resulting in a man-made apocalypse. Not many people expected to spend most of last year primarily locked in their homes, fearing human interaction due to an ongoing pandemic, which had swept over the entire globe in just a few months and has yet to let go. So, to be fair, a doomsday event that is as sudden as it is devastating is very much possible, but is it probable? Nobody can really say, which is how some preppers attempt to persuade others to join their ranks. You believe yourself to be safe, relying completely on things beyond your influence, like grocery store chains and mail services, but what would you do if those were suddenly taken away?

In most cases, such “arguments” can just be dismissed as fear-mongering, but a question lingers – what WOULD I do if all of that really was taken away? I do not believe that building bunkers and stashing truckloads of conserves into it is the solution; far too many doomsday predictions have been made over many hundreds of years, none of them coming to fruition in any meaningful way. It also ignores another, slightly less comfortable question: If a doomsday were to happen, would you want to survive? Fallout may be a fun game franchise, but if it our world were to become a wasteland, I honestly think I would prefer kicking the bucket than living on. Nevertheless, the question above is one about self-sufficiency, and it is worth exploring regardless of its source.

Another group of people you may be familiar with are those who live off-grid. These people have asked themselves the question above, and determined that the alternative is not only available, but that it appeals to them more than the mainstream solution. If you think of off-gridders as weirdos who gave up all the conveniences of modern life to return to a lifestyle straight from the middle-ages, I want you to reconsider. Certain things that may appear necessary to you simply are not to them. I choose not to use social media, for various reasons. Sure, some convenience/pleasure is lost, but I consider the gains to be far better. Likewise, for someone else, a dozen different electric appliances, a computer with latest hardware, or even a constant supply of electric light may be considered more trouble than they’re worth. I disagree with them on that front; having a freezer to stuff some bagged vegetables into or tinkering with software to have a computer do what I want are not something I’d want to give up. Likewise, I am far more productive during quiet, long nights than during the day, and no artificial light would make that sort of lifestyle difficult. However, that is precisely why off-gridders are so fascinating, and why I consider them very interesting people to learn about. Their lifestyles and values are so different to mine, that they help me break free of the mindset of modern life and really consider what are my needs, and what are simply wants, which is extremely helpful when trying to adjust one’s lifestyle to one that is more sustainable, more self-independent and more resilient.

After all, things much less scary than an apocalypse can force us to look for alternatives. Someone worried about privacy may feel compelled to stop using their credit card, limiting what they can buy and where. Someone who has a conviction that eating animal products is bad may decide to stop buying such products, limiting their culinary choices. Someone who’s read about the fashion industry may end up avoiding fast fashion companies whenever possible, limiting their access to new clothes. For various reasons, an individual may choose to abstain from the conveniences of modern life. Because the status quo is what we’re used to, it’s considered the most convenient, while alternatives may be perceived as a hassle. This doesn’t have to be the case at all, and asking the right questions can prove valuable in actually improving one’s life. As an example, the smartphone that I currently use has been serving me for over 5 years. In that time, it wasn’t rare for me to think that I needed to get a new one. After all, it was getting “slow”, the battery didn’t last “long enough”, and it had various other issues, like a broken headphone jack. However, hearing about the privacy concerns arising from phone use nowadays, as well as the environmental and ethical impact of smartphone production, encouraged me to reconsider my position. Do I really need to involve myself in such environmental destruction just because a webpage or an application loads one or two seconds slower than it may on a newer model? Going further, do I even need to use my phone for the things that I do on it? With that in mind, I adjusted the settings to be as privacy-oriented as reasonably possible. I got rid of any apps that I didn’t need, like Reddit or Discord, either using them in the browser or just not using them altogether. I started using a USB cable to transfer files to and from my computer, instead of Google Cloud. For listening to ASMR, I downloaded videos to play in a music player, instead of streaming them every time from YouTube servers, unable to turn off the display. The net result was a drastic reduction in battery consumption (a full charge now lasts me 4 days instead of 1) and greater privacy. It also showed that the same computing power was more than sufficient for what I actually need it for, and I may very well keep using the phone for another 5 years.

It’s well-documented that, when it comes to technology, improvements in sustainability are counteracted by improved functionality. Take two processors with the same power usage, one from 2006 and the other from 2016, and have them do the same task. The newer one will perform the task much faster, which leads to lower energy consumption. However, sitting in a computer in 2016, that processor will have to do much more tasks than its older sibling did back in 2006, and so the end result is the same energy consumption. In economical terms, the demand gets increased simply because of the greater supply, which is known as the Jevons paradox. Because of the focus on growth, or “development”, lower energy consumption per unit encourages the use of more units, because whatever the given task is, it can be done faster and/or easier. If you compare the money earned per MTCO2e emitted with the total amount of MTCO2e emitted of various tech companies, you’ll notice a trend where the total amount stays relatively constant, but the money earned keeps rising. This could be explained by rising prices, but the numbers on the market don’t quite support that. What’s more likely is precisely that Jevons paradox is at play. In general, in industrialized countries, the focus seems to be not on maintaining functionality with lessened emissions, but on increasing functionality with constant emissions.

The solutions to the problems we face that you frequently hear about are a circular economy and sustainable development. However, while the ideas are noble on paper, their execution seldom works, and often it actually plunges us deeper into even more unsustainable lifestyles. The way I understand circular economy, for example, the core principles are “reduce, reuse, recycle”. It’s a holistic approach to consumption, tackling problems at the manufacturing, usage and disposal parts of a given item’s life. However, many policies that preach circular economy seem to focus far too much on the recycling, while leaving reusing as an afterthought and almost completely ignoring the reducing.

Ask yourself what would be better – if Coca-Cola Company produced 10 billion bottles of their beverages, half of which had reduced environmental footprint due to recycling policies, or if they produced 5 billion bottles? I think it’s fairly easy to tell which would be more beneficial for the finances and health of the consumers, and the water reserves and human rights of the people in the affected areas. It’s also easy to guess that the same option would yield lower profits to the company’s stakeholders, which is why the chances of it happening are slim. You might wonder what the problem is. After all, the extra 5 billion bottles wouldn’t contribute much to the environment if the economy was circular. But that’s a simplistic view. Perhaps the plastic in the bottles came from reclaimed polymers, rather than virgin fossil fuels, but the energy and work needed to turn these old bottles into usable plastic has to come from somewhere. Relying on renewable energy as a scapegoat doesn’t take us far; when the supply is perceived to be infinite, the demand will keep growing until it reaches levels that the supply cannot maintain. Yes, the sun may keep shining for another 5 billion years, but there’s only so much energy we can draw from it at a time, and the more we draw, the larger the material, financial, time and labour costs of its production and maintenance. Enormous amounts of time and effort that could be spent on reducing poverty, fighting human rights violations and otherwise improving the standard of life would instead go to making sure that giant corporations can have an excuse to grow even more gigantic. All that, in order for them to steal poor people’s water and sell it to them at a markup price, with some added sugar, bubbles and food colouring.

Another solution is sustainable development. Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree with many of the things it preaches. Looking at UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, I consider at least 14 of them to be worth pursuing. But certain questions are left unvoiced, when that shouldn’t be so. A basic one among them – the development of what, exactly? If we’re talking about the development of human civilisation, then sustainable or not, such development should also be balanced. To me, this means the effective use of limited resources to achieve the greatest benefits. After all, the issue of hunger cannot be solved by just making more food – there’s more than enough food being made already, but institutional, historical, logistical and economical reasons prevent that food from being distributed fairly. As a result, while some people starve to death, others have such an abundance of foods that they could not consume even if they tried. With sustainability typically referring to greenhouse gas emissions, effective and reasonable sustainable development would thus mean development in a direction which grants the greatest benefits for mankind as a whole, while keeping the carbon footprint of individuals at a reasonable level. A major source of carbon emissions is energy use.

An average European uses significantly more energy than an average African. Energy abundance in many countries in Europe is not necessary for a comfortable daily life. Back in, say, 2005, I didn’t have a phone. Neither did most of my peers. Instead of every person in the house owning a laptop or a PC, we had a single stationary machine to share between us. Instead of taking a bus, I would walk to school. My carbon footprint was significantly lower back then than it is now, yet I did not complain. There were always less energy-intensive options and occupations that I could choose or involve myself with. The same could be said for today. If I was forced to reduce my energy consumption by, say, 10%, would that make much of a difference to me? Initially, sure, but once I adjusted, probably not. Perhaps I’d spend more time reading books, instead of watching videos on my computer. If those 10% would be given to someone in need of energy, however, they could make a massive difference. In energy-impoverished countries, a couple extra kilowatts could mean the difference between a hot and a cold meal, or could power a lightbulb for many hours, allowing someone to read and learn after dusk. Besides, I use more energy now than I did before not because I need it, but because I’m able to. If my supply was reduced by 10%, I wouldn’t need to sacrifice anything, I’d just have to adjust, and could continue leading a very comfortable life. As it is now, however, regardless of what my demand may be, an adequate amount will be supplied. Its convenience encourages its use, and its abundance obfuscates alternatives.

Worse still, the abundance of energy distorts our ideas of what is needed, through changing what is normal. Because almost everyone has a smartphone nowadays, they evolved from technological wonders to everyday appliances. When we hear of a more sustainable phone, it’s easy to think of it as sustainable development. After all, a technology that enables us to live the way we do, having a reduced impact on the planet, can only be a good thing, right? But if this sustainability is then offset by the manufacturer producing more units, or by the consumer buying more goods have we really accomplished anything? Besides, think about what actually happened. A phone that used a given amount of energy to produce, and released a certain amount of greenhouse gasses in the process, now uses slightly less energy. The tasks that this new phone will be used for could already be performed on older models. Humanity as a whole gained nothing. A small group of people will be happy with the idea that their shiny new toy is slightly more “green”, while the rest will still have to struggle with climate change ravaging their homes in the coming decades. A far more substantial energy saving could already be achieved by reusing existing phones instead, or by finding a better use of our limited energy than yet another smartphone. The device itself may be more sustainable, but the event as a whole is not an example of sustainable development. Comparing the embedded energy of a smartphone to that of a day of modest life in sub-Saharan Africa or central Asia is like comparing a cake to a piece of bread. Praising the phone manufacturer for making their phones more sustainable is like praising the cake for not including strawberries. It does not change the fact that some people only have bread to sustain themselves on, and sometimes not even that. And when resources are limited and shared, two billion people getting cakes when the rest of the world has bread cannot be called sustainable, whether the cakes have strawberries or not.

Both the circular economy and the sustainable development movement dance around the core problems, while trying to appear meaningful while doing other things. We can’t have a circular economy by bringing the recycling up to speed with production, because the more we recycle, the more we’re encouraged to produce, so the goal keeps slipping away. The key to sustainable development is not growing forever in a sustainable way, as that’s frankly impossible. The key is growing until you reach a point where you can say “enough” and focus on other, more meaningful things. We give up the earth and our lives in the name of progress, because the only alternative we see is regress, but in truth what we need, and what’s already within our grasp, is sufficiency. When I chose to not upgrade my phone, I may have not progressed, but I didn’t regress, either. I reached the equilibrium, realizing that what I have is sufficient.

Besides, if a way to make such growth sustainable was found, it’d either force us to change our habits anyway, or forsake our ideals of equality and fairness. The upper class can only be as rich as they are because there’s a middle class, ready to buy from them. The middle class can buy from them only because the lower class gets screwed over and their labour is undervalued and underappreciated. Your tech gizmos, your clothes, and many other things are affordable only because a great many people less fortunate than you could be exploited to produce it at pathetic wages. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh took the lives of over a thousand people, many of them threatened to come to work despite the building’s structural instability, all so that Walmart, Gucci, Prada and a bunch of other companies could keep selling vast quantities of goods to (mostly) American and European consumers. Would you want to work day in, day out at a clothes factory? Would anyone that you know? In a world of equality, where everyone lives the way “developed” countries do nowadays, who would take one for the team and do the gruelling work of producing millions upon millions of garments, computers, household decorations, etc.?

At the same time, sewing, electronics manufacturing, carving and many other things are hobbies that a lot of us have. But a home-grown, small, independent shoe maker can seldom make a living wage, because their prices are so severely undercut by the big companies relying on what many would consider slave labour. Thus, the true value of what we own remains hidden to us. However, looking for alternatives often encourages gaining more insight into how things are made and delivered to us. Someone who took their time to grow their own crops will appreciate food much more than someone who gets all their nutrition from a grocery store or restaurant. Someone who takes the time to sew or knit something will better understand the effort it takes to make a good piece of clothing. It is far too easy nowadays to consider the goods we obtain on their own, ignoring the labour that went into creating them. Coincidentally, this consideration is what we need in order to live more sustainably. It is what off-gridders have much more of than most of us. When you think of a new pair of boots as something that has to be assembled from raw materials, designed and sewn by a professional, it is much easier to justify the high pricetag that often comes with these more environmentally-friendly alternatives. The Fairphone is a smartphone whose premise is that as much of its production chain as possible comes from ethical sources, where people have good living conditions and are paid a fair wage for their work. The Fairpone 3+, with a pricetag of around 450 euros, has performance comparable to what the likes of Samsung and Sony would sell for 150-200 euros. Assuming that the Fairphone is indeed what it claims to be, and not a scam, it shows just how much people around the world get screwed over just to make it easier for us to buy more and more. In a world where such exploitation would be hard to come by, so would such cheap smartphones, or t-shirts sold for 3 euros, or ridiculously cheap furniture. In a more ethical world, buying a new pair of sneakers for 30-40 euros every 2-3 months would not only be unsustainable, but also impossible. Instead, shoes would be an investment, which would pay for itself over the years, encouraging us to treat them well and make the most of the goods and services that skilled people provide us with. A fairer world would necessarily be more sustainable, and necessarily less driven by capitalistic profits than it is now.

But we shouldn’t wait until all the peoples of the world can actually point to the declaration of human rights as a valid and effective document, or until global warming makes our modern way of life impossible, or until all the corporations turn over a new leaf and start prioritizing welfare and sustainability over profits. A sustainable future is not a dream, but a requirement, as one where greed and exploitation dominate instead is no future worth looking forward to. But we will not wake up one day and suddenly be in this future; we have to work for it, year after year. Reconsidering and readjusting your life with alternatives now will set a positive example for others to follow. Perhaps you’ll use your phone slightly longer, perhaps you’ll replace meat in your diet with legumes, perhaps you’ll go live in the woods. However small or large the change, however easy or hard to implement, as long as it is a positive change, it’s just that – a positive.

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