Sustainability without sacrifice?

15000 sq. feet of "green home"“Enjoy sustainable living without giving up the luxuries you deserve”. The words flicker before my eyes as part of a list of google results. Now that’s an easy sell: Being sustainable and keeping all the little comforts you’ve learnt to enjoy. Even I could sell that product, and I’m as bad a promoter as they come. It’s like solving the old paradox of keeping your cake while you eat it!

Turns out it is a presentation ad for a new “community” development (or “subdivision” in somebody else’s dictionary) in one of the southern states in the US. The sustainable bit is presented as an added bonus for the ones who cradle a special interest in that sort of thing. I imagine (without having read further) being able to choose between a golf-oriented community, a child-friendly community, or a sustainable one – but without giving up on daily luxuries. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Wouldn’t that be nice: Becoming sustainable without down-scaling and making do with less, without changing your habits of indulgence. Using your sustainable living as an accessory that gives you status and recognition among people you care to be recognized by, but without the boring stuff like using public transportation, taking shorter showers, hanging clothes out to dry on a line, cutting back on flights.

I imagine that the party of subscribers to that idea must be quite a few. Sometimes I even wish I was be able to believe that.

Navigating the web I find Timothy Han in his Sustainable Luxury-blog describing his inspiration in the following terms:

Many of us would like to make a difference but weren’t quite yet prepared to become a hermit and live in the woods.

We didn’t want to sacrifice life’s little luxuries for which we’ve worked hard but we also want to live as responsibly as possible. We are after all still creatures of comfort who like to look and feel good by eating great food, dressing in nice clothes, broadening our horizons and generally surround ourselves with things of comfort.

So if we could find a way to continue to live in comfort and still reduce our footprint, then wouldn’t that be an ideal first step to living a more holistic lifestyle?

Many of the policies that have been implemented in the half-hearted attempts at curbing the growth in carbon dioxide emissions, seem to have the same inspiration. They’re centred around moving the consumers’ preference towards products with a lower environmental impact: Cars that consume less gas, appliances that consume less energy, solar panels to keep our computers running.

So can we save our planet by learning to shop smarter?

Can retail therapy still be part of my arsenal of survival strategies?

To try to answer that I tried to look at some historical data about emissions and implementation of greener technologies.

The first World Climate Conference that took place in 1979 made it quite clear just how relevant climate change was and what its effects would be. I remember that global warming was already a part of my vocabulary as a pre-teen, so evidently there were popular scientific publications even before 1979 about the human contribution to climate change. (The myth that there was scientific consensus about global cooling in the 1970’s was finally debunked as shown here).

The scientific evidence that in the meantime has become overwhelmingly convincing along with the wide range of climate-friendly technology, do not seem to have had much effect on inducing both politics and society to change their behaviour. Or rather, whatever lower-impact technology that has been implemented, has been taken by the consumers as an opportunity to reward oneself with some extra luxury. A few examples:

  • The average gas mileage of cars in North-America has increased by 70 % since the 1970s . This should have given us a big reduction in emissions, if it weren’t for the fact that increases in the global population of cars have canceller the effects of fuel efficiency gains. Motor vehicles spew out 63 % more CO2 into the atmosphere now than in 1971.
  • The carbon-emissions from refrigerators from 1995 and the brand new ones, are almost halved, and the use of CFC is phasing out. But size of refrigerators has in the meantime increased in the western world, and demand for fridges in the developing world is sky-rocketing.
  • Emissions from air-conditioners have dropped, and the dangerous CFC is on its way out as refrigerant gas since the late 1980s. At the same time the presence and use of air-conditioners have doubled since the early 1990s.

From these and other examples it would seem that at the moment there’s no proof of technology, or choosing the “right products” alone being able to solve the problem of carbon emissions, since whatever technological progress we make will be dwarfed by our ability to increase consumption.

When asked if sustainability means sacrifice David Suzuki almost dodges the question by saying: “I think that how we define quality has certainly got to change and I think that we have to ask ourselves, what is life all about? We’ve got off on a really stupid idea that stuff is what brings us joy and happiness and it is not.”

To me the short answer to whether we need to make sacrifices for sustainability, is a simple “YES“. Sure, we will in time learn to enjoy our life just as much, an maybe even more after changing our behaviour, but still the behavioral changes come at a cost: the pain of overcoming the resistance, the effort to keep repeating the new and unfamiliar behavior.

Sacrifice in our post-modern world is such an unsexy word. We’re flushed with e-mails advertising products and services “we deserve” according to the marketing. We’re used to buying our way out of psychological pain.

The idea of sacrifice is the antithesis to all that. It’s the wake up call to tell us that we’ve overspent, we don’t deserve any more treats. So advocates of environmental change try not to use such terms when trying to sell their message. However, they should be mindful of what change really means and how it feels, and that sacrifice may be the best word to describe how it feels to undergo the necessary changes.

To quote David Suzuki: “I certainly think that the current economic paradigm we are in is absolute lunacy. The economy is predicated on the notion that there are no limits…not only do these economists think it can grow, but it must grow forever. Well…when you live within a finite world…any system that thinks it can grow forever is like cancer…It’s suicidal.”


~ by Hege on August 1, 2010.

4 Responses to “Sustainability without sacrifice?”

  1. I think there’s no way we could eat our “sustainable cake” and eat it too. What’s more, I’m not so sure our present lifestyle could be described as “luxurious” when all we are forced to do, day in and day out, is choose among an endless variety of useless commodities purposefully designed to waste our money and time for the sake of economic growth (btw, whose economy’s?).
    It seems to me, that we our only chance to embrace sustainability is by making our lives as simple and down to the basics as possible. Not just as a sacrifice but as a way to rediscover the value of things and luxury – something that we all lost a few decades ago.
    In the last couple of days, I found out of a couple of authors that are trying to prove that, ultimately, unlimited and all-time available choice and luxury do not make us happy. The first author wrote the book “The upside of irrationality” (reviewed in – see next to last paragraph on adaptation) and the second author-scientist, Sheena Iyengar, gave a talk at TED talk on the art of choosing (

  2. This is a superb post and may be one that needs to be followed up to see how things go

    A mate sent this link the other day and I’m eagerly waiting your next write. Keep on on the the best work.

  3. I saw your webblog via google the other day and absolutely liked it so much. Carry on the fantastic work.

  4. Very Interesting!
    Thank You!

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