Where do you see yourself, within these cohorts? People who confidently believe human consumption is unsustainable, people who confidently believe everything is fine, and everyone else in the middle — just trying to get through life. Wherever you fall, there are 4 billion others ready to contradict you. People take positions and defend them like rivaling sports fans — it’s a spectacle that doesn’t gain clarity or progress. People build entire identities around their own set of facts, and debate itself becomes a game with mysterious goals and rewards, rather than a means toward unity.
I want to make a suggestion: the outcome of this debate is irrelevant in guiding your life. You can make peace with something deeper, right now. The debate will go on, as it should, but some very rational and pragmatic conclusions can have an immediate affect on your ultimate choices, regardless of where the sustainability discussion goes.
Consider the following:
Myth 1: “My” Side Will Bring Great Relief To All, Soon
Side A Wins:
You wake up tomorrow. You see news and are SHOCKED to see conclusively, that technology has been created to suck all of the carbon out of the air, clean the ocean of plastic, harvest precious resources from asteroids, run the world on renewable energy, and send all human trash directly into the sun. And, ironically, the scientific community publishes a new report acknowledging things were not that bad after all. There is literally nothing to argue about anymore. Even if we wanted to debate resource consumption, technology has eliminated the need to do so.
Side B Wins:
You wake up tomorrow. A new prediction model has been created by scientists that is SO obvious, that we now understand, irrefutably, food production will fail catastrophically in one decade, leading to a population decline, leading to a decay of the economy, leading to disarray and loss of public utilities and consumer services. This sobering reality stuns all of us – we finally wake up. We realize extinction is certain if we don’t change. The unity of this moment may be one of the greatest in human history. The situation is not good, but finally, it’s getting better, because we all recognize our complicity, and work together, because the ultimate evidence now exists.
If you are waiting for one of these, stop. Either scenario, even in the most wildly optimistic imagination, is decades away. The sustainability debate is already 50 years old and the progress towards public consensus is essentially zero. In 1972, a group of scientists and economists from MIT first proposed humanity might be on a crash course with resource depletion and eventual pandemonium. The famous book, Limits to Growth, was received with a mix of praise and ridicule that’s been alive ever since. I’ve hunted down a 4-minute clip that really distills the researcher’s thesis, below.
Maybe you indulge them. Maybe you don’t. Either way, beliefs remain firm and split. While many of these scientists’ predictions have proven accurate over time, other experts point to apparent flaws in their methodologies and reject future conclusions.
Here is more recent analysis from 2021, that explores “Limits to Growth” with fresh eyes. This creator of this video does an incredible job articulating arguments in light of today’s world, but fantastically, concludes by saying he has no idea what to think. This perfectly encapsulates how most of us feel. Sit with this for a moment. Let’s move on to another myth.
Myth 2: Consumption Increases Happiness
Forget predictions about humanity’s sustainability. Just look at the nature of consumption in your own life, in isolation, and make an honest assessment about what it does for your you.
Every human alive today was born into a world of products, services, and infinite ways to entertain ourselves. It’s actually hard (near impossible) to see just how “new” this way of life is is, because it’s all we’ve ever known. As recently as 1930, the most prominent minds believed civilization was on the brink of an era when “work” would be nearly eliminated, and we’d lead lives rich with learning, playing, and expressing ourselves – purely for the joy and deep satisfaction of doing so. Living life as a work of art – the pinnacle of human progress. Yet – something wild happened around the 1940s, 50s, and beyond. Booms in science, technology, and the economy, gave rise to a culture of life-changing products and consumerism. We kept working, kept earning more money, to consume a perpetually expanding universe of goods and services. In short, it’s now 2022, and we earn and consume as a way of life. The arc toward freedom from work, ushering lives of leisure, appears to have stalled. Work hard. Buy stuff. Get bored. Repeat. This is our plateau.
Here is the nuclear-bomb of a question:
Out of all the things you consume, how much actually provides lasting satisfaction? When you get a new shiny thing, as big as a home or as small as a kitchen gadget – what does it do for you? Did it REALLY make life cumulatively better? How long is it, before you’re full of anticipation about some OTHER shiny thing? How long before you are laser focused on some other situation that can be improved by a thing?
Out of all the things you consume, how efficiently do you go about it? How much food do you toss? How often do you buy clothes and never wear them? How much garbage do you generate? How much single-use-plastic passes through your hands?
Generally, we don’t *need* to think about these things. All we know is, this is modern life. Work. Buy stuff. Place garbage and “alleged” recycling into bags and bins, for it all to be carried away, just like you send shit down a magical bowl. Even if we can admit consumerism might NOT be permanently satisfying, even if we admit it might be illusion that someday we’ll get everything we’ve ever dreamed of, it’s OK, because every new thing provides fleeting, novel satisfaction, and that makes us feel good for a moment. More, more, more. Hits of happiness from the pipe of consumerism and entertainment.
“For some reason we no longer expect work to ever become a subordinate part of life. I have spent untold effort, overworking myself trying to solve these mysteries, exploring social, economic, and historical developments. I have come at last to the simple conclusion: We have forgotten what used to be the other, better half of the American dream. In our rushing about for more, we have lost sight of the of the better part of freedom-of what Walt Whitman, with so many others throughout American history, called Higher Progress.”
– Benjamin Hunnicutt, Free Time
Myth 3: Happiness
Forget sustainability. Forget consumption. Consider happiness on its own. What do you believe it to be? Would you consider this 2000 year old suggestion to completely forget about it?
Imagine spending your entire life pouring water into a leaky bucket. Only to find out after decades that you can plug the leak and finally stop your never-ending chore, and feel better than you ever have.
The reason “monkey see monkey do” is such a famous platitude is that it’s dead accurate. We are born into a world, and our brains are evolved to copy behavior of what is being modeled for us. The vast majority of people spend lifetimes looking for happiness on the outside, because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing. The internet and social media has cranked this dial to 11. If only I have this thing, this person, this experience, this fame, this fortune, this status, this praise, this whatever. Whatever that something is – this is the water we are pouring into our bucket. But we never study the bucket itself, our understanding about what happiness actually is and how it works.
Myth 4: Top-Down Utopia
Returning to the suggestion at the beginning: the debate about human sustainability will not help. I don’t care of you are democrat, republican, anarchist, socialist, capitalist, or agnostic, the only change that really matters to any of us is the change that comes from within. From understanding our own drives, desires, aspirations, and wellbeing. This process has unfathomable impact on what we want, and builds acute awareness how we affect everyone else. Anecdotally, this journey to look inside is undoubtedly the most important thing I’ve ever done – and always will be.
Of course, laws and governments and systems will evolve and adapt and change, and affect us in various ways. The sustainability debate will carry on. We should do our best to shape these debates and systems in a thoughtful, civil, honest, moral way. But this is very hard work, takes a long time, and regardless of how ingenious and wise these systems might become, they will never magically make people understand themselves – including you.
Bottom-up change – individuals studying, touching, and understanding the physics of human nature with their own hands and minds – is the only way to see things clearly. Every person has to open that door for themselves. And it’s something that can be done, now.
Observe, Reflect, Live
If we are able to recognize that endless consumption is an obstacle from a richer way of being, and further, that our individual consumption affects everyone around us, however minutely, then does it really matter if humanity’s path is proven sustainable or not? No — because we, individually, can consume minimally NOW and realize new flavor of happiness that beats all the material riches in existence. We can do this merely for its own sake, and it’s purely coincidental that it also affects global consumption. Your contribution to the potential problem becomes as close to zero as possible — but it’s not why you do it. Your primary motivation is seeing through the silliness of human nature and compulsively hunting for happiness outside, and simply desiring much less. If it turns out there is no sustainability problem, who cares, you’re not missing out. If there is a problem with human sustainability, you helped. In either case, you have peace.
There is no “right way” to live minimally, and if there were an exact way, that would be less important than actually letting your desires melt, and allowing minimalism to unfold in your life however it will. Simply asking: “Do I REALLY want this? What do I NEED to be happy?”, again and again, will sculpt your appetites and behaviors down to their core, all by itself. In short – look inside, study your desires, be honest with yourself, and this process will guide you for the rest of your life. Humanity will find its way eventually, but you can do so right now.
If you have any questions please post them on any article – I’ll follow up quickly – usually the same day. Happy to brainstorm and would love to hear about your challenges and journey.