Deliberate degrowth

I’ve just finished reading Degrowth in the Suburbs, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson. It was captivating, eminently well-timed with this COVID19 situation, and an affirmation that my efforts to make, mend, grow, and choose to make do, are not only worthwhile but rational choices in an energy-crazy world.

Have you heard the terms “peak oil” or “peak energy”? In short, these describe the point at which energy demand outstrips energy availability. Once upon a time, societies would increase when more energy became available: more food, more warmth, more health = more babies. For the past few hundred years, however, energy-hungry societies (with a special focus on capitalist-colonial societies) have expanded well beyond that basic survive/thrive balance and turned to measuring available energy by the amount of available combustibles like carbon and fossil fuels. Demand has increased exponentially, which has in turn driven more fuel extraction, which has allowed for more growth, which people have embraced …you get the idea.

This ever-expanding energy use is so much a part of everyday culture that we rarely question it. Ask your grandparents how many people had a family car when they were little; then walk around your neighbourhood and count how many cars, trucks, boats, motorhomes, quads, motorbikes, ride-on lawnmowers you see. Now ask your grandparents how often people walked or cycled around town when they were growing up, and think about how often you do.

Agreed, we have life-saving vehicles like emergency-response helicopters and fire trucks, and I think most people agree that those are worth the energy expenditure. However, consider how much energy is being used for completely unnecessary things …like plastic-wrapped cucumbers. (If you haven’t see this before, it’s super-common here in British Columbia, Canada. Why? Whyyyyy?) Think of how many people, vehicles, factories, mines, and fuel, went into making that single-use plastic wrap that will last for hundreds of years, all so a cucumber will stay crisp for two more days in a supermarket.

“We begin by reminding readers that fossil fuels, which currently make up 86% of global primary energy consumption, are finite, and therefore carbon civilization, one way or another, has a time limit.” (p.36)

I think we’re all aware by now that fossil fuels won’t last forever. Globally, a peak oil crisis was narrowly averted in the past decade because extraction from tar sands and shale was underwritten by fossil fuel companies that were running out of more familiar options. These are marginal sources, and we’re pushing toward peak oil again. Knowing this, we as individuals and societies have the opportunity to pause and rebalance. We can decide how best to use these remaining fossil fuels, how to decrease our individual and collective use. Will we spend today’s fuels on creating, transporting, assembling, and establishing renewable energy systems (solar power, wind turbines, and so on) so that we’re no longer reliant on combustibles? …Well… one certainly hopes so. I like to believe that we can transition gracefully and maintain the services that enrich our global wellbeing: medicine, rescue vehicles, international knowledge exchange.

The thing is, capitalist-colonial societies by definition are short-sightedly extractive, competitive and focused on maximum profit. Change isn’t likely to happen unless we each change ourselves. I know, it can feel like one person’s changes have very little effect. Think about that earlier example, though: the switch from automobiles being rare to families owning several personal vehicles happened one person at a time.

So, here’s where deliberate degrowth comes into play. We can either keep burning combustibles as fast as possible, until rather suddenly we run out and we’re horribly unprepared for that abrupt change… or we can start weaning ourselves off them today.

Reduce personal consumption: these choices are right in front of us. Walk or ride a bicycle instead of driving a car. Buy bulk foods instead of packaged foods; buy a cucumber that isn’t wrapped in plastic! Sit in a restaurant instead of ordering takeout, or visit restaurants that invite you to bring your own takeout container. Make, mend, and reuse objects until they can’t be used any longer, then recycle them conscientiously (and make sure they’re actually being recycled). Don’t buy what you don’t need. We’ve heard all of these before, and they’re still true. Hold each object in your hand and really think about what you’re holding. How many ways can you reuse that peanut butter jar, and for how many years? What will you do with this shirt when it has a stain or a tear: will you mend it, cut it into quilt pieces, compost it?

Reduce upstream and downstream consumption: these are the “less obvious” choices that we’re still responsible for but have been trained to ignore, because ignorant people are more reliable consumers. Make what you can make, and keep learning to make more. Partner with others in your community to share knowledge, tools, skills, time, and other resources. When you do buy something, spend time thinking about where it came from: all the way from the field or mine to the factory, through transportation and packaging, through the store where you bought it. How often will you use that object and how will you share it? How will you fix it when it breaks? What will you do with it when it’s no longer fixable?

Do you really need a gas-powered ride-on lawnmower, or can you hire your neighbour’s kid to mow your lawn with the push-mower that she borrows from the neighbourhood tool-lending library (and learns how to take care of, thereby increasing her skills)? Heck, can you change your lawn to a garden to feed your family? Can you shift your lawn to wildflowers and feed local bees to help your neighbour’s garden?

Grow food. It genuinely doesn’t matter whether you start with herbs in your windowsill or a six-acre farm: grow something. Start today. The internet, the library, your neighbours, family, and friends, are all potentially excellent resources. Find a community gardens and join a worker-bee day to connect with gardeners; visit a farmer’s market and look for plant starts (little vegetable plants that are ready to be planted in pots or in your garden). Buy seeds from a local supplier; ask around and see if anyone has soil, compost, or worm castings (that’s worm poo; it’s wonderful for plants) to share with you.

When you want to learn more about permaculture, which is far more than gardening but definitely includes gardening and degrowth, there’s a world of resources available to you. Take a look at the permaculture posts on this site, for a start. 😉 Alexander and Gleeson refer frequently to Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future, by David Holmgren, so I’ve bumped that higher on my to-read list.

Do you know what might be the biggest change, though? Slow down. Change your expectations. Choose a more peaceful, more joyful lifestyle that’s far less reliant on things and far more reliant on experiences. Breathe. Make, mend, create, grow, and find joy doing it.

Hugs and carrots 😀

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