Thursday, March 14, 2013

The End of Growth – Setting Priorities

Personal Advice on Adjusting to the End of Growth

Setting Priorities

As someone who has for several years been speaking and writing about the consequences of impending energy scarcity, I’m often asked for personal advice. “Where should I live in order to avoid the worst impacts from Peak Oil?” “What career should I prepare myself for?” “What should I invest in?” I’m generally uncomfortable answering such questions. I’m no prophet, merely a trend spotter. The trends I see are broad and deep, but the details of their unfolding could be surprising to everyone, myself certainly included. Why should I give advice that might turn out to be unhelpful?

Nevertheless, in this book some advice is called for. If world economic growth is ending, then there are some fairly obvious adaptive responses that could help us all get through this difficult period more successfully, and it would be a failure on my part to omit discussion of those responses. In this chapter I will be speaking directly to you, the reader. What follows are general guidelines that have occurred to me over the course of the past few years. You are of course free to follow or ignore them according to your own best judgment, but I will voice them in the imperative mood in any case.

The first thing you must do is re-align your thinking. Most people’s perspectives and priorities are shaped by the economic system in which we are embedded, as well as by political messages and by voices in the mainstream media. All too often we allow our thinking to be done for us. But, as we have seen, the “normal” reality in which we find ourselves is actually based on profoundly flawed assumptions; in this situation, you cannot afford to sit back and let professionals who take this “normal” reality for granted operate your mind for you.

It’s essential that you start thinking for yourself. If you haven’t already done so, learn the principles of critical thinking.[1] A good way to begin getting hold of your thought processes is to spend some time away from mass media, observing nature. Make both critical thinking and nature observation daily practices. I’m not suggesting cutting yourself off from news and opinion: it’s important to know what is going on in the world; rather, I’m advising that you deliberately and systematically hone your own self-correcting, critical point of view. That doesn’t mean looking for new information to buttress your existing opinions; it means challenging those opinions and learning to evaluate and prioritize new information.

When we become aware of threats to our current way of life it is natural to react first by trying to defend and maintain this pattern of existence—perhaps by denying uncomfortable information or attacking the messenger. I certainly anticipate receiving some of these attacks myself. However understandable this reflex may be, it is not helpful—especially in the current instance. Our present way of life cannot be maintained under the circumstances that are now unfolding. Rather than maintenance of the status quo, our goal instead must be a successful adaptation to emerging conditions along with preservation of what’s genuinely worthwhile and sustainable from the present and past. Figuring out how to adapt and assessing what is genuinely worthwhile will probably take you the rest of your life. Get used to mulling over these meta-problems, and learn to enjoy doing so.

The simplest shorthand way to think about our collective future is to focus on a series of relevant words that aren’t especially cheery: less, slower, smaller, and (this is the hardest one)poorer. Author John Michael Greer boils the matter down to its logical essentials:

White’s Law defines energy per capita as the basic measurement of economic development; as energy per capita declines, the economy contracts, and its capacity to support individuals at any level above the starvation line contracts as well. All the social, political, and military fireworks that punctuate the curve of decline unfold from that inescapable equation. . . .[2]

Now, being poor isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. The vast, overwhelming majority of humans throughout history lived on a budget of energy and resources that today would seem unimaginably penurious by middle-class American standards, yet our ancestors were not uniformly and continually miserable. Happiness studies cited in the last chapter show that people can be quite satisfied with their lives while using a fraction of the consumables that North Americans manage to burn through.

The hard part is adjusting from a higher rate of consumption to a lower one, and much of that difficulty is psychological. Those of us who have grown up in modern industrial societies dominated by advertising and mass media have developed dopamine reward systems that are connected to the act of buying stuff and using energy. For us to give up consumption is about as pleasant as for a smoker or heroin addict to go cold turkey. If we want to make the adjustment as pleasant as possible, we should undertake to reduce consumption proactively, and that means taking hold of our internal reward systems. What gives you a dopamine fix? Is there an alternative system of rewards to which you can adjust that makes sense in a post-growth economy? If you learn to get your kicks from gardening, tinkering with worn and broken machines, making music with friends, mending old clothes, caring for family and friends, and competing with yourself to shave a few kilowatt hours from your monthly electricity usage, then you can look forward to endless future opportunities for enjoyment.

One of the keys to success in life involves management of one’s own internal brain chemistry. This is potentially a full-time occupation: whole philosophies—arguably, entire world religions, e.g. Buddhism—have been established in pursuit of neurotransmitter bliss, though usually the project is swathed in obtuse terminology. This frequent resort to confusing jargon is understandable: after all, it is only in the past couple of decades that the human brain’s dopamine reward system and the functions of other neurotransmitters (seratonin, noradrenaline, and GABA) have begun to be clarified. Feel free to frame your efforts at brain chemistry management in whatever terms suit you; your goal must nevertheless be to reduce the addictive qualities of your relationship with dopamine (learn to feel fine without the need for ever-more-intense “highs”), and to attach your internal reward system to life-enhancing mental and physical activities. More


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