This Sustainable Life
475: We Can Dance Around Environmental Problems All We Want. We Eventually Reach Overpopulation and Overconsumption
Have you ever tasted an heirloom tomato so delicious it was almost a religious experience? I used to think people who complained about supermarket tomatoes sounded full of themselves. How different can they taste?
Then I tasted heirloom tomatoes with so much flavor, I couldn’t believe my taste buds. The next time I ate a mainstream tomato it felt like eating wet cotton.
Do you know what they used to call heirloom tomatoes?
They used to call heirloom tomatoes tomatoes. Our post-industrial values of growth, efficiency, externalizing costs, comfort, convenience, and extraction turned something divine into something available year-round at an affordable price but a fall from grace to say the least. In the way that my rare sips of scotch today give me more appreciation of spirits than the larger quantities I drank of beer in college despite drinking less alcohol, my net appreciation of tomatoes is greater now, despite spending less overall on them and only eating them in season.
I mention this contrast for context.
Every day we read headlines about environmental problems. Deforestation, sea level rise, plastic in our bloodstreams, forever chemicals crossing the placenta, lead lowering our IQs.
We can dance around environmental problems all we want. We eventually reach overpopulation and overconsumption.
Everyone thinks reducing population means killing people and reducing consumption means reverting to the stone age. More like switching from binge drinking cheap beer or eating industrial tomatoes to appreciating scotch or experiencing preindustrial tomatoes.
Mainstream views, and, no offense but likely yours, are wrong on alternatives to both. They associate reducing overpopulation with the One Child Policy and eugenics, and the authoritarian, inhumane, and inhuman practices they led to including forced sterilization, forced abortions, and more. They associate reducing overconsumption with deprivation and sacrifice. We associate buying things with happiness and quality of life, so less must mean unhappiness and lower quality of life. If we don’t grow the GDP, people will lose jobs, we won’t be able to maintain our infrastructure, hospitals will close, mothers will die in childbirth, and 35 will be old age. Do you want to return to the stone age, Josh? Is that what you want?
But the alternative to overpopulation is lowering the birth rate, which many nations have done through purely voluntary, non-coercive means, mainly education, access to contraception, and the freedom to choose their family size themselves—the opposite of the One Child Policy or eugenics. These policies throughout the world brought health, longevity, stability, prosperity though voluntary means—the opposite of mainstream expectations. Frankly I thought that way too and couldn't talk about it until I learned of it happening all over the world. Until then, I thought if the cure is worse than the disease, I’ll take the disease. The last place I want the government is in the bedroom. As it turns out, globally, the government is in the bedroom, promoting larger families based on disproved economic myths, trying to coerce people into larger families. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans have kept our population at replacement. The past few centuries since stumbling onto fossil fuels are the aberration that we’ve born into, erroneously seeing as normal. For the two to three hundred thousand years of human existence before agriculture, our ancestors lived longer, healthier lives than the past ten thousand years until living memory. And now we’re making ourselves sicker and dying earlier than our parents.
People associate consumption with quality of life. More stuff can improve life if you’re on the cusp. People you know imagine themselves cousins with such people eking out a living, as if they are like cousins or siblings. On the contrary, you and people you know are likely benefiting from their suffering and contributing to it. They are if they're using single-use plastic, flying, heating their homes too much in winter and cooling them too much in the summer. The alternative is joy etc. You and I aren’t on the margin. We have so much stuff, advertisers spend billions to make as want more because it doesn’t improve our lives.
Since Earth's carrying capacity without fossil fuels is, as best I can tell, about two billion, leveling off our population doesn’t move us away from the population collapsing. The solution is to copy what many people around the world have done—to choose to reduce birth rate globally to well below replacement and to consume less. If you heard classism, nationalism, sexism, or racism in anything I’ve said, you stuck it in yourself. Such preconceived notions aren’t helping anyone.
Reducing consumption and number of children in rich nations are easier physically, but people here are so entitled and spoiled that in our minds we think it's harder. We’ve lost the sense that technology has made us more dependent on it and less resilient. So we need to restore our culture—that is, role models, beliefs, images, stories—to historical ones including stewardship and Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Nobody wants to be displaced from their land or have their air, land, and water poisoned.
I've reduced my consumption and waste from average American by over ninety percent, all improving my quality life. I have no kids, though I could still have one and be below replacement level. I doubt I'll have one because I couldn't look my child in the eye knowing what world is in store for him or her. Yes, if you’re a parent, I’m improving your kids’ future, possibly more than you. Yeah, I said it.
If you're like most people, facts, figures, logic, and instruction, however simple and sensical, won't influence your behavior. You'll change when about five people in your life do. So here are my changes:
- I haven’t flown since 2016 by choice
- I take two years to fill a load of trash
- I’ve picked up litter daily since 2017
- My monthly electric charges have been below $1.95 this year
- I buy mostly local produce year-round, including winter. The major exception being dried beans, which I buy from bulk and are my main staple.
- Last ate meat in 1990, vegan a big chunk of that time
- I lead global leaders to change so I’m not acting alone, but working to change systems and culture
Now you know one person who lived like the average American, thought individual action wouldn’t make a difference, but voluntarily chose to live more simply and loved the results so much I’ll never return and only wish I’d acted sooner. Like you, I felt I needed to fly to make a living. My family is scattered around the world. Nothing about the change for me was any easier than for you, no matter how unique you consider yourself. So knowing my change, you're about twenty percent of the way to changing. Look for others and you'll change sooner. The number one predictor of someone installing solar on their homes is how many neighbors did already. Same with habits in eating, drinking, smoking, voting, and many other areas.
What about efficiency and decoupling? Aren't we reducing consumption and waste while increasing GDP? This is a quantitative case. Before doing the numbers, you could imagine it going either way. After doing the numbers, decoupling is a myth. Actually, more a scam, like recycling plastic and carbon offsets. We want to believe so we can cling to our old ways, but once you see the effects are the oppositive of your fantasies, it becomes overwhelmingly clear. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you pollute more efficiently.
We have been sold scam after scam by polluters. I doubt they mean harm, any more than an individual does when ordering takeout or flying. Systems often work differently than we expect, so they sound like they could work. The numbers matter. They don’t. Here are some of the scams:
- The hydrogen economy
- Future generations will solve what we messed up
- The closed loop economy
- How we'll feed 10 billion people by 2050
- Net zero
- Carbon neutral
- Electrify everything
- Demographic transitions
- Carbon offsets
They all sound like they’ll work. Asbestos worked. So did leaded gasoline and marketing cigarettes to children. Then we learned they killed people and we stopped them.
You probably suspected deep inside that carbon offsets were too good to be true. When you look at the systemic effects, they increase the problem. Same with fusion and all the others I listed. I have a PhD in physics, an MBA, and I’ve studied this stuff. Nobody wishes it worked more than I. I expected it would work as much as anyone. But they all accelerate the problems. To clarify: several of these actions could work as tactics within a strategy of lowering birth rate and consumption, but not as strategies themselves.
In practice, as a culture we do the opposite of the first term in "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," while taking false refuge in the third, accelerating Earth's degradation while feeling good about ourselves. We live the pattern in most of the points above, increasing our damage while telling ourselves the scam trend is helping. Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers. Contact me for sources. The indicators of our lowering Earth's ability to sustain life are all increasing, especially CO2, plastic, deforestation, extinctions, and forever chemicals like PFOA.
For generations we’ve known we were impacting too much and said later generations will fix it while buying into the latest scam trend to keep from the obvious. The tragedy is that the scams weren’t improving their quality of life. Research shows hunters and gatherers have higher qualities of life than most industrialized people outside the elite few percent.
They all promote thinking “not me, not now, someone else, some other time.” They all fail to change our pollution. When you hear them, expect them to lead you to think palliative thoughts: “Despite all the problems, you aren’t responsible, your pollution doesn’t count, keep buying, keep consuming, keep flying. Don’t change.” These scams accelerate our lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. Only two things work: fewer kids, less consumption and its resulting less production.
If you want to pollute less, you have to change the system. Changing parts of a system won't do it. You need to change the system's values and goals from material growth to enjoying what you have and personal growth, from externalizing costs to taking responsibility for affecting others, from extraction to humility toward nature and honoring it, from comfort and convenience to the satisfaction of a job well done, and from efficiency to resilience. These new values aren’t new. They’re more fundamental for most of us but lost amid the advertising-driven craving.
Leaders change cultures’ values. You can choose to lead and act first. I can tell you from my experience and seeing others that you will love the change. Instead of loss, you'll save money and time, connect with your values, connect with nature. I’m not talking returning to the stone age. The opposite.
As I mentioned, heirloom tomatoes used to be called tomatoes. We can return to quality without losing modernity. We're seeing modern life decrease health, prosperity, and longevity. Eighty percent overweight and obese, millions dying from breathing air, tens of millions addicted to drugs, social media, Twinkies, and Doritos. My changes restore and increase health, prosperity, and longevity. Earth will host fewer people at a time, but more humans over the long future. Only they won’t barely survive in a poisoned, overheated hellhole.
My route leads to us living happier with a bit less stuff, better food, closer to family, less flying and shipping but more appreciation of our world and selves. What's so great about ten billion anyway? If we have to level off, why not a sustainable number? Two billion was more than enough to create Einstein and Mozart. A few hundred million produced Buddha, Jesus, Aristotle, Laozi, Muhammad, and the pyramids. We're overcrowded. A Buddha or Jesus today born to a favela might never realize his or her potential.
We can change that outcome. Most people focus on “one little thing you can do for the environment” or telling people how dire the situation. I won’t stop them, but they base their work on extrinsic motivation, often coercion ending up making people feel guilt and shame. I work with intrinsic motivation that is already inside you and unique to everyone. I don’t care if the first thing you do is big or small. I care that you care because if you do, you’ll find it meaningful. You’ll do it again. You’ll influence others. If you want to stop someone from doing something, a great way is to judge their first attempt. I do the opposite. I support after first listening.
I’ve taught many people what they’re now calling The Spodek Method to find your intrinsic motivation to act on the environment. You'll find when you do you want to act more. When you act for your reasons, you'll find meaning and purpose, independent of magnitude, and you'll want to act again. Soon enough you'll influence people around you.
The biggest change you can make is to lead others. It multiplies any other effect. To lead others you must first lead yourself. The Spodek Method does so. After you've led yourself, lead others with the Spodek Method.
My next book will teach it, as will upcoming courses. Or you can listen to me teaching it to one of my podcast guests, Jonathan Hardesty. I’ll put the link in the show notes. If you go to his third conversation with me you’ll hear me describe step-by-step how to motivate someone to share and act on their environmental values to create joy, freedom, fun, community, connection, meaning, and purpose. You can lead others through the method and they can lead you. You’ll love the experience and all it leads to. Leading others and teaching them to lead yet more others and to teach them to lead will transform culture.
We’ll restore the bounty of nature, where industrial tomatoes are a sad memory of humanity’s brief addiction to craving and tomatoes are tomatoes, unspeakably delicious.