How can we achieve a greener society? For one thing, we can pass laws that compel people and businesses to take a particular action. For another, we can encourage people to change their habits through education and example. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.
Recycling serves as one example. As long as it’s voluntary, participation rates will be low. As long as “aspirational recyclers” don’t understand what does and does not belong in their recycling containers, recycling facilities will have to deal with all manner of contaminants. We need both laws and education to make our recycling programs as effective as possible.
Coercive laws, on the other hand, can have unintended consequences. They can bring whole bureaucracies to bear on policies that may turn out not to be the most effective way to deal with a particular problem.
People will act in what seems to be their best interest. If they become dissatisfied with how most of society works, their actions can be disruptive. Channeling those disruptive tendencies can potentially have a greater environmental impact than passing laws. But how?
California’s solar panel mandate
California has recently become the first state in the U.S. to require that builders install solar panels on all new homes. The law takes effect in 2020.
Proponents claim that it will help the state reach its goal of depending entirely on renewable, zero-carbon energy by 2045. That’s one way to a greener society. But it appears to be a heavy-handed example of government coercion that will not help very much.
According to the government’s own figures, the solar panels and other parts of the new standards will add about $9,500 to the cost of a new home. Over the course of a 30-year mortgage, they will save only about $19,000 in the costs of energy and maintenance.
That extra upfront cost adds to already high housing prices in California. It can price lower-income families out of the market for new homes.
California has other laws on the books that might help. Its cap-and-trade program requires companies to buy emission permits. It also requires the state to spend some of the revenue to help environmentally and socially disadvantaged areas. Perhaps for subsidies to help lower-income families buy a new house. But the state cannot mandate a successful transition to a greener society unless its policies explicitly benefit all low-income families. Can it? Will it?
Over three years, those new homes can reduce California’s gas emissions by about 700,000 metric tons. They will therefore reduce the state’s annual emissions (440 million metric tons) by less than one percent. Housing emitted only about seven percent of California’s overall greenhouse gases in 2016. Forty one percent came from transportation.
So the state is forcing home builders to provide an expensive feature not all potential buyers can afford. In return, it gets a negligible reduction of its total emission of greenhouse gases.
Sustainability viewed globally
Sustainability, the means to a greener society, requires living within our means. That’s true not only for households and businesses, but human society as a whole. At present rates of population growth, we can reach 10-11 billion people on earth in the disturbingly near future. Malthusian predictions of a sudden population collapse have proved wrong for a couple of centuries now.
The standard of living has grown along with the population, but therein lies a huge problem. The world’s resources cannot support so many people with the standard of living the developed world has achieved. People in poorer nations aspire to improve their living conditions. They want to achieve something of how more affluent nations live.
Beyond the likelihood of violent confrontation between rich and poor, much of the current affluence depends on burning fossil fuels. The world has already used up most of the most accessible and cheapest fuels. We are reduced to expensive and environmentally fraught techniques like fracking to obtain petroleum from marginal supplies.
Modern-day Malthusians foresee a catastrophe when the oil runs out. Suburbia, they say, will become an uninhabitable wasteland.
Can the affluent downsize voluntarily?
Two professors at the University of Melbourne, Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, have a different vision of a greener society. They see the necessity, and therefore the possibility, of turning away from the obsession with growth for its own sake that has driven the world economy since at least the end of the Second World War.
Alexander and Gleeson don’t consider what they describe as likely, only as necessary. My only objective in sharing it is to show one possible alternative path to sustainability that doesn’t require top-down government coercion.
They identify two social subclasses that can lead to what they call a prosperous descent from current notions of wealth and lifestyle.
First, a growing number of working professionals have become disillusioned with consumerism. They have decided to opt out of the rush to gain more and more stuff, seeking abundant life, not abundance of stuff, through deeper engagement with community and pursuing personal interests.
Second, many of the working classes must constantly battle to make ends meet. They have been drawn into the consumer culture, which they can’t afford. Instead, many have started to explore a more informal, non-monetary lifestyle based on sharing.
Although they have very different circumstances, these groups have in common a disillusionment with consumerism. In different ways, they have opted out and have already begun to disrupt the economy. And the economy will have to adjust.
I have no interest in trying to explain how this dissatisfaction with the status quo can be exploited to lead to a greener society. It just seems that individual households acting in their own self-interest can bring about healthy social change in a way that government mandates can’t. And governments, like the economy as a whole, will have to adjust.
Some practical examples of voluntary downsizing
Early adopters of solar power, back when it was expensive and undependable, very often sought to live off-grid. Many grew up in relative affluence and turned their back on it in favor of homesteading.
Now that home solar power has gone mainstream, it doesn’t seem as countercultural. But those hippies that much of society made fun of started something that has grown way beyond their movement.
Lime Bikes, one aspect of a sharing economy, have already made an appearance all over the country in a little less than two years after its initial crowdfunding campaign. People need not buy and maintain their own bicycles or other kinds of personal transportation. They can use their cell phones to unlock and rent one for a short time. Then, when they’re finished, leave it.
Governments must scramble to make it possible for companies like Lime Bikes to operate safely. But these new regulations come about not because some activist persuaded city councils to impose a new mandate. A critical mass of people have embraced a new concept. Somehow, the local economy will also have to adjust to this demand.
People who want to opt out of consumerism yet maintain some semblance of affluence are turning to agrihoods. Where once developers built neighborhoods around a golf course, now some are building them around farms, which the neighborhood residents operate.
Less affluent people, who likely live in food deserts, are turning to community gardens or urban farming to obtain fresh food. Thus, urban agriculture appeals to both groups Alexander and Gleeson identified. Again, urban agriculture requires governmental support in order to work properly. I’ve never heard of a local government that comes up with such an idea and tries to require participation.
Therefore, we can all contribute to a greener society by finding our own voluntary downsizing. As more and more people opt out of consumerism, The economy and government regulations will have to adjust.
Experts aren’t taking a shine to California’s rooftop solar rule / Jeremy Hsu, Scientific American. December 13, 2018
The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future / Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, The Conversation. December 13, 2018