Director’s Almanac: Living the good life at the end of the world
Modern American life is sending us some dangerous signals. Advertisers, retailers, and even trusted news outlets tell us everyday that stuff – and buying more and more of it – is the road to a convenient, more pleasurable life and happiness itself. On the go? Buy this pre-made lunch box. Need caffeine? Here’s coffee in a to-go cup. The American dream is 2,500 square feet in the suburbs (now the median size of a new house in the US) and an SUV in the driveway.
That we consume so much – and so many unsustainable products – is why the average American has such an enormous effect on the global environment. Each American emits 2.3 times the amount of greenhouse gas of the average Chinese citizen or 32 times the average Nigerian. The footprint of US beef consumption, the largest source of carbon emissions in the food sector, is higher than any other country in the world.
Add this consumption up and you get runaway climate change, water supplies contaminated by nutrients, and biodiversity loss hundreds of times higher than the background rate of extinction.
This means that we must substantially reduce consumption of harmful goods, design solutions for abating the harmful effects of that consumption, and transition our consumption to more sustainable alternatives (think: electric vehicles and the Impossible Whopper).
Last fall, IonE Fellow and CLA Professor Dan Phillipon and I built a course to unpack what this imperative means – not just practically, but also culturally. Offering it through the U’s Grand Challenges Curriculum, we called it Living the Good Life at the End of the World. And as we prepare to offer the course again this fall, this topic has been on my mind. The relationship between happiness and sustainability is something we all should be talking about.
For a long time the environmental movement has argued for reductions in consumption through the lens of sacrifice. My personal favorite is the annual Earth Hour that asks participants to sit in the dark for 60 minutes in recognition of the environmental impact of energy consumption. Sacrifice has been the primary argument for taking individual actions such as riding your bike to work.
The problem is that sacrifice doesn’t work that well, particularly in the United States. Guilt doesn’t either. Instead, people are motivated to make durable change through a sense of striving and legacy, hope for a better future, and alternatives that don’t feel like much of a sacrifice at all. (For example: the perception that a Tesla is cooler than a gas-guzzling car anyway.) Research also shows the importance of ideology in driving individual opinions about climate change.
Most people are looking for a life that’s happy and morally justified: the good life. And if we want sustainability – things like greenhouse gas emission reduction and habitat protection – we are going to have to find ways to align sustainability with the good life. And the good life is not just for Americans. All humans deserve the right to live a full life in pursuit of the things that meet their needs and bring them happiness and fulfillment.
This points to the biggest, most important challenge of sustainability: aligning the pursuit of the good life with sustainable life habits, particularly in wealthy countries where people consume the most. Until we overcome this challenge, sustainable technologies will not be taken up, environmental policies will not be enacted, and real environmental problems will be ignored until it’s simply too late to do something about them.
To achieve sustainability, society needs to change, and before that, we each need to go on a personal journey. We need to evaluate our consumption, scrutinize the theories and evidence of what the good life truly is, look inside ourselves to question our personal values and behaviors, and seek alternatives and life changes that bring our sustainability and other values into alignment.
In Living the Good Life at the End of the World, Dan and I asked students to do two particularly important things. First, they had to write four essays that took them through an analysis of their values, a critique of their environmental footprint, and a strategy for and commitment to aligning their behavior to their core values and sustainability. Second, to help them explore those values, we asked them to do something uncomfortable, to push themselves to explore a sustainability idea. Some of them slept overnight without shelter or technology; others carried their waste on their person for a week or more. Through all of this, we asked them to quantify and translate their values and actions into environmental quantities and harms.
Overwhelmingly, the students discovered that their values did, or could, align with sustainability. It was possible to live a good life – to be with loved ones, to find personal meaning, to explore – with a substantially lower environmental footprint. The problem was that modern society didn’t make it easy, and sometimes the effort required took more time and emotion that the students thought they could consistently bear.
Many students were surprised to learn how much they valued comfort and convenience and how much their environmental footprint was being driven not by something important to them but by the easy choice. The disposable cup even though they could plan to bring a reusable one, the tolerance for waste in the name of convenience, the autopilot of never even stopping to consider if there’s a sustainable option that could be as – or more – pleasant and rewarding as the default choice (e.g., hopping on the light rail instead of driving).
They also found core values with big environmental footprints that were hard to avoid, such as flying to visit a grandparent. They also discovered that they had a lot of agency over their behaviors and environmental footprint, and they may have even more agency in the future (e.g., opportunities to live close to family or work).
A wonderful part about the course was observing that as students developed their solutions, there was no need for comparison, no judgement. There’s power in knowing your values and taking steps to align those values with sustainable practices. It’s morally defensible, and not everyone has to choose the same – not everyone has the same values, circumstances or opportunities.
(An important caveat about the generality of observations from our class: students at the University of Minnesota are more economically diverse than at many other universities, but college students have more privileges and economic choices than many Americans, and certainly more than nearly everyone else around the world.)
So did we find all the answers in this course? No. Nor did we expect to. Neither Dan nor I have all the answers about how to live a sustainable good life. I’m not immune to modern American society. I’m tied to consumption too, and I’m constrained by the economic systems around me. Personally, I’m quite compelled by the power of technology and new products to increase sustainability, and I’ve invested in several of them.
But I also changed my views a bit in teaching this class. I’m more skeptical of technical solutions than I was before, and I now see that a lot of the good life is low tech and can be entirely carbon free. It’s about how you spend your time, away from Amazon.com and the shopping mall. From this shared journey with students, I gained some introspection. I continue on my own journey toward finding – and living – the good life.
Are you on that journey of discovery too? I’d love to hear about it; please tweet me what you have learned. In the end, sustainability is from the collection of all our individual choices and actions.
In planetary prosperity,