State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

Understanding the Sustainable Lifestyle

What is a lifestyle? It’s a weird word, but it is what people do with their time: work, recreation, entertainment, travel, social life, family life, religious life, education/learning, hobbies, and so on. It also includes the setting within which they undertake these activities—where someone lives, where they work, where they hang out, and where they pray (if they pray).

What does any of this have to do with sustainability? A person can spend their time and enjoy that time by consuming resources at a ferocious rate or at a moderate rate. You could, for example, live on a five-acre estate with a 15,000 square foot home and work out in your own private gym, and entertain in a home theater with a 30 seat screening room, swimming pool and barbecue. Or you could live in a 1,500 square foot apartment, workout at a commercial gym, go with friends to a movie theater, swim at a public beach and have a meal in a restaurant. You could walk and bike to work, take a train, or be driven in a huge, shiny SUV. You could recycle your food waste from your kitchen or toss it out your window to the alley below.

Your lifestyle has resource implications. Even a huge home could be designed with geothermal climate control, have a solar water heating system and be built to minimize runoff from the driveway to the nearby stream. The home and its grounds could be designed to use as few resources as possible and to reduce its environmental impact. It’s not simply what you do, but how your lifestyle impacts natural systems.

All of us inevitably consume resources in the course of our daily lives. We plug our computer into the electrical supply, we turn on the climate control, we turn on the lights; we bathe, dress, and eat. Some of us fill up the gas tank of our car. How we spend our time is changing. Part of this is the changing nature of work and the fact that work is no longer limited to the office or factory or to particular times of day. In the global economy the workday is always beginning somewhere. The Internet and cloud computing mean that analytic work and written work can take place anyplace at any time. So too can meetings. They can become Skype sessions or conference phone calls. While I remain convinced that humans require live interaction and in person contact to be effective, a high proportion of communication is electronic and require few incremental resources to be undertaken. I am quite certain that we spend more time than ever communicating professionally and personally.

This communication process is part of the knowledge or brain-based economy. More and more of our time is involved in learning and communicating ideas, events, activities and information. In a sustainable world we can develop our bodies, brains, as well as our relationships with each other and we can create products, services, culture, art, science and technology while paying attention to how we impact the planet’s basic systems.

This does not require a monolithic one-size-fits-all limited way of life. You can build a zero energy house on the outskirts of Houston and drive your electric car all over, or you can live in an apartment in Portland and bike, walk and take the light rail. What unifies the people pursuing a sustainable lifestyle is that consumption is a means and not an end. The winner isn’t the one who accumulates the most stuff, but the one who lives the fullest life, however that is defined. For some it may be in service to one’s community, for others it might be nurturing a grandchild. For some it may be creating a new way of sharing autos or homes, writing a song, making jewelry, inventing an application or developing a new way of managing an electric micro-grid.

These choices are made possible by an economy where less and less of the GDP is devoted to the manufacturing of food, clothing and shelter. At one time, that was virtually all the economy did and it was how people spent all of their time. Today, we spend less of our time pursuing our basic needs. This means that more of our work and our time must be devoted to other pursuits. To be clear, we cannot survive without food, air, water, clothing and shelter. But due to automation we need fewer people to make those things. The problem is that all of that technology requires energy and so the quest for new renewable energy technology is critical to our long-term wellbeing. Fortunately, we are making rapid progress and I believe that soon, renewable energy, smart grids, and energy storage will be fully reflected in the marketplace. The next economic transformation will be built on the implementation of a decentralized model of renewable energy generation and distribution. Fossil fuels will be driven from the market place by this new technology and method of delivery.

When the energy dilemma is finally fixed, we will be free to pursue the post-industrial economy and the sustainable lifestyles we are beginning to see. The transition to this new economy will not be easy and it is likely that many people who benefited from the old economy will have difficulty adjusting to the new one. It will be the job of government to ensure that the social safety net is adjusted to provide not just material wellbeing, but a sense of purpose and dignity for people who face the challenges of adjustment. The repair and construction of 21st century infrastructure could provide the bridge employment needed by people with 20th century skillsets. While those construction jobs are also increasingly mechanized, our roads, bridges, electrical system, water and waste systems need a major infusion of capital and construction.

Funding that infrastructure will compete with revenues devoted to transfer payments to our aging population. One way to fund that would be to create incentives for people to work longer into their lives, retire later and draw down less of those payments. That would require changes to Social Security and Medicare, the third rail of American politics, where few elected leaders are willing to tread. It would require a sophisticated discussion of the transition to the new economy that is well beyond the capacity of our current national political life.

Listening to today’s political dialogue in America, especially Donald Trump’s rhetoric, it is hard to believe that people will be prepared for this very different global economy. The idea that we can turn back the clock, or would even want to, has political resonance with some. A politics of nostalgia is easy to understand, but does not solve the problem of an evolving economy. I believe that the appeals to coal miners and disgruntled white males will not be sufficient to carry a national election, but then again, I didn’t think it would be enough to win the Republican nomination. In any case, economic nostalgia is a strategy that can’t succeed because it promises employment in jobs that technology and the market have already discarded.

Our economy will continue to change, as will our lifestyles as technology and new services and products come to market. At one time, we all sat still and watched a show on TV at the same time, because that is how the product of TV entertainment was served up. Today, we watch it whenever we want to. At one time we had to go to the office to access the files, people and information we needed to get the job done; today we can access what we need for work from any place. How we spend our time and what we do everyday will continue to change. Human ingenuity guarantees it. What is not guaranteed is that our inventiveness will take into account the health of our natural systems. But the growing number of people determined to live a sustainable lifestyle will help assure that this new chapter of economic evolution will not be the final chapter.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments