When we talk about complexity, resources and economic decline, it seems we’ve learned nothing from history.
In his talk in Barcelona, [Joseph] Tainter gave the example of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century A.D. At that time the empire faced a serious military crisis: invasions of foreign peoples and internal civil wars. The crisis was solved by Diocletian by doubling the size of the army, increasing taxes and enlarging bureaucracy; overall it was a considerable increase in complexity. Transforming the Roman Empire into sort of an early version of the Soviet Union was a solution – of a kind – that retarded collapse by a couple of centuries, but that, in a certain way, made it unavoidable. –Excerpt from Cassandra’s Legacy blog entry, March 10, 2011
Sounds awfully familiar. Shoal Point Energy just announced an exciting new plan for exploratory drilling along the western coast of Newfoundland: it could be the next big shale oil discovery.
Like any addict on a losing-streak, we feign confidence and tap the table, doubling-down on the very energy source that is causing our climate crisis, but this time with far more complexity (hydraulic fracturing), much greater expense, much higher risks (contamination of ground water, for example), and a significantly lower rate of return (EROEI).
I suspect we will continue like this for some time, trying to stave off the inevitable, just as Diocletian did. And why not? After all, a politician who enables these types of investments — creating enough jobs and keeping the economy just simmering enough to get by in an uneasy world — has a pretty good chance of re-election. As Deborah Coyne, Liberal leadership candidate emphasizes, her top three priorities are economy, economy, economy. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne echoed these sentiments yesterday in her speech from the throne, which included at least a dozen references to economic growth or variations thereof. Fossil-fueled growth is our Roman legionnaire: both the problem and the solution. And we can’t wrap our minds around anything else.
Besides which, moving from larger, more complex systems to smaller, simpler ones seems counter-intuitive. Little, inexpensive houses, for example, are called starter-homes for a reason. We don’t call them you-could-be-happy-here-forever-homes because we’re expected to move up as we get richer, and seek out something better. Anything less seems quiescent…depressing even.
The biggest challenge of the voluntary simplicity movement, and for those advocating for simpler (and thus more resilient) food and energy systems, is to convince the growth-obsessed masses that these choices are not a step backward. On a personal level, I struggle with these ideas every day.
On the home-front, simplicity can mean more labour-intensive activities, and we’re generally afraid of physical labour. Most people cringe at the thought of hanging a heavy load of laundry on the line, or turning the humanure in a composting toilet, but consider the same calories expended at the gym “me time.” I’ll admit that, in some regards, I’d rather go down with the ship than face the simpler, eco-friendly alternative — I love my dishwasher, for example, and often run it twice a day. Nevertheless I have to wonder, although I am by no means a Luddite, am I romanticizing simplicity?
In Depletion and Abundance, Sharon Astyk similarly questions her push for subsistence farming and simple living in the section entitled, Am I romanticizing poverty? Her response could be equally applied to the simplicity argument:
Our perceptions drive our sense of what is work more than the actual work does. How many people can remember doing some now-unthinkable job when they were young and poor, and now say, “But I was happy.” I’ve met people who walked in the snow to their outhouses, who boiled laundry on coal stoves, who hung their dripping, freezing laundry off a fourth-story balcony. And I’ve hauled a month’s worth of laundry half a mile on my back in a sack, carried my groceries for a mile, stood outside in the cold waiting for a bus every morning, walked four miles to work. And when I look back at every one of those activities, it really wasn’t that big a deal.
She also points out that some experiments, such as the PBS documentary series Frontier House, suggest that romanticism of the past “isn’t entirely misplaced.” Most of the participants in these projects preferred their much more labour-intensive frontier lives to the modern ones they returned to. After a short adjustment period, the “emotional, spiritual, and personal benefits of the life overtook the transitory concerns of physical work, and again, life was good.”
But even with a return to simplicity, its unlikely the future will look anything like the past (and that’s a good thing — I hope high-tech medical care, the Internet, books, electricity and all sorts of other modern-day things will always be around, no matter how rough life gets). Moreover — because we are such clever creatures — the drudgery-simplicity relationship is not always linear. The cheaper, simpler and more resilient choice is not always more burdensome, especially if it is the product of careful forethought. A solar-heated thermal mass, for example, is far simpler than a natural gas forced-air furnace; it also costs less and requires less maintenance. In his recent Grist article, Will Oremus touts triple-paned windows as the “surprisingly low-tech solution to big cities’ climate woes”. And what about cycling? When the snow is not knee-high, a bicycle is arguably the most ingenious simple contraption around.
And then there is the bird feeder. When I look out my back window, I see the plastic feeder we bought from Canadian Tire. As soon as it snowed, the fancy retraction mechanism jammed and we could no longer refill it. Outside the front window hangs a free bagel on a string that we occasionally coat with peanut butter and grain. The birds love it — they couldn’t care less what it cost, how complicated it is, or if its purchase contributed to the GDP. They just want to be fed.