Dec 252017
 

Downsizing, the film by Alexander Payne, which follows Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) as he decides to shrink himself to 5 inches tall and moves to the downsized colony of Leisureland, had great promise as a conversation starter about sustainability, and in some ways it succeeded, but in many ways it reinforced the same myths society regularly perpetuates.

The film starts as Norwegians successfully shrink living things to just a percentage of their size. Why? It turns out—as the lead scientist Dr. Andreas Jacobson explains in his lecture “Human Scale and Sustainability”—the experiment was conceived in the 1950s in order to deal with overpopulation. They determined that downsizing was the “only practical and humane solution to humanity’s greatest problem.”

Any time sustainability and population play a lead role in a movie—I’m excited. But the film failed in several key ways. Let’s explore how:

Rebound Effect

First off, there’s the classic problem of the rebound effect. If a person moves to an area where he can sell off his car and get around by bike, his ecological footprint will shrink. Except, now that he spends less on transportation, he ends up spending those savings on other goods, and in the end may have an even larger ecological impact. This is known as the rebound effect.

In shrinking down to 5”, we’re talking about a reduction in consumption by a factor of 14, assuming Paul Safranek started at about 5’ 10”. This is even better than the Factor Ten reduction called for in the 1990s. Of course, that’s the ideal, not the reality. As people shrink down, their desires grow significantly—in part primed by the marketing of becoming small in order to live large.

On a tour to Leisureland, Paul and his wife see a presentation where one of the residents shows off his McMansion and talks with his wife about the new designer jewelry she just bought. If the majority of middle class Americans shift to these nouveau riche consumption patterns, their footprints will quickly creep back up. Perhaps not to their starting points, but certainly a large chunk of the eco-efficiencies of shrinking people down would be lost to expanded luxury consumption.

Paramount Pictures

So wouldn’t it be better to just get people to consume differently in the first place?

In an early scene, the researchers show the one bag of garbage produced by the first colony of 36 volunteers that was produced over 4 years. But later, when we see that colony, it is an ecovillage—consisting of green roofed traditional Scandinavian houses, horses (shrunk down) for transportation and agriculture and very much a low consumption living model. How much garbage would this community have actually produced at full-scale? Not much more, in all likelihood. Probably 14 bags (since we’re talking a factor of 14). So it’s not about size at all, but sustainable lifestyles.

Of course, the question is how do you market a sustainable lifestyle? In our consumer culture, we tend to consume our solutions—whether to environmental challenges (renewable energy not degrowth); to obesity (diet drugs or bariatric surgery not giving up ultraprocessed foods); to mental health (Prozac not purpose); and so on. Telling people to live a simpler life, in a smaller home, with less stuff and more shared goods sounds like a major step backward—and worse, doesn’t make anyone any money.

Perhaps if we could convince builders to set up more ecovillages and cohousing communities and persuade people to move into them (supported with the same budgets dedicated to Leisureland marketing), declines in consumption might actually be more significant than gained from downsizing people. For example, in Germany’s Sieben Linden Ecovillage, residents produce just a quarter of the CO2 emissions per capita as a typical German.

Indeed, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about humans, depending on how they consume. Of course, our sheer numbers now probably make the sustainable consumption level so low that very few would voluntarily accept that way of living, thus requiring us to not only reduce consumption but our numbers to get back to a sustainable scale.

Treating Symptoms Instead of Root Causes

Along with the rebounding of consumption, if the downsizing transition succeeded, it could enable a larger population before Earth systems started to break down. Ultimately, if the sustainability crisis was the challenge that the Edvardsen Institute was trying to overcome, they should have been investing in cultural engineering, rather than scientific engineering—researching how to normalize a one-child family; how to make it feel natural to live a low-consumption lifestyle; and how to reorient economic and political systems to tolerate zero and negative growth. But of course, that wouldn’t make a very interesting movie.

As repeated often in the film, few people chose to downsize for the planet (at least in the American context). Most just want to live a luxurious lifestyle where each of their dollars had 82 times the buying power. The consumer culture—combined with our still-growing population (now at 7.5 billion people)—are the root causes of our sustainability crisis. If we can’t address these, technologies (magical or otherwise) will never save us from collapse.

Path Dependence

One of challenging aspect that the filmmakers did attempt to address was what downsizing would do to the global economy. One bar patron provokes Paul on the night before he’s to downsize whether as a small person he should have full voting rights or just a quarter of a vote. He complains that downsizing is undermining the American economy: suppressing property prices (as people move to downsized colonies and no one fills the vacant homes), and as demand for cars and other consumer products decline.

But the filmmakers don’t go far enough. As the movie ends, about 11 years after the successful experiment was announced to the world, about 3 percent of the world’s population has downsized. If this effort succeeded beyond this level—let’s say 10-20 percent—what would it do to our growth-dependent consumer economy? Would any political leaders dream of encouraging downsizing if it impeded economic growth?

Some might, like those whose countries were doomed to drown (Bangladesh or the Maldives perhaps?). Other governments might shrink their prisoners—which happened to Paul’s romantic interest in the film. I could see some countries trying to shrink all prisoners—or perhaps giving them all a choice: shrink and live in a free downsized colony (Australia-style) or serve in jail (in much poorer conditions). But in reality, the growth question is at the center of the dilemma—both within this imaginary universe and in our world. Climate change and other ecological changes are driving us over the cliff, but our economic system drives us to grow ever more. And hence, over the cliff we go.

Truthfully, at best, this downsizing model requires a functional growth economy to sustain it—manufacturing new downsized homes, cars, gadgets. If too many downsize, the full-scale system breaks down and the Ponzi scheme folds. (And of course, 100 percent downsizing is impossible as someone has to take care of things in small-world. Plus, those countries that waited longest could suddenly wipe out the small populations and conquer the world—a point the movie never brings up.)

But the inverse of this societal lock-in is even more frightening/interesting to me. Individuals in consumer cultures are already deeply dependent on a fragile complex system for their well-being—a system run by profit-maximizing entities that tend to put their own interests first (to put it gently). Consumers are minimally resilient when systems fail (look no further than Puerto Rico). What happens when an economic crisis hits the companies that run Leisureland or too many people downsize and the global economy tanks, or a natural disaster hits one of these micro-communities? These tiny people are completely at the mercy of external forces—considering they live in their little isolated bubbles of reality. And that brings me to my biggest critique of all.

Anthropocentrism to the Extreme

There’s a scene where Paul’s neighbor is fascinated by the “real rose” on Paul’s table, which of course is the size of his chest. And there are moments when people mention how they miss birds or butterflies. But there is little discussion of the reality that 5” humans would be relegated to bubbled-living, otherwise they would be rapidly consumed by animals that had suddenly become dangerous predators. Squirrels, hawks, owls, rats, snakes, raccoons (not to mention our loving companions—cats and dogs!): they could all end our lives in an instant. Mosquitoes could probably drain a significant amount of blood and make it really hard to enjoy a ‘normal’ life in many climates. Again the filmmakers try to address this at one point, where the Norwegians luckily settled their colony near enough the water that mosquitoes stay away and the birds like “the lemmings better.”

Paramount Pictures

But, of course, that wouldn’t be the case for the majority of settlements. Living life on planet Earth would suddenly resemble life in the time of dinosaurs (or an unfriendly alien world), where perils hid behind every rock. What are the options? Kill everything? We could only go so far, even if the goal was to eliminate every potential threat. (And if we did, surely, crows, gulls, or starlings would evolve to fill this niche, growing bigger or perhaps learning to hunt collectively.)

More important than that though, is that already today, the majority of humans are completely disconnected from nature. Urbanites may see a few species of birds, grasses, and trees (in some cities) but the majority of people minimally understand their deep connection with and dependence on nature. Imagine if they lived their whole lives in artificial worlds (in the film, babies were being born in downsized colonies). There’d be no interest, or even an ability to comprehend Earth’s systems and our dependence, with the exception of the most motivated.

What’s our Purpose?

Ultimately the movie winds down with (slight spoiler) the Norwegian colony heading deep into the Lithosphere to live for 8,000 years until the Earth’s systems restabilize (as methane has bubbled out from the permafrost, thus guaranteeing runaway climate change and, according to Dr. Jacobson, human extinction).

It’s an interesting turn—and a very doomy and gloomy way to end this film. It also reinforces the same myths we believe now: a technical solution will save humanity from our past mistakes. But that of course is ridiculous. We can’t grow or invent our way out of a crisis that is rooted in too much growth in population and in consumption.

What I left with, as the lights came back on and I found myself in a movie theater for the first time in years (and sitting in a reclining, cushioned chair that my wife said reminded her of the world of WALL-E), was a contemplation on purpose.

Through his relationship with Vietnamese activist, Ngoc Lan Tran, Paul finds a purpose, becoming a social service provider to the poor and exploited of the downsized world—helping them to survive as the end of humanity creeps closer.

That is where we find ourselves today. The collapse of consumer civilization is coming, and it’s hard to see any smooth way through the transition at this point. The question only is how do we prepare now? As I’ve argued here and there, we need ecomissionaries that can help those in need—the casualties of the consumer culture—while bringing about an ecological cultural transition.

Can we model a different way—complete with an ecocentric value system that puts Earth back at the center, while also slowing down our current damage, e.g. normalizing smaller family sizes and lower consumption levels? Can we spread a philosophy that does all this and provides people with the skills necessary to survive the collapse? If we’re lucky, we can make it through the ecological transition and even grow an ecocentric culture from the ashes of civilization as Gaia and human civilization stabilizes.

Of course, an ecomissionary movement will take more than serving meals in to-go containers to poor people, but it certainly stands a greater chance of success than shrinking people, or even our current fantastical plan: shifting to a renewable “green growth” economy.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, sci-fi fan, and director of the Transforming Cultures project.

 

 December 25, 2017  Posted by on December 25, 2017 Tagged with: , , , , , ,  No Responses »
May 052014
 
Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Can pets be part of a sustainable future? I admit this is a ‘pet’ topic of mine, mainly because people love their pets so much in consumer cultures that it’s become taboo to even suggest that perhaps we should start curtailing their populations. I’d argue this is even more taboo than suggestions we need to proactively curb human population.

Recently I wrote an article for The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, which then triggered a outpouring of outrage when it was extracted first for Grist (under the title “The Guardian says your cats are a climate menace,”), and then in Newser, under “Our Planet Just Can’t Sustain Pets,” which so far has gotten 230 comments–probably would’ve been more but community standards removed the angriest!

While I won’t bother extracting too much of The Guardian article here as you can read it there, I will highlight some of the gems of the comments–ignoring the many racist comments about how people value their dogs more than Africans and Bangladeshis. Sigh.

The best comment is the pure emotional sort:

my dogs are my family. you are wrong in your ideas. you must have never had a pet. humans that can’t afford food should quit having kids that have to starve. while i feel sorry for the kids i would still feed my family first. my family represents love and companionship which is a lot more than some humans give. when i saw your name i thought that perhaps you should just keep the first 3 letters of your last name.

It has been more than 20 years since people made fun of my last name–in middle school–so that’s a good sign that I’m hitting a nerve, with people regressing to pre-adolescence in their responses!

Many suggested I hate pets or even all animals, or am incapable of love, which I found funny as I like pets–and have committed my life to sustainability to prevent the mass die off of life on Earth, including humans. Heck, I would even enjoy having a cat, but I don’t because what I know about how close to collapse we are, it’d be irresponsible to (the same reason why I feel compelled to have only one child).

The irony is I actually tried to moderate my tone in the article to encourage constructive debate, for example, removing the paragraph where I suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year with the 3-4 million dogs and cats euthanized each year to grace our Thanksgiving tables. After all it’d be a win-win, reducing ecological impacts of turkey factory farming and the cruel and wasteful practice of gassing and then disposing of dogs and cats (you can watch that horrible process in the below excerpt of One Nation Under Dog).


However, I knew that wouldn’t be a popular suggestion, even though many cultures eat dogs and cats–including some who eat their own pets. Instead I made simple suggestions like taxing dogs that weren’t spayed or neutered at three times the rate and creating ways to maintain the social benefits of pets while reducing their ecological impacts, such as through “pet-sharing” services.

Imagine, for example, if the pet culture shifted away from owning one or more pets per household to more of a “time-share” or Zipcar model? Reserving a play date with your favorite Golden Retriever once a week would reduce pet ownership – and the resulting economic and environmental costs – dramatically as people felt comfortable occasionally playing with a shared pet instead of owning one. While we’re a long way from that future, a few services that promote pet sharing among pet lovers do already exist, like the online pet sharing platform, Pets to Share, and Californian-based nonprofit, citydogshare.org.

I also suggested once again normalizing productive pets that provided a service other than companionship, like laying eggs or giving milk–I hear goats are quite friendly and can make good pets. And most importantly, I noted the value of rebuilding community, which could make the need and desire for pets much less acute (since right now they play an important social role in our socially-isolated society).

Finally, perhaps the best way to shift norms around pet ownership is to simply start working to rebuild community interactions. Community gardens, book clubs, resilience circles, neighborhood tool and toy libraries, church groups, and transition towns: all of these might go a long way in providing the social engagement that a walk with the dog currently provides. And unlike a dog, community ties will play an essential role in helping people get through the disruptions climate change will bring.

There were a few thoughtful comments, though, with some drawing attention to additional problems of pets, like the billion-plus birds killed by outdoor cats each year, and others who debated whether pets in the end are actually a positive sustainability trend as they suppress consumers’ urges to reproduce–or if they just delay this urge, leading to families with pets and kids (and thus more impact).

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

But in the end, most of the comments were pretty “ruff,” and most importantly revealed just how hard it is going to be to change cultural norms around pet ownership, as this comment demonstrates:

You will get my German Shepherd when you pry her from my cold, dead hands.

And for that, the pet industry and its incredibly successful marketing efforts to convert pets into family members (with their very own clothes, shoes, toys, gadgets, and expensive healthcare), should be applauded.

 May 5, 2014  Posted by on May 5, 2014 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »