Earth Day is here again, and I’ve got a few words for the faint of heart. We can all agree that there’s much to love about this planet, and we know how threatened it is by forces seemingly beyond our control. People can almost be divided into two camps: those who believe that we can ameliorate the dangers, and those who feel helpless. Without offering some grandiose vision full of unrealistic hopes, I’d like to say a few personal words to the latter group about “meaningful agency”.
Frankly, it’s tough to be a Canadian designer with a focus on sustainability. It seems that “green building” has fallen off the public’s radar for the most part. There are some small improvements, to be sure: the new BC building code has enhanced energy efficiency requirements; and in 2013, the Town of Comox introduced Built Green certification levels for new homes. These are good things. Still, too little is being done, and too late. People don’t find much support for “doing the right thing” from government(s) or the building industry. Until that changes, the rest of us will continue to feel a lot of frustration, and for good reason.
At the same time, people know instinctively that it’s not enough just to increase home energy efficiency. We need a radical re-imagining of how to live, and that means asking ourselves hard questions. Where do our food, clothing, electronics, etc. come from, and at what cost to the planet and its inhabitants? How much extra driving are we doing for the kids? When we travel, do we do it purposefully and with a view to minimizing our impacts? Whether or not we believe that there’s a cure for all of the planet’s ills, we do have choices that can – and must – make it more livable, right now.
This is where the notion of “meaningful agency” comes into play. I’ve been reviewing how this looks in my own life, and here’s my short-list: my family and I choose to live in a cohousing community where we share space and resources. I work close to home, usually walk to work, and go home for lunch (thus enjoying more quality of life by avoiding long commutes). My family shares a single car, owns a bicycle as our second vehicle, and has access to a community car-share. We shop local as much as we can, especially for food, and grow some of what we eat. And five years ago, we decided to stop flying, either for pleasure or for work.
That last one was BIG. It meant placing limits on the type of projects that I’d be able to take on. And my family and I would surrender the excitement and novelty of being in new places among different cultures. But how often did we really need to repeat that experience? There’s happiness to be found in focusing more deeply on the life and people around us here and now. As for work, the no-fly choice hasn’t hurt me. I find myself busier than I’ve been in years, and more happily so. Instead of being on the road (or in the air) all the time, I’ve got more time and energy to spend with family and friends, being part of my community in new ways. That’s priceless.
So why isn’t “enough” ENOUGH anymore, for so many of us? Why can’t we gear down, work less, play more, be more content and satisfied with our lives? I’d argue that the current construct of retirement is partially to blame. We’ve been sold the idea of working ourselves half to death to maximize savings and investments, build a nest egg, and finally enjoy the same standard of living without working. This scheme isn’t working anymore (if indeed, it ever did work) for most people. People continue to work too hard well into their senior years of necessity, while corporations are pushed relentlessly by shareholders bent on maximizing their net worth.
Time to unhitch from the grindstone and figure out what we really need, as opposed to what we think we want. More quality, less stuff is a good rubric by which to live. Be a producer: grow food, make things, fix what you can, but start with good quality. Opting for less but more meaningful work in the present could lead to a life where working into the senior years is sustaining and fulfilling, not something from which we seek escape.
Making bold steps to live a different way is scary but exhilarating, and the best antidote I know for feeling powerless in the face of a runaway world.