What Difference Does It Make?

Turns out there are some other folks in San Francisco doing a 2008 year of deprivation also. They call it the Compact and their rules are to barter, borrow, or buy secondhand for a year—food, drink, health, and safety necessities excluded. The food part of our year has captured our imaginations more than buying used and the local and Thai option has given us a little more flexibility than the Compacters.

We've learned this year you can't buy a used windshield for your car. Used shoes are problematic for 9 year old girls and truth be told, all the women in the Goodwin house. But that was true before our year of plenty so I'm not quite sure how to gauge that one. Some of the things from internet sites like ebay and amazon are presented as used but seem to be actually new. Craigslist is a more reliable way to acquire truly used stuff. The bottom line this year is that we've purchased a lot less stuff than in the past. It's not like we have found a used counterpart to everything we would have purchased in a normal year. When barriers to consumption are in place it leads to less consumption. That's maybe the biggest lesson.

This year, we have become part of a movement of folks like the Compacters and the Slow Fooders and Locavores who are trying to reduce and redeem consumption practices. But I'm hearing an emerging pushback that is summed up well by Thomas Friedman in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, when he describes the effect of the growth of cities like Doha and Dalian in the Middle East;

"I'm glad that many people in the United States aand Europe have switched...to long-lasting compact flourescent lightbulbs. That has saved a lot of kilowats of energy. But the recent growth in Doha and Dalian just ate all those energy savings for breakfast...I'm thrilled that people are now doing the "twenty green things" to save energy suggested by their favorite American magazine. But Doha and Dalian will snack on those good intentions like popcorn before bedtime."

Here's the reply of a "detractor" to the Compacters;

Ted Nordhaus, the author of the forthcoming Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility,offers a more thoughtful critique. He cautions that people will not respond on a wide scale to what he sees as the Compact’s moralizing. “We can’t sacrifice our way out of this problem,” he says. “There are 2 billion Indians and Chinese who want to live as autonomously as we do, and no amount of shopping abstention will remotely impact that. To live is to consume, and only technology and innovation can begin to address these global issues.”

On the sustainability front this seems to be where the line is falling. Those who focus on changing behaviors and those who focus on developing technology.

It is a little overwhelming and disappointing to think that small changes in the small space of our lives don't "make a difference" in the face of massive global shifts. But I address this question of why we should press on anyway; here and here.