Over the last couple of generations, we in the so-called “developed” world have eased into a very cushy way of living. We love our dish washers, spin dryers and microwave ovens. We love our throw away diapers, pre-washed veggies and ready-to-eat dinners delivered right to our door. And we love cruising in our cars with our favorite music playing. The idea of living more austere lives is anathema. We’re hooked on all of this stuff now. Whatever it takes, we gotta have our Doritos.
That’s just the way it is.
Or is it?
Look at it this way: If we’re pliable enough to have allowed ourselves to be moulded into ferocious consuming machines, to have our minds be re-wired like that, then we’re pliable enough to self-correct in the other direction. A lifestyle is really nothing less than a collection of habits. And habits can absolutely be overridden.
Convincing people that an experiment like this is even worth a try, that will be the biggest hurdle. We’re talking about curbing the personal freedoms we’ve taken for granted for centuries. “Dammit, my right to indulge myself is constitutionally protected!” Americans will say. Anything less is heresy. We can’t do this. We won’t do it. Go to hell!
Except we have done it. Recently.
We did it during Covid.
For a year and a half we were forced to social distance – something that seemed alien to our genetic makeup. If we can learn to live like that — a hockey stick away from one another at all times — surely we can learn to curb other private pleasures for the sake of our collective survival. And do that until it becomes a reflex. Just as a tiny alarm went off in your head when you came too close to a stranger, a tiny alarm will go off if you’re taking more than your pound of flesh from the Earth. You start reaching for the hamburger and some flash of conscience says: Nope. Not going there today. You’re about to hop in your car to drive to work but you stop in the driveway. Today I won’t. It’s not raining, I’ll take my bike. And tonight, while throwing your clothes into the dryer, you have another of those double-clutch moments. You recall just how much energy an appliance with a heat element uses. There’s already a heat element in the sky, and it’s free. This weekend you’ll set up a system for drying your clothes in the sun.
Dozens of little strategic “social saving” behaviors like this will slide into place, until the friction goes out of each one of them. Now they’re simply part of how you live and who you are. Now it’s just your own conscience plus what-the-fuck-else-have-we-got? Those two together are a powerful pincer. Powerful enough, maybe, to make hundreds of millions of us take the personal plunge and vow to live True-Cost lives.
For a few of us, True Cost will amount to a lifestyle tweak — a little extra attentiveness to consumption patterns already mostly under control. But for many let-’er-rip first-world consumers it’ll be a revolutionary change. Or what the University of New Mexico psychologist William Miller calls a “quantum change.” That is, a radical course correction some people make after a kind of sudden apprehension of where they fit in the big human story.
True Cost shouldn’t feel like a punishment. It should be deeply satisfying to know that our purchases are helping to correct inequities and distortions. Helping to lift someone out of poverty on the other side of the world. Helping to save many living things – trees, cows, rhinos — because they’re now worth more alive than dead. It should give us joy that we are somehow balancing the books.
That’s why there might actually not be the almighty pushback you’d expect — even from ardent anti-socialists — to the True-Cost shift in human consciousness that has to happen.
The man who proposed the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, is hopeful at age 100 that what’s going to save Gaia is the very species that drove her to the brink: us. Or rather, a technologically enhanced us. Cyborgs, programmed to save themselves, will save Earth, he reckons.
I have my doubts. I think it’s going to take something way more personal and emotional. Because until you can feel what needs to be done, you won’t do it. If it seems like a hellacious sacrifice to do what needs doing, we won’t do it. It has to instead take the form of — let’s just say it — a spiritual leap.
I think it’s time to write a new chapter in the human story, one that circles back to the original mythologies many indigenous people never lost.
These myths are not Great-Man stories. They don’t put us humans at the center of the spinning world. They’re about systems, networks, generational heaves. In these cultures, Gaia was never a “hypothesis” that dropped intellectually into the zeitgeist and then gradually lost heat. It’s a truth that always was.
In Bolivia the goddess Pachamama (literally “cosmic mother”) hovers over the land. Everyone from the indigenous people to practicing Catholics are swept into her unifying ethic of gratitude and grace. Scientists don’t try to re-educate this “magical” belief out of folks. The religiously faithful don’t dismiss Pachamama for failing to speak for their particular denomination. Individual belief systems come and go like the clouds over the Andes. But values like kindness, solidarity and humility, these are permanent. And universal. And maybe the only way out.
Lately, Masako and I have been getting into the serial “Kirin ga Kuru” on Saturday afternoon television. It’s about a Samurai warrior in 16thcentury Japan. A century of warring tribes has plunged the world into chaos. Blood runs in the valleys. The kirin is a mythic creature that shows up when a culture is in transition. Kirin ga Kuru means “waiting for the kirin.” If the kirin comes, it means the carnage is over and peace has descended upon the land.
In real-life Japan, this actually happened. The warring tribes stopped warring. The kirin came.
Japan’s war with itself resolved only after the country found itself facing a bigger menace, from outside, when the “black ships” arrived with guns more powerful than swords. Only then did the country pull together.
That’s what has to happen now on a global scale.
There’s a theory that humans simply cannot co-exist peacefully. We’re just too bellicose and self-absorbed. We’ll fight and raid each other’s resources till there’s nothing left but smoking ash. Only one thing can change that pattern: if all the nations of Earth suddenly find themselves aligned against a common threat. Like an alien invasion.
The climate emergency is our alien invasion. It’s an existential threat to every earthling all at once. Only a giant recalibration now can save us — an audacious plan that everyone has the stones to commit to and implement together.
We pull off a major reshuffling of priorities within the science of economics. We overhaul our economic system. We put something like a True-Cost marketplace in place. We endure the pain of price hikes and disciplined living, because the only thing worse than this pain is the pain of not doing it.
We tweak as needed. We stay the course.
That’s what the Third Force is all about. This is what we’re fighting for.