Zehner, Graeber, Cain. Not an energy problem, a consumption problem
Rezwan Razani - July 25, 2013
Ozzie Zehner Google Talk: Reframing the Energy Problem
In his Google talk, Zehner makes the case (in a way you might not have seen it made before) that we don’t need more energy, we need to reduce consumption; that “green energy” will only increase consumption.
We don’t have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis.
Which is why (you may counter) the world needs even more energy. It’s simple math. Hans Rosling explains the problem with Legos. In the Western world, perhaps consumption is too high, and folks could be more efficient. In the developing countries, such talk is cruel. These folks need much more energy. A diversified portfolio of it.
We’re not going to stop working on the technological dimensions of the energy problem because of this Google talk.
But Zehner brings up a key point. The energy supply/technological problem is more easily solved than the consumption problem. Put another way, if it were only a technical problem, it would have been solved by now. The “energy crisis” has a technological solution. The “consumption crisis” is messier. Social. Spiritual. Relational. It is about our values, priorities, and the relationships we have which are reflected by the shape our economy takes.
It is the consumption side of the problem that we are the most uncomfortable dealing with.
If we solve the second one, the first isn’t a problem at all. But if we solve the first one - come up with unlimited sources of energy - we still haven’t solved the second one - our insatiable hunger.
Why so insatiable? Why are we so unsatisfied? As Eric Hoffer puts it:
In the chemistry of the soul, a substitute is almost always explosive if for no other reason than that we can never have enough of it. We can never have enough of that which we really do not want. What we want is justified self-confidence and self-esteem. If we cannot have the originals, we can never have enough of the substitutes.
- From “The Ordeal of Change” - 1976
Do we need to live a hyper-consuming Western lifestyle? Do we need to have flat abs, better sex and rule the world in 8 easy steps? In the song, At the Bottom of Everything, Bright Eyes says we have no choice - or at least that we don’t question our choices:
In this endless race for property and privilege to be won: we must run, we must run, we must run.
Here we are, running to keep up and falling ever behind, running in circles of unsatisfying consumption, as described in the Story of Stuff. We’re caught in a trap. We can’t reduce the consumption because our entire economy depends on it. If people aren’t buying stuff from each other - how will we justify our jobs and paychecks? And if we can’t justify our paychecks, how do we know we have any worth in this crazy world? No one wants to scale down. All the talk is of scaling up. More eyeballs. More purchases. More marketing.
In, “Your Lifestyle has already been designed” David Cain points out:
But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
Getting In Touch With Your True Desires
Does all that stuff even satisfy our true desires? What are your true desires?
“Reducing consumption” is not a technological term about reduced stocks of stuff being transported to the store. It is shorthand for a process that touches on the deeper spiritual and emotional side of giving and taking in the world. The lyrics from Jenny Lewis/Acid Tongue come to mind:
I went to a cobbler
To fix a hole in my shoe
He took one look at my face
And said, “I can fix that hole in you”
As you may have noticed, this site is mostly focused on the technological aspects of the problem. We are trying, quite literally, to fix the “shoe” (aka footprint), as you see in the Energy Cinderella Project. But as human beings, we can’t help but also think about the deeper “consumption” problem.
Help us think this through. Our strategy is evolving to include these types of questions (See “What problem are we trying to solve?”) But we are robots and get squeamish around such topics. Your thoughts are most welcome!
Even Zehner doesn’t have any definitive solutions. In the video, he confesses to being “just another member of the search party” and counsels us to focus on where “environmental and social problems converge.”
Cain is also exploring, and in awe of the magnitude of the problem. As he points out:
Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesn’t add a lot of lasting value to our lives?
The economy would collapse and never recover.
All of America’s well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.
Join the search party. Find a way out of the paradox. Discuss!
Speaking of consumption, help us put the “party” in “search party” by joining the Fusion Food Campaign.