Doing Better with Less
By Robert Lion
Thursday 06 July 2006
In the France of the "thirty glorious years [1945-1975]," all the lights were green. Everyone saw his material situation improve from year to year: households equipped themselves, took to the road, sat down in front of their first television set, attained decent lodgings in their millions. Our daily life, as Georges Perec wrote, was "Les Choses [Stuff]" (Julliard, 1965): we began mass consumption; Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber offered us "The American Challenge," that is, the perspective of unlimited possibilities; the religion of the era, according to Fran ois de Closets's slogan, was "always more."
No one asked about growth; it was seen as unending and would soon be equivalent to abundance for everyone. No one talked about unemployment, or scarcity, or environmental degradation - or even, quite simply, about the environment; the Third World, after de-colonization, was not a problem.
Those days are long gone. We now know that many resources are limited, that growth is fragile, and that it destabilizes the planet. We are living through violent repercussions of scarcities that sharpen the appetites. An unprecedented environmental crisis is already playing itself out through serious threats to ecosystems - beginning with climate - for which our Western way of life is largely responsible. We already understand more or less clearly that we will lose goods that have become essential to us. A majority of Europeans, North Americans and Japanese think that their children's standard of living will decline and that their future will be less secure. The future will be studded with "less."
We have certainly lived through positive "less": fewer unwanted births, less speed and fewer dead on the roads, less alcoholism, a bit less discrimination against women. We benefit from techniques that allow us to consume twenty times less electricity than in 1950 to feed the same equipment, three times less gas to go 100 kilometers, ten times less industrial pollution, etc.
But "The Age of Less," which we are now barely beginning, will be one of severe restrictions. The global distribution of roles in industrial and agricultural production will bring us back to rely, once again, on traditional activities. The supply of oil will be durably inadequate in the face of constantly increasing demand; political shocks will aggravate shortages; Europe will suffer from them; they will be a tragedy for many poor countries. The world will lack water, wood for cooking food, fertile soils for agriculture.
We will experience rationing; we'll have to limit our movements by car; illuminate, cool, and warm ourselves less generously; adopt more restrained consumption patterns. Scientific progress will not compensate in time for the scarcities forecast.
In France and in Europe, these changes will be experienced differently depending upon whether we suffer them or we direct them. If they are forced on us by the rhythm of price surges and supply shortages, they'll be experienced as set-backs. The changes will be all the less well-accepted in that they'll strike the weakest first and provoke contractions among the privileged and violent social turbulence; they could put democracy in danger.
If, on the other hand, we know clearly, collectively, and without deceit how to take the measure of the changes "for less" that are before us, if we know how to pilot the developments toward new modes of life in a responsible and democratic way, everything will be different.
For us, privileged people, the century will be one of sobriety. It would be a mistake to see it as a catastrophe: while conceding nothing essential with respect to our way of life, we can consume more cleanly; we can reduce our ecological footprint, that is to say, limit our withdrawals from resources as well as what we throw out - garbage and pollution - into the ecosystems. Some in Europe have anticipated this road; their health - like that of their countries' economies - is all the better for it.
"Better" can be the friend of "less." The theme "less, but better" is a political subject. It calls for political choices:
The choice of the truth. In order to go forward in this century with eyes open, and not go into reverse, expect politicians to help us become aware of the world's direction, of the challenges that direction forces upon us, and the threat it poses to the very survival of the human species. A national public debate is necessary, particularly in this country that has become closed in upon itself, even to the point of sticking its head in the sand.
The choice of solidarity. We are all in the same boat, on the same little planet, in our own, also little, Europe. We will only escape by mobilizing all our actors at home and by leaving no one at the side of the road. We will not survive if, beyond the seas and sands, billions of human beings sink into penury, drought, and precariousness.
The choice of modernity. Those who talk unwisely of growth at all costs, those who see the liberalization of trade as the only remedy against poverty, those who propose revivals of consumption without ecological added value, mistake what age they are living in. On the other hand, it's a historic error to call for "shrinkage." Can one honestly articulate that idea when a third of humanity is deprived of access to essential goods, beginning with food?
Let's stop claiming to dominate nature and the world; let's stop making possession a superior end. Let's put our cherished deviancies, such as the manufacture of desire and its bulimic satisfaction, back in their place. Today's progress must be situated on the side of being rather than of having. Moreover, tending toward equitably-distributed wellbeing compatible with our planet's capacities at home and toward helping the most destitute to live better supports rational growth. The measure of this new growth must be taken according to scales integrating the human and ecological impacts.
Let us dream: A politician takes the side of talking to us about the world as it is, as it risks becoming; he or she forecasts not sweat and tears, but difficult tomorrows; she or he proposes that we talk about it, as responsible citizens, and allows us to perceive robust paths along which to advance, with a smile, towards the era of less ... A less that will consequently take on the character of better.
"Less is more," said the architect of modernity, Mies Van der Rohe. A beautiful motto for a program in phase with this century!
Robert Lion is President of Agrisud International, a member of the National Council for Sustainable Development.