Once upon a time I started a blog about sustainability. There, you can follow along with my journey from naive optimism to the point where I lose interest almost entirely and turn my attention to lighter, more digestible topics.
It’s not that the fire went out. Just that the flames were dampened by hopelessness, and after a while I was able to ignore their quiet simmering. But recently I’ve been doing some serious reflection, and came to the conclusion that to deny my own agency is an act of self-contempt, and contempt for those who do make an effort, as well as those whose voices cannot be heard, for whatever reason.
The nascent postcapitalist movement has provided a spark, and while I don’t see it as a silver bullet, there are elements to the idea that offer hope in these dark times.
So where do I begin and how do I apply it to my own life? The Post Growth Institute (PGI) is a good place to start. Their website explains post growth as an umbrella term for an emerging perspective; one which locates the capitalist dependence on growth as the underlying cause of many interconnected global issues:
Just as there are many ways of living now in a growth-oriented society, a multitude of post growth futures are possible and many ways of living post growth already exist today. What these futures hold in common is a desire to separate good growth from bad, and to develop human potential and happiness within, and in relation to, a physically finite earth. A post growth economy puts life and everything needed to maintain it at the center of economic and social activity as opposed to the never-ending accumulation of money, and the pursuit of growth of all kinds without regard for its consequences.
Central to the post growth philosophy is the rejection of the idea that more = better. That a bigger house, a nicer car and more stuff will not make us happier. It’s a tired cliché on the surface, but rejecting it — really rejecting it — is a revolutionary thing to do, both on a personal and a cultural level. Basically, if we all lived moderately, there would be enough resources for everyone — and that includes taking up less social space so others can have their say.
This is where the one-planet lifestyle comes in. Most of us in the west use up far more than our share of the world’s resources. In a world of finite resources, if I could have and use less, someone else would have access to more. It’s not just about avoiding ecological overshoot, but a whole interrelated movement towards equality, social and environmental justice, diversity and creativity that pervades almost all aspects of life.
But instead of talking conceptually, I want instead to break down aspects of my own experience and explore how I can — and already do — integrate post growth ideas. This is the necessary first step on a path towards a more compassionate life, one that recognises the value of individual agency, and the power of local solutions to tackle complex global problems.
A few months ago I quit my dream job. Everyone thought I was mad. I was a program manager for a small travel company, and got to voyage the world meeting interesting people and creating compelling stories about history, art and culture. For three years it was magical. I was completely consumed by the work, and took on more and more responsibility. But after a while, I began to ask myself some questions about what exactly it was I was trying to achieve.
The company’s growth was everyone’s overarching objective, and on a personal level I found myself stuck in a cycle of short-term challenges and rewards. This pattern provided a perfect distraction from the fact that I was spending far too much time working, or thinking about work, or travelling for work…
I live in Berlin, and one of the main reasons I moved away from London was to escape that manic rat race. Why, then, was a I working like a dog, when I could make rent with a cafe job? Some people find meaning in their work, and that’s something I completely respect — envy even. These days, I get by as a freelancer, and average around 10 hours work a week. I understand that my position is one of privilege, and the question of how I spend the rest of my time is at the forefront of my mind right now. This article is part of the process of answering it.
Several months ago my husband and I were stuck in a bit of a rut — as sometimes happens in relationships. Our reaction was to start problem-solving. We thought we might benefit from a bit more space; that an extra room or two would take some pressure off, and allow us both more independence. We live in a 60-m2 one-bedroom apartment in a sought-after part of town. Seven years ago, when we moved in, it wasn’t sought-after at all, and our contract strictly limits how much the landlord is allowed to increase the rent. Upsizing, even to a less pricey part of town, would still mean a significant rise in rent, but at the time I was still working full-time and so we indulged ourselves and went to look at some fancy newly built flats.
But throughout the whole flat-hunting process I had this nagging feeling that the solution was closer to home. Yes, I needed more space. Inner space. A bit more kindness and tolerance and understanding: things you don’t necessarily find in a penthouse.
60 m2 isn’t a small space for two adults and a dog to share. It’s perfectly sufficient. Most of the world’s population survives in much more cramped conditions. And our home is furnished for the most part with found and secondhand items, powered by renewable electricity, amazingly insulated, and heated by a communal gas boiler. In terms of our Ecological Footprint, an important part of any post growth conversation, we could do a lot worse than stay put — which is exactly what we decided to do. And in the process of making that decision, we found ourselves free of the rut.
According to the PGI’s charter, we need to acknowledge that:
…Current models of economic growth have systemically benefited certain populations and species over others and that greater social and environmental justice is required for sustainable futures.
…Because of current inequitable conditions, extra efforts may be required to ensure equal access to participation by all, particularly in relation to the most politically charged global issues in which power dynamics have routinely excluded consideration of certain perspectives.
Being part of a strong and diverse community is something I crave. I’ve spent many a drunken evening threatening to organise a barbecue in our backyard, to invite the residents, get to know the people from all over the world who I’ve been sharing a building with for the best part of a decade. I never did it, and now a new luxury apartment block is being built in the yard. There’s still some space out front though. What I’m lacking is emotional capital. I’m almost there.
I keep thinking that if we did have a sense of community, we might have been able to put up some kind of resistance to the development in our backyard. We might have been able to pool our resources and skills to advocate for ourselves and our shared interest in maintaining a certain quality of life.
In terms of the wider community, Berlin is now home to hundreds of thousands of refugees with a massive range of needs, some of which I can surely help with. Again, I’ve never done anything with my empathy, though the pain I feel on behalf of these people is at times unbearable. I’m not sure why I’ve done nothing, but I plan to document here my efforts to change this.
A big one. Probably warrants an entire post. I spend too much money on clothes and sometimes buy them from places with questionable reputations. That has to change. I also used to be hyper aware of buying unnecessary “stuff” but have been seduced by Amazon Prime far too many times lately.
Food is another massive factor. I don’t eat red meat but occasionally have chicken and fish. I’m consciously trying to adopt a mainly vegetarian diet, knowing all too well how heavily the meat and dairy industries contribute to climate change. Our dog is a bit of a problem on account of his carnivorous preferences.
The question of local, organic food is another loaded one. Yes, a reconnection to our food sources is surely a good thing, but currently it’s a privilege of the wealthy. Food here is generally really cheap, but the good-quality stuff is prohibitively expensive. That said, some initiatives like the annual Stadt Land Food festival at a popular Berlin market hall is working to address issues of integration and accessibility directly with the diverse local residents. I should get involved.
Waste. Germany is famously good at recycling. We used to have separate bins for food, plastics and packaging, glass, paper, household items, and then one for non-recyclables. Our “rubbish” bin would take weeks to fill. Those were the halcyon days. It all changed when our letting agency unceremoniously announced that, as people were not conforming to the rules — and admittedly, it was a free-for-all out there — they were getting rid of all the bins except glass and paper. I’m not sure if the main rubbish bin is now sorted offsite — I like to think so, and anyway, surely it has to be: this is Germany after all.
We still separate our food waste in the house, despite having to chuck everything in the same bin outside. It’s a sad habit that neither of us can bring ourselves to break.
To their credit, the agency did attempt to educate residents by distributing a leaflet about the recycling rules. The thing is, only a handful of our neighbours are actually German, and I got the sense that most people didn’t really get it — you only had to look at the state of our backyard bins to understand that. Again, I keep thinking that things could have gone differently if our community were stronger; if we could communicate what’s important to each of us, and why.
My Achilles heel. According to several Ecological Footprint calculators, I currently use up about 1.2 planets, but everything else considered, if I could cut down on air travel, my footprint would be pretty much sustainable. At the moment, I take two or three short-haul return trips a year, plus one long-haul. For four years I didn’t fly at all, and it was generally fine. I enjoyed the opportunity to explore what was nearby.
So I’m renewing my commitment to make conscientious travel decisions.
Locally, though, I get around on foot or by bike. We have no interest in owning a car, but occasionally book out a Flinkster for a few hours to drive to a lake with the dog or run an errand.
A common thread running through all of these seemingly trivial aspects is something signifiant. A recognition that what I have now is enough — more than enough. Capitalism exploits our tendency to look forward, our will to achieve. Not that these are undesirable emotions in and of themselves, but when we are stuck in a constant cycle of reaching for more and thinking of the future, it’s easy to let the present pass us by.
Of course, goals are important — having something to work towards is part of a healthy human mind. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the now.
The lessons of mindfulness meditation are what compelled me to write all this down in the first place. And they feed into this quest for a longer-term simplicity and downshifting. It’s an act of compassion to acknowledge that you deserve to be happy — we all do.
I’ve always harboured some distain for my own privilege, and that’s fed into a cynicism so deep it’s paralysing. Since I started giving myself a break, I realised that it’s surely better to try than to stay silent and do nothing — and that includes standing up to injustice and adding my voice to the cacophony.