In 1999 the US Census Bureau estimated the US population as a whopping 274,076,000. In 2012, just thirteen years later, the population was officially estimated to have risen to 315,104,214. This was an increase of 41,028,214 people, enough to fill Wrigley Field more than 997 times, or enough to fill 820,564 Greyhound buses. It represents a population increase of 15%, meaning that by 2012 America needed to produce and consume 15% more of everything just to have maintained the 1999 status quo over those thirteen years. Ideally then, between 1999 and 2012 American companies would have become 15% more successful, American people would have enjoyed 15% more out of life, and 15% more jobs would be created.

Unfortunately, the reality is that during those years thousands of businesses failed, “real” incomes dropped, and states reported increases as high as 211% in unemployment rates. Politicians and corporate America were all in agreement though: the answer to unemployment was easy: every American had to do the patriotic thing and buy more stuff. If we would just be super-voracious consumers then companies would have more money and could create more jobs, then people would have more income and pay more taxes, then government would have more money and could provide more services, then financial pixies would sprinkle magical dust and…

Unfortunately, evidence has been mounting for years that overconsumption is the root of our problem, not the answer to it. What if we were to try something different? Here are five ways to change your world:

1. Limit consumption
Advertisers have very successfully lead us believe that we can buy happiness, admiration, and yes, even love. Buy this liquor/perfume/underwear and you’ll be irresistible to the opposite sex! Buy this truck and you’ll be macho! Buy these shoes and you’ll be an athlete! Buy this food and you’ll be full of energy! Buy this prescription and your horrible symptoms will be replaced by these awesome side-effects! Instead, let’s turn off the advertising, stop listening to all those companies begging for our money, and instead recognize that we’re already happy, admired, and loved. We don’t need to buy their junk to know that.

2. Buy with cash, not credit
When you do buy things, be sure to buy within your means. For expensive items that will mean saving up. That’s right, no more instant gratification. And while you save up, that “must buy must buy must buy’ moment will have passed. You’ll often find that you don’t need that expensive item after all.

3. Buy used, not new
This has a big positive impact on our carbon footprint. And with built-in obsolescence a reality with so many products, finding a used item in working order can be a really good find – an item that may last for years.

4. Unemployment means you expect someone else to value your skills
Why be miserable waiting for someone else to employ you when you could employ yourself? If you find that the skills you used with a previous corporate employer are of little use to you as an individual, consider how you might create an income from one of your interests or hobbies. It doesn’t have to be a lot – it just has to be a start.

5. Stop buying food and grow your own instead
This is one of the easiest ways to have a big impact on your wallet, your health, your environment, and to help reverse some of the problems of our modern food system. You don’t need a house with a garden; huge amounts of food can be grown in containers on apartment balconies, or indoors with grow-lights.

Unemployment 1999-2012

National Potato Chip Budget

The Occupy Movement has helped raise awareness that while we all pitch in to create our nation’s wealth, a very disproportionate amount of that wealth is amassed by just 1% of our population. The remaining 99% of us could benefit if that wealth were more fairly or evenly distributed. There are plenty of ways to debate how and if that might be accomplished, and in the mean time we all seem to have fallen back into our uncomfortable reality. We know things aren’t right, but the problems seem too big to address. We know things need to change, but we’re not sure how. Finally today there is an answer that doesn’t involve chaining yourself to a street lamp downtown. Something in the paper caught my eye this morning; it led me to a little research, and – if the figures are right – we can make some big advances in some of our society’s biggest problems right now.

Our country spent decades building the unsustainable economy that led to this 1% vs. 99% mess, and we’re only in our fifth year of putting things right. We’re still taking the first painful steps to correct our system, many of us clinging to the old familiar ways, and finding it very difficult to adjust. Rates of unemployment, homelessness, food insecurity, and lack of healthcare are at historic levels. But among all those statistics, some other rather odd ones stand out. The official unemployment rate for June was 8.2%. The other 91.8% of us have apparently been looking for creature comforts during these worrying times: sales have been surprisingly strong of little luxuries such as fatty, salty, sugary snacks, all types of alcohol, and bottled water. Here are some industry annual sales figures:

Potato chips, corn chips, and similar snacks $24.6 billion
Cookies $4.8 billion
Crackers $4.6 billion
Doughnuts (just the top ten brands) $563.4 million
Beer, wine, liquor $59.2 billion
Soda $18.7 billion
Bottled water $6.3 billion

Even during these difficult times, annual industry sales for just these seven product categories total $118.7 billion, just below the entire GDP of the nation of New Zealand. As defined above, the money we spend each year on junk food, booze, and plastic bottles of tap water alone would qualify as the 66th largest economy on Earth. How can we be doing this while people in our own neighborhoods are losing their homes and going hungry? We’re supposed to be the 99%, but we’re acting suspiciously like the 1%.

You’re probably thinking what I thought: first, this really makes us look pretty ridiculous. Second, to be fair though few people realize that our collective snacking adds up to so much. And third, why are people hungry, homeless, and in need of healthcare when we, the 99%, are budgeting 118 billion dollars of our own money towards Doritos and Budweiser?

Politicians waste our money, time and other resources endlessly arguing about budget cuts, so let’s stop waiting for them. Let’s start making some cuts of our own. First on the list: let’s reappropriate some of that 118 billion dollars from our potato chips and doughnuts budget to a new budget: one of healthy food for donation to a food bank. Here’s the plan: go one day a week without the luxuries listed above. One day is 14.3% of your week, and 14.3% of a $118 billion budget is $16,874,000,000. A sudden influx of 16.9 billion dollars to our nation’s food banks would make quite an impact! It won’t address the causes of food insecurity, but would definitely ease the symptoms – and we will all be healthier for it.

While people in our own neighborhoods are going hungry, can we go one day a week buying cans of beans instead of cans of Coke? I think so too. Here’s where to drop them off:

Cause and Effect

“Tigers could be extinct in 12 years if efforts to protect their habitats and prevent poaching aren’t increased. A recent study across three continents showed snakes to be in rapid decline due to climate change. Overfishing and changing weather patterns have left 12 of the world’s 17 species of penguins experiencing steep losses in numbers. A recent World Wildlife Fund reportĀ  found that all animals in the tropics have declined by 60 percent since 1970, with everything from gorillas to fish thinning out.”
Huffington Post, January 3, 2011

“Weakened by inbreeding and disease, bumble bees have died off at an astonishing rate over the past 20 years, with US populations diving more than 90 percent, said a study published Monday. The findings are of concern because bees play a crucial role in pollinating crops such as tomatoes, peppers and berries, said the findings of a three-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Similar declines have also been witnessed in Europe and Asia, said Sydney Cameron, Department of Entomology and Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.”
France24, January 3, 2011

“Bees in general pollinate some 90% of the world’s commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields. It is the start of a food chain that also sustains wild birds and animals. But the insects, along with other crucial pollinators such as moths and hoverflies, have been in serious decline around the world since the last few decades of the 20th century. It is unclear why, but scientists think it is from a combination of new diseases, changing habitats around cities, and increasing use of pesticides.”
Guardian, January 3, 2011

“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”
– Agent Smith in The Matrix, March 31, 1999

James Cameron’s 2009

Yes, I have them too: flashback moments. Suddenly out of nowhere I’ll remember songs, movies, books, and television shows from years ago and they’ll be stuck in my head until I hear, read, or watch them again. So it was earlier today with “Dark Angel,” a television series that ran 2000-2002.

I watched the pilot for the “Dark Angel” series again and was genuinely surprised by how current some aspects of it seemed. In interviews about the series James Cameron noted that his goal was to portray a 21st century, high-tech Great Depression, which is essentially what the world is experiencing right now.

Our society’s increasing levels of polarization and class separation mirror the heroes and villains aspect of the show. The importance of being an active member of a network of people was emphasized on the show, and is also emphasized now in the progressive lessons of the No Impact Project, the Transition Town movement, the New Economics Forum, and others.

I was also struck by how localized and entrepreneurial the economy had become, things we are also seeing take place. In Cameron’s “Dark Angel” scenario an electromagnetic pulse had wiped out America’s electronic financial system and markets, grinding the larger economy to a standstill. In reality energy descent and climate change are and will impact financial systems and markets, forcing the larger economy to localize and become more entrepreneurial. In the show as in real life, small scale commerce thrives but also presents a regulation challenge.

Ironically, the electromagnetic pulse in “Dark Angel” was supposed to have happened in the then futuristic 2009 – the year that Iceland’s economy and banking system famously collapsed, the year of the G-20 world economic summit that accomplished nothing, and the year that supposedly oil-rich Dubai asked the world for debt deferments, causing worldwide stock market panics. The opening scenes of the series are supposed to have taken place in 2009, then the bulk of the series takes place in 2019 – just eight years from now.

As in “Dark Angel” it is highly likely that our future will involve more bicycling and walking, but we are unlikely to have any of the automobiles, motorcycles, and other petroleum-fueled vehicles seen on the show. The computers, cellular telephones, and bright lighting are also likely to be far rarer in future than seen in the show. But maybe that’s what makes a show entertaining: just realistic enough to be possible, and just unrealistic enough to take your imagination for a ride.

Watching this old show made me consider how my own vision of the future differs from James Cameron’s – and how everyone’s vision of the future must be unique. I then considered that if we all envision a different future, we are all working towards different things. Sometimes we may be working together, other times we may be impeding each other. Let’s find out, so we can all be more productive. I’ve been contacting a number of people – politicians, CEOs, academics, activists, etc – who influence others, people of a variety of disciplines, industries, and philosophies. I hope to discover some common ground, maybe unexpected, that can help bridge the widening gaps in our society and provide some foundation material for the networks that we will need in future.

Take A Vacation!

Author and energy expert Richard Heinberg and his wife reportedly conduct “energy fasts” on a regular basis. This is a fascinating concept, and an important one. This means more than just turning out your lights “Earth Hour” style; it means not using energy. No mobile devices with batteries, no automobiles, no air conditioning, no natural gas for cooking, no oil for heating… no energy. This doesn’t mean modern life comes to an end – you can still have friends over for a drink, work in the yard, do many kinds of work, read a book, fix a nice dinner, chat with a neighbor, walk the dog, do all kinds of things. But you do them with your own energy. These energy fasts are a wonderful energy descent preparedness drill.

When you think about it, we could do almost everything in our life today without outside forms of energy. Electricity, natural gas, and petroleum simply make these things easier for us, and therefore make us more productive. If electricity, natural gas, and petroleum were to go away, many of the conveniences we currently rely on would go away too. Our lifestyles would have to change to reflect that.

Luckily, with the possible exception of an act of war, it is highly unlikely that we would lose any form of energy overnight. A gradual transition gives us time to adapt with a bit more ease. Fossil fuels are finite to be sure though, so are indeed going away. Like any other resource they will gradually become more expensive over time as supplies decline. Rising costs will force low-profit margin aspects of our fossil-fuel reliant economy to change first, then others. We use fossil fuels to create most of our electricity, and to create both solar panels and wind turbines, so the decline of fossil fuel supplies really is the thing to watch.

The sciences of declining supplies of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and how humanity loosens our dependency on them, are what energy descent theories are all about. It may seem tempting to champion just one theory we feel is most likely and plan around that one, but it’s likely that many of the theories will play out in various places depending on local conditions. The big question faced by each of us today is not in what way we will react when cheap and abundant fossil fuels are gone, but how we react as they become more scarce and expensive. How we adapt and evolve the fossil fuel-dependent lifestyles we lead today into the sustainable fossil fuel-free lifestyles needed tomorrow will determine either our prosperity or our fate.

Politics, business, and apathy in our society all point toward domination of the Adaptation and Collapse theories. Don’t wait for politicians, business leaders, or other people – let’s make sure our lives each represent a step towards resilience and less dependence on fossil fuels. Take a vacation – from fossil fuels.