What is it?
It’s possibly the most important but least understood concept related to sustainability. It is about earning less and consuming less, and as such is only applicable to people with a reasonable disposable income – which means mainly (but not exclusively) people in developed, wealthy countries like the UK.
Human activity is causing ecological damage. Would there be any ecological damage without human activity? Volcanoes and meteorite impacts are one-offs, after which nature can start to get back to normal again. But human impact isn’t a one-off, and it’s increasing. Two things increase human impact – population growth and economic growth. Global population is beginning to stabilise, but economic growth is still what all governments are chasing. But it’s not possible to live in harmony with nature (which we need to do if we want to survive) AND have perpetual economic growth. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Downshifting is steady-state economics in microcosm. We can’t slow down or reverse economic growth if the majority of people just want more, more, more.
Downshifting is essential because, paradoxically, measures intended to reduce the consumption of a resource by increasing efficiency usually end up increasing consumption, as people use more of it because it’s cheaper. This is a well-documented phenomenon called the Jevons paradox. For example, James Watt’s steam engine used coal much more efficiently, but caused coal use to grow exponentially, as it was so cost-efficient. There is only one way round this, and that is to reduce earnings in line with the savings you make. So for example, if you install insulation that saves you £250 a year; then work a bit less and reduce your income by £250, otherwise you’ll spend it or invest it in the growth economy, which will end up using as much (or more) energy than you saved with the insulation.
The British Medical Journal ran a series of articles exploring the role of the medical profession in helping to tackle climate change. However, consultants and GPs can earn £100k a year, and if that’s the case, then surely everyone can aspire to earn that much? And that will massively increase the human impact on ecology. Wealth and sustainability are no more compatible than economic growth and sustainability. Even if you try to do the right thing, and only spend your money on locally-produced environmentally-friendly goods, money still moves around the economy, and will eventually be used for more damaging things. High incomes contribute to ecological damage directly because of money spent / invested, and indirectly because they contribute to other people’s aspirations to ‘keep up’ and spend more.
What are the benefits?
- ecological – see above
- less time spent earning money: which will free up more time for socializing, being with loved ones, relaxing, reading, growing food, exercising, sleeping – all the things you know you don’t do enough of, but will almost definitely have a positive effect on health and happiness
- downshifting gives us more time: children need our time – but we give them things instead
- materialism is the opposite of spiritual development; whatever your religious or spiritual persuasion, this is a given, surely?
- employment: downshifting won’t ‘destroy jobs’, as consuming less is balanced by working less. Following the logic of the ‘destroys jobs’ position, growing your own food or building your own home would be bad things because it takes jobs from supermarket workers and construction workers – but if you think that growing your own food or building your own house are bad things, you’re on the wrong website. An economy based on small companies, smallholdings and self-employment is more labour-intensive, and so a move towards part-time work in the local economy would create more jobs. It’s crazy that we have the longest work hours in Europe, but at the same time millions unemployed. Certainly downshifting wouldn’t be good for jobs in the corporate, banking or advertising sector, but hey, we’ll get by somehow
What can I do?
Work less, earn less, spend less
- save money by learning how to grow food, keep bees or chickens, install renewables, DIY, make furniture, bake bread, knit, make soaps and bodycare products – the list is endless. Well, not endless, but here are lots of ideas
- what don’t you need? here are some things you could give up, with some money-saving, health-improving alternatives
- don’t aim to be self-sufficient (unless you have a particular fetish for it) – just belong to a community of like-minded folk, so you can exchange things
- try to buy more durable stuff, and maybe think about whether you need the latest gear – be it clothes, furniture or gadgets; do you need to replace clothes, furniture etc. when they’re still functional?
- use second-hand shops and freebie exchange websites
- the kids thing: it’s a waste of time downshifting if you contribute to population growth; maybe stop at two?
- downsize – maybe think about moving to a smaller house with a smaller mortgage / rent; an extreme example of downsizing is Simon Dale’s £3000 house – not easy, but not impossible either; a big house can’t be green
- cut up your credit card
- TV is a direct route into our living rooms for corporate advertising. If you have a TV, you’ll probably have a laptop, so you could watch programmes on that, but you can avoid the advertising; try giving up your telly (shock, horror) for a few weeks and see how it feels
- after you’ve put all these money saving ideas into action, you could reduce your hours at work; do it incrementally – do something that saves money, then work an hour less. Click here to see what your rights are regarding flexible working – it’s not just for working mums
- try sharing a lawn mower with a neighbour, instead of having one each. One less lawnmower means a bit less metal mined, a bit less energy used in the lawnmower factory, and a bit less fuel for delivery. Try it with other things too. If millions of us do it, it could make quite a difference
Don’t believe the hype
- Keynes recognised the difference between absolute and relative needs. Absolute needs have to be met for us to thrive, and they have a limit. Relative needs (or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’) have no limit. The first rule of low-impact living is to ignore the advertising that large corporations spend huge amounts of money on to stimulate our relative needs
- advertisers will up the ante, with websites following your every click, ‘spontaneous’ events in public, social media campaigns, ads that follow you on floors and escalators, product placement in films and subtle ‘guerilla marketing’. But you can thwart them by:
- not giving your money to big advertisers – i.e. not to large supermarkets, corporations or banks; this means finding small, local alternatives, which might cost slightly more. This may seem paradoxical, but if you reduce costs elsewhere, you can afford it, and you’re not feeding the corporate / financial monster – the engine of growth, consumerism and the advertising industry
- in fact, as a rule of thumb, you could use TV, magazine and billboard advertising to decide what not to buy
- this is much more difficult with kids, who can be bullied for not having the right trainers; but we have to break the cycle somewhere, and you’ll be doing them the biggest favour you can, by helping them not to become corporate/credit card slaves. Sweden has banned adverts aimed at kids; if only UK politicians had the balls to do the same
- downshifting is the ONLY thing that can’t be co-opted by corporations and their advertisers and repackaged and sold back to us. Punk rock? Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop now advertise dairy products and insurance. Surfing? Have you seen the price of surf gear? Hippy culture, Buddhism, football, even environmental concerns have all been used to sell corporate products
Help change attitudes and aspirations
- maybe it’s time for society to accept the fact that working for global corporations, then using credit cards issued by global financial institutions to give money to global corporations is a mug’s game – talk to friends and family about this; see what they think; suggest alternatives
- understand the concepts – don’t let people believe you are doing it because you’re lazy (although if you are, there’s nothing wrong with that – it will have the same effect)
- if your peer group judge you by your income or the brands you buy, it might be worth considering how much you share values with that peer group. There are lots of ways to meet like-minded people: join an environmental organisation and go to meetings, conferences, events and festivals; attend courses; go to your local Transition meetings, or set one up; go WWOOFing; get an allotment – you’ll meet lots of interesting people that way
- people who take more than their fair share of resources are called successful; we need to change that – and call them selfish
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