Our Way Out

By Marq De Villiers

There have always been prophets assuring us that the end is nigh, and they’ve never lacked for a receptive audience. In recent years the chorus of doom has been focused on various man-made catastrophes we seem to be rushing toward, with the preferred metaphors being train wreck or car crash in the offing. Peak oil, global climate change, pollution, and overpopulation are now the four horsemen of a secular Rapture.

It is easy to give in to feelings of despair, but Marq De Villiers assures us at the outset of this latest guide to the apocalypse that there is in fact a “way out.” Indeed it is quite simple: “Stop breeding, don’t deplete resources, and make no mess. That’s the way out.”

This is, of course, easier – far easier – said than done.

The Holy Grail of all such critiques of the current system is sustainability. In a finite world, unlimited growth is clearly impossible. For everything to stay the same, long term, everything must change.

De Villiers sensibly points out that any solution must be holistic, taking into account both society and technology. This is because the problem is, at heart, an economic one, with “economy” being understood in the way H. G. Wells used it, as the “ecology of the human species.” And so the main point De Villiers has to address is how the present system, dominated by growth, mass consumption and mass production, can be changed into a no-growth or steady-state economy grounded in long-term prosperity and human satisfaction.

A more rational, planned, socially responsible economy need not be totalitarian, nor does a sustainable future have to be one populated by peasants digging muck in neo-medieval villages. De Villiers says we can still enjoy the fruits of advanced technology and live “as well as, or perhaps better than, the well-off do now” in a green society.

I find this very hard to believe.

There is another s-word that cannot be dis-attached from the idea of sustainability: sacrifice. Yes, we could all do more with less energy and shrink our carbon footprints to a fraction of their present size. The economy as currently structured is incredibly wasteful. What’s more, living locally and consuming less may very well make us healthier and happier, both as individuals and as a society.

But so what? De Villiers’s principles may be perfectly rational, but reason has nothing to do with the way we live our lives. What we want is comfort and convenience, status and respect. To take an obvious example: we know that cigarettes and fast food are expensive luxuries that are bad for us, but they are still industries worth billions of dollars. And these are products that impact our personal health directly! We haven’t been able to give up cigs and greasy burgers even to save our own lives. Our concern for the future of the planet is probably less of a priority.

It is hard to imagine our being able to enjoy lifestyles even in the relatively near future that are anything close to those in the West now. But, as George W. Bush so eloquently and correctly put it, the American way of life is non-negotiable. Some people dream of living a life off the grid, growing their own veggies, darning their own socks, using public transit, turning vacations into stay-cations, and all the rest of it. But most of us would draw a line in the sand long before giving up air conditioning, air travel, and an expensive home entertainment system.

Or, for that matter, books (in either print or digital versions).

De Villiers’s way out may be simple, but it would involve not just a radical restructuring of society and the economy but a radical transformation of human nature. I say this not as an apologist for the status quo but as someone who has lived most of his life on a farm, at times using an outhouse, wearing a heavy sweater and a tuque indoors all winter, in the past growing all of my own vegetables, and even for many years churning my own butter. And I know that most people today would, quite simply, rather die than have to live this way.

One appreciates De Villiers’s “let’s roll up our sleeves and get at ‘er” attitude, and some of his progressive ideas have promise. But like it or not, our deeply dysfunctional economy and political system are the products of a long historical evolution and billions of individual choices being made daily. The world we live in is an ecology that we have created in our own image, designed to satisfy our natural appetites and desires.

That we can’t go on like this is obvious, but there is no way out.

Review first published online April 2, 2012.

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