Why I'm Here: Thoughts on Motivation, Philosophy, and Moral Foundation
[This is going to be a long therapy session for myself. You've been warned.]
I was fortunate to raised in an anti-consumer-friendly and skeptical manner. I was homeschooled K-12, largely because my parents figured they could provide us with a better education than the local schools. We also moved to a chunk of desert completely off-grid when I was 13, and began the process of developing it and building a house. These early experiences, in retrospect, implicitly taught me that every status quo lifestyle choice is worth questioning, and that alternative paths really aren't that scary.
College was an opportunity to experiment with different forms of 'simple living' - living on 1 jacob, living in a borrowed truck, living in a tent in a canyon behind campus, etc. I read a lot and became convinced that the world was organized in an insane manner. I didn't really know what to do about it though - I had the critique of consumer society, but not a solution.
After graduation, a combination of girlfriends who didn't see eye to eye with my radical critique of society, a people-pleasing and conflict-avoidant personality, and getting a 'good job' in the SF Bay Area were all forces that eroded any real execution in my day to day life of my anti-consumer views.
The realities of making a starting salary of $56k and living in San Francisco, then Oakland, in the 2010's, meant I by no means led a high-earner's lifestyle. I lived with roommates stuffed in to units designed for one person, I lived with rats, I dealt with landlord-reoccupation evictions, I didn't own a car the entire time I lived in the Bay. I lived in ~13 different places in the 7 years I lived in the Area. I worked a lot, but the recession hit late and stuck around in my industry, so my salary was slow to grow. Although my lifestyle was modest, I didn't have any of the tools of ERE and I merely managed to pay off my student debt, then live paycheck to paycheck.
I enthusiastically participated in the Oakland Occupy movement, even spent a couple nights in a government holding facility ("jail") which turned out to be time well invested: as it was an illegally-executed mass arrest, we all received a ~$3,000 class action settlement. That's what I used to polish off my students loans and help out a Nepalese family after the quake over there, which had a nice ironic symmetry to it.
I worked (and still do) in the 'sustainable built environment' - we design highly energy efficient, low-carbon-footprint, healthy materials mechanical electrical and plumbing systems for green buildings. We've worked on everything from small eco-sheds in the woods to buildings you've seen in the news, for companies whose products you use. I've been deep into the philosophy and daily execution of the sustainability movement for some time.
My reading on 'the issues of our time' - peak oil/soil/heavymetals/everything, species extinction, ecosystem destruction, the Myth of Progress, the mechanisms of collapse, critiques of capitalism, industrialism, agriculture, 'civilization' itself, has led me on a roller coaster of engagement and disillusion.
I used to blog about sustainability. Then I realized we were all f*ked and there was nothing I could do about it, and stopped, and focused mainly on riding mountain bikes and drinking beer with friends.
Then I realized I was being a coward, and so I re-engaged and got back in to the game, and read the full IPCC report. Mistake. I think my response to that was to become a workaholic and ramp up to 80+hrs, ramping my caffeine intake up to 6 camping-stove-mugs of coffee a day, with a few Racer 5s as a sleep aid before bed.
We all know about climate denialism. It's folks who think climate change is a liberal-elite conspiracy to impoverish the middle class, or at least who think that AGW isn't that big of a deal. What a lot of people don't know is that climate denialism comes on a scale. The 'climate change is a hoax' folks are at one end.
At another point on that climate-denial spectrum is people who work in sustainability, and *have* to think that what they're doing day in and day out is having any impact on the world at all. They're not in denial that climate change is real; they're in denial about our chances to Save the World and preserve a Glittering Future for Our Children. They've bought in to the Myth of Progress, Green Edition, that we're going to design bright green buildings in our bright green cities, biking and taking Hyperloops everywhere, and we're going to end poverty and racial injustice (because of our green technology... somehow), and Everything's Going to be Great.
People in sustainability generally aren't in it for the money. They're in it for the Vision, the mission, the belief, the cause. We all work long hours because we think we're Soldiers for the Bright Green Tomorrow.
So imagine that's your story, your core identity. And then imagine being confronted with the idea that every single thing you've ever done has actually hastened climate catastrophe. That really, you've just accomplished slightly less-awful things than the folks who don't give a rats ass about sustainability. That there is essentially going to be zero difference in the year 2100 with and without your efforts. That your life is a bloody waste.
Needless to say, that's a pretty unpalatable thought to wrestle with over your organic wheaties with oat milk on a drizzly Monday morning. So, most of us don't. We push the thought out of our heads, because neuro-typical humans aren't built to deal with that kind of cognitive dissonance. We change the channel, read some uplifting 'news' story on treehugger, bike to work, and dig in to the daily grind of convincing a tech developer that they should push their sustainability goals a smidge more.
If you go to the bleeding edge of the reality of the 'issues of our time', and hold those ideas in your head, there is no way to cope with working in sustainability. You'll go nuts. You'll develop a cocaine habit. You'll become an alcoholic. You'll take a tech job and forget the whole thing. You'll figure out some way to solve the issue, and Superman still isn't returning Obama's voicemails atm, so it's just you against the world. Because the narrative of sustainability isn't matching up with the numbers coming out of the Mauna Loa Observatory.
Uh. Where was I going with that?
Right, the point was, this whole "I'm gonna save the world"/"my life's a waste" roller coaster of denialism and despair is central to understanding the choices I've made over the past decade. For those who understand controls systems, I was short-cycling. When I'm in denial, I take trips to Europe, buy expensive mountain bikes, and drink enough beer that I don't have to think about it. When I'm trying to save the world, I'm reading a stack of books, going vegetarian (4 years), feeling massive guilt over the things I've spent money on, and working too much.
...and remembering that that quarter in school when I lived in a tent and spent 1 jacob or less, was perhaps the happiest and most fulfilling time of my life. And trying to figure out why that was. And realizing that maybe the best I can do in this world is to reduce my consumption down, way down, and be an example that you don't have to consume 10 earth's resources to have a good life. That maybe the Standard Western Lifestyle is the reason why we're all dying of heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness, and why the planet's immune system is activating to try to fling us off it like a bad cold.
And so, here I am in this mental state, having fought the good fight for a decade and coming to the conclusion that really all I can do is reduce my personal impact radically, and begin the process of adapting to a very different future (trying to Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, as John Michael Greer would say), and trying to figure out how to actually DO that, and I stumble across the ERE community.
A community basically saying, here are the tools to reduce your impact and have a good life doing it, and maybe be a little better prepared for the upheavals of the coming decades. Just follow these steps, here's a bunch of people who've pulled it off already, no big deal. Welcome.
Cognitive dissonance is a state of mind where your actions and beliefs aren't in alignment. Humans solve cognitive dissonance by bringing those two into alignment. It's typically far easier to change your beliefs than your actions, particularly when you aren't aware of how to change your actions, because you don't know anyone else doing it, you can't see it. My life has been an exercise is struggling to change my actions, until I snapped under the strain and changed my beliefs (it's not so bad, maybe it is just a liberal conspiracy, They'll think of Something, it's all going to collapse anyways so it doesn't really matter what I do, maybe Elon Musk will figure it out and I could just buy something that'll save the world?....).
The ERE community, to me, is the clear-cut plan of action to solve my cognitive dissonance by changing my actions, not my mind. I don't have it all figured out yet, not nearly. But I'm terribly glad to be here. It already feels like home. Thank you.
So to sum it all up: my DW and I have been seeking to decouple our lives from consumer society as much as possible for some time now. We want to homestead, learn ancestral skills, hunt, grow a permaculture garden, become engaged in an ecological community, slowly release ourselves from the high-technological intertwinement of western culture, and be people who will be able to provide value to our community now and through any future scenario. We want to be part of the solution rather than the problem. We see ERE as a path/set of tools to realize those intentions.