Really?! It took all those words and images and videos and hyperlinks to conclude that the solution is to do more video meetings, live in a smaller home that is a lot closer to your office (or don't have an office at all), eat seasonal food (and eat and waste less of it), buy less stuff (and mostly used), and take (many) fewer flights?
Yes, it did.
Much of what goes on in the world is not some immutable law—it is just a norm. A vivid example of this is how it has felt to humanity for some time now that “work” involves going to an “office” and being around lots of other people engaged in “work.” This is a norm. It has a history, and that history is actually just a few decades old.
To expand that example: we constantly hear, from corporate titans to startup founders, about "culture" and how it requires people to all be together. The pandemic decisively proved that was incorrect—and that for many, perhaps even the substantial majority, going to an “office” at “9 am” and being in a “conference room” and “looking each other in the eye” and “hanging around the water cooler” and doing “offsites” is not how we should engage in “work.”
Every single word within quotes in the paragraph above simply reflects a norm. We can reshape our norms—indeed, we have no choice but to do so, because nothing else is really going to work.
And you have agency. Maybe you feel like a worker bee—well, buzz your way to a company that allows you to work wherever you are, make that a criterion in your job search. Maybe you’re a small business owner, as I am. Declare your firm to be 100 percent remote and create a new norm, as I have (note: I am no paragon of virtue, as you will see below—I am just making the point that I am changing norms where I can).
A different kind of world and society
I have offered different approaches and solutions in the course of this book. But underlying all this is a startlingly different vision for the world and society, if we are to save our planet. You can piece together that vision from all that I have written, but here are the bullet points:
- A world in which we engage in much less business travel
- A world in which we have fewer things, and those we do last a long time
- A world in which our homes and cars have been "right-sized"
- A world in which we eat less and waste less food
- A world in which most things that can be digitized are digitized
- A world in which we are more aware of the rest of the world because physical proximity is no longer the key requirement to getting to know people in faraway lands
- A world in which we spend more time in our own locality/neighborhood/city (caution: this will create a new set of issues, as you can see here)
- A world in which our role models are folks who want to build this kind of world, if you'll forgive the recursion
We are going to need to get to this world if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.
Until very recently—in essence, until 2019, when I first really started thinking through the framework for our climate- and sustainability-related investment strategy at Amasia—I was exhibit A for a person who subscribed to the consumerist norms of modern society.
I had a nice house and a nice car and all the other accoutrements and baubles that one could possibly want (and just had to have the newest iPhone when it came out). And of course, I always seemed to want a nicer house and a nicer car and even more baubles.
But as I read about the climate crisis, it was very clear very early on that it is a crisis of consumption. And that people like me were leading an appalling life in terms of carbon emissions and were amongst the worst offenders, even if we weren't in the Bezos category.
Yes, this research and reading also triggered introspection about the meaning of life 😀, but that is not my journey here (or at least not the journey I want to share with the world!). My journey here is about the climate crisis and carbon emissions. And so, slowly but surely, I am remaking my life.
It is not easy. Changing the norms I now aspire to was, in fact, the easy part—the research, the facts, about the climate crisis are so obvious that the change in desirable norms was, for me, a very quick process. But when you are in late middle age, you've accumulated the debris, the things, of many decades of behaving a certain way. And unwinding these is far from straightforward.
The pandemic served as a massive accelerator. My business travel vanished—and as someone who did a fair amount of long-haul international travel for business, this was a huge change to my carbon footprint. And my work life actually got better—I was more productive and new horizons opened up for Amasia.
Disposing of the other things that contribute so much to my carbon footprint is a work in progress—it is taking longer than I'd like, but I have been intentional and decisive in ways that I would not have expected. Over the next five years, my hope is to have massively reduced my carbon footprint—and to keep reducing it.
It Is In Our Hands—Truly
For me, so much of this comes back to "mimetic desire," a concept created at a different time for other reasons, but helpful in our time for the most laudable of causes: saving our planet. We have to model the changes we seek, inspire those around us, and help hold accountable those whose consumption patterns are poisoning the planet.
For centuries, the models for behavior have been a certain way and the affluent and aspirational have operated according to those norms—as I have for most of my life. But the evidence is now just incontrovertible: these norms are ravaging our planet almost beyond repair.
One person I spoke with about the line of thinking in this book, while agreeing vigorously, made the case that "just because something should be, doesn't mean it will be." My response to him was: we have to make it so. We don't have a choice. We have done far more difficult things as a species, and I truly believe we can do this.
I said it in the introduction, and I will repeat it here as I close: so much of what I have written is just plain old common sense.
It is in our hands.
PS: there is more food for thought in the appendix chapters—things that didn’t easily fit into the narrative drive of the main text, but are still very relevant to the point of view that has been articulated here.