James Gustave Speth

James Gustave Speth is author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and professor of law at the Vermont Law School.

Some convenient truths

Scaling back our energy-hungry lifestyles means more of what matters, not less

The work of recent Nobel Peace Prize winners Al Gore and the IPCC, along with a veritable mountain of other evidence, clearly lays out the reality and potential costs of human-induced climate change. Most analyses have concluded that we can and must keep our economies growing while addressing the climate challenge; we need only reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we produce. We can do this, they say, by using more efficient light bulbs, driving more fuel-efficient cars, better insulating our homes, buying windmills and solar panels, etc. While we agree that these things need to happen (and the sooner the better), it is clear that they will not be enough to solve the big problems the world faces. The inconvenient truth is that to ensure quality of life for future generations, the world's wealthiest societies cannot continue our current lifestyles and patterns of economic growth. Further, the large proportion of humanity living in poverty must be able to satisfy basic human needs without aspiring to an overly materialistic lifestyle. Does this inconvenient truth mean doom and despair? Absolutely not. Indeed, we think this seemingly inconvenient truth is actually a blessing in disguise, for our high-consuming lifestyles and western patterns of economic growth are not actually improving our well-being: they are not only unsustainable, they are undesirable. Scientists are discovering a convenient truth: our happiness does not depend on the consumption of conventional economic goods and services, but instead is enhanced when we have more time and space for socializing, for nature, for learning, and for really living instead of just consuming.

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