The Good Life Doesn't Have to Cost Us the Planet

For a while, it looked as though everything would fall apart. There was the triple crunch of the global credit crisis, declining oil supplies, and the threat of runaway climate change driven by massive overconsumption by rich countries and the elites in poor countries.

In 2008, humanity overshot its global biocapacity on September 23. It was the world’s earliest “ecological debt day” since humanity first started going into the environmental red in the mid-1980s. We were pursuing economic growth for its own sake, but it was completely unsustainable, and the people it was most supposed to benefit -- the poorest -- were getting a shrinking slice of the benefits. Perversely, because of the way the world economy worked, to get tiny amounts of global poverty reduction required massive amounts of destructive overconsumption by those who were already rich.

In the face of inescapable economic chaos and ecological upheaval, we finally woke to find that we already had most of the solutions under our noses. This is what a day in our lives looks like now, after things turned out right.

On waking

With less time spent working, the choice is yours -- sleep in, go for a run, read a novel. Having rediscovered the real meaning of a good life, previously overconsuming rich countries have now cured most cases of work addiction. In this “downshifted” world the phrase “rush hour” has become a half-remembered curio. Our society has begun to get the hang of how computing and IT can make for smart work, rather than generate slave work.

Those choosing the early morning run enjoy fresh air and clear paths as dramatic reductions in traffic have transformed city air and streets.


No need to sweat over every shopping decision: socially and environmentally sustainable trade are the (carefully checked) norm. The weekly food bill has gone up -- but so has the quality, and the damaging consequences of cheap food systems have gradually been rolled back. This is sustainable consumption universalized -- no more scanning labels. A few deft moves in boardrooms and government chambers helped to make food markets fair and sustainable.

For an international meeting -- step onto your balcony: video-conferencing and networking are so slick and intuitive that you rarely need to travel for work. The hours gained, backache cured, and wrinkles postponed make you more effective and committed to the work you do. But these changes are about more than work. Social networking software has thrown you together with new people -- your desktop gives you a global network, but also connects you in new -- live -- human ways to the community where you actually live.

Computer connections aside, there are plenty of benefits in the new sense of community that has evolved from the revival of local shops (where the shopkeepers actually remember who you are) and the way that residential streets and town centers have become people-friendly. Streets are safer, with some entirely car-free, and many towns have reclaimed central plots of land as public squares. A calmer environment and more opportunities for casual contact between neighbors means people gather and talk to each other more. Even in cities, people, and especially the elderly, feel less lonely.

Take some time out late morning to plan your long-awaited summer trip. While the big increases in the cost of fossil fuels have made international travel a rarer experience, it tends to be much better -- and longer -- when you do head off on your travels. In the bad old days you might have dashed off a postcard after thirty-six hours in a congested foreign capital. These days it is more a matter of picking out a few choice photos from the hundreds you’ll take on your once-in-a-lifetime three-month trip to India. Travel has returned to being a pleasure and an adventure.

With more leisure time and good cycle and public transport links, low impact local excursions are a much-loved part of life. But with our experience of both cities and countryside transformed by investment in really great public spaces, people feel less need to get away in order to unwind.


Need to get out of the house? Take a short stroll to one of the thousands of courtyard and street cafés that are enjoying the cleaner air and quieter streets. Plenty of these are cheap workplace and school cafés that have opened their doors to locals. The combination of a few familiar faces, a random mix of new ones, and a daily changing menu of fresh local food makes food a daily pleasure.


A journey to work? Problems are as big as you make them: it used to be said that people wouldn’t give up their cars. But instead of denying people their cars, the big breakthroughs were made by offering people really appealing alternatives. Some of these were alternatives to travel (like the conferencing tools). But we all want to move about.

So, by raising revenue from polluting and inefficient fossil fuel-run cars, governments completely transformed people’s experience of cities and towns. Owning and driving cars to meet most of your mobility needs has come to seem simply eccentric. Lifespan and quality of life have dramatically increased as a result of cities being redesigned around people -- and walking and cycling -- not cars. Transport options range from trains, streetcars, and quiet clean buses, to on-demand rural shared taxis and simple car-share schemes that meet the range of needs we have through a year. The common “ting” of the cycle bell is as much to say “hello,” as to remind you that you’re stepping across a cycle path. And when we do get in a car, the uncongested roads and beautifully designed hyperefficient vehicles remind us what a great invention these things can be.

Perhaps your office is one of the last bits of the building to have a green makeover. In hot weather you’ve got to turn the air conditioning on. It is not as wasteful as the old machines, but you know that some of the electricity is still going to be fossil fueled. You can comfort yourself with the knowledge that the increased costs brought about by carbon taxes have got your finance department talking to your building managers who are talking to the builders about natural ventilation systems. In the meantime the tax raised is salving all of your consciences.

In an idle moment you reflect on where this cash goes, and why that matters. One of a series of breakthrough climate deals between north and south ensures that the inhabitants of Brazil, especially those living in the Amazon, are directly rewarded for their stewardship of the ecological services that the rainforest provides to the whole planet. As we gradually descend from our carbon-fix high we can at least ensure that our habit is funding some security for us all by protecting these key carbon sinks. The bill for your air-conditioning that helps you cope with climate change in your office is, in effect, helping to pay the bill to keep the global air-conditioning running in the Amazon basin.


Time released from long working days, and the fact that fast food and ready meals have gone up in price now that they reflect their full ecological costs, has seen a revival of home cooking. With lots more single households there are some twists. More people get together to take turns to share informal meals in a neighborhood. There are delivery services providing decent food in returnable containers for people without the time or inclination for the kitchen or company.


Stories and music are as old as campfires. For a time we forgot it, but being actively involved in making entertainment made us feel much better than just passively watching others perform. One of the first things taught in school now is the medical evidence that watching TV induces a mental state almost identical to clinical depression. It’s now common in pubs, clubs, and in any available hall to find groups of friends showing films made by themselves on cheap, easy-to-use equipment, and putting on a wide range of music and other performances.

People are intrigued and drawn in by the fact that they can actually get to know the musicians and filmmakers, because they are likely to live in the area. Just as people are happier to go out more locally during the day, because towns have become more pleasant places to be, the same is true at night. In the early evening people of all ages take to strolling around town, just for the sake of it. The increase in spare time means people start reviving half-forgotten festivals and celebrations, as well as creating new ones to mark everything from important global events, to the seasons, local history, people, and important events. There is much more partying in general.

The good life is active, but it’s full in a good way. By pressing all the right buttons it creates its own energy to thrive. So, by the time evening turns to night, most people are still in the mood to press other right buttons on the one they love. Then we’ll settle, tired maybe, satisfied surely, to take stock of how things have gone, round off our day, look forward to the next one, and enjoy our sleep, deeply.

Andrew Simms and Joe Smith wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Andrew, pictured right, is policy director and head of the Climate Change Programme at nef (the new economics foundation); Joe Smith is a lecturer in the Geography Department at the Open University. They are co-editors of Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? (2008) Constable, London. This article is developed from the book. Photo of Andrew Simms
YES! Magazine :: Image of other articles in our Winter 2009 issue: Sustainable Happiness

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