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By ultimate I mean not so much as the final (the one after the penultimate) but more as the prime, or as having the greatest import or authority. Imperative is that which must be done, it is important and, in this case particularly, urgent.
Not too many months ago I would have pointed in the same direction as Ronald Stone (see Introduction at the bottom of this page): the ultimate imperative is the scriptural injunction to "love God and love others (love your neighbor as yourself)".
Ask me today, and I will say without hesitation that loving God, loving yourself, and loving others must be centered in the actions of degrowth. To continue the practices of growth and progress that have been the hallmark of the past century would be nothing less than mass suicide. I know of nothing more likely to enhance the well-being of my self and my family, our communities, all of humanity, and indeed all of creation -- than wholeheartedly and immediately working toward degrowth -- what could be more loving?
If you're not yet familiar with "degrowth" these web links can help:
Text-heavy pages for those who want detail
More visual or modern web pages
Videos for folks who prefer that format
Degrowth is inevitable, unavoidable, and imminent. That last word is important. Here are two of the reasons I say that:
[T]he rest of this year it’s probably going to get hotter than it has for the last FIVE MILLION YEARS.
This is it. These are probably the last few weeks and months we have before our world starts to melt away in the heat. By this time next year, I think the conversation around Global Warming is going to be VERY different.
You know what’s coming. Use the time wisely. -- Richard Crim, 2023-01-19
Enjoy today. The rest of the year, the forecast is for HEAT.
Climate change has become a crisis sooner than expected. So many of the researchers I’ve spoken to have said that they were shocked to witness how quickly it is escalating. -- Greta Thunberg, 2022-10-08
Greta Thunberg on the climate delusion: ‘We’ve been greenwashed out of our senses. It’s time to stand our ground’
We are busy people, it's likely to take a while for you to read the material on those two pages, follow the links they've provided to their sources, and evaluate how accurate you think they are. In fact, by the time you've done that, you may be able to verify Richard Crim's claims by looking at the weather outside your window and in the news broadcasts.
There are two main stories told about what is likely to happen in our world in response to the rapidly changing meteorological climate.
One is that we can and must rapidly shift our energy sources and methods of production, transportation, and consumption of physical goods to eliminate the anthropogenic causes of climate change. This will allow us to continue to enjoy most of the advantages we've gained through the technological developments of the past century or two. It won't be easy, and it won't be cheap, but we'll still have most of the comforts and conveniences of modern living, including modern medicine. Oh, and by the way, some folks will make lots of money providing and implementing all the great new "green" technologies that will make this possible -- don't you want to be among them?
Example of "we can solve this problem with more development".
Is ecomodernism dead?
Are we throwing out the baby with the bath water?
The other story says that we've already exceeded the limits of the resources the earth can sustainably provide us, and we cannot continue to intensify the technological developments that have brought us to this point. It is not just an energy problem, the other physical resources required to build all the various technologies we desire are not limitless. It is inevitable that as we reach or exceed those limits we will either adapt or perish. The only way to avoid catastrophic collapse of, not just human societies on Earth, but a broad range of life forms (including many of our food sources, as well as the filtering and moderating mechanisms for the air and water the we rely on) is to reduce -- "degrow" -- the quantities of materials we are extracting for our productive use around the world.
Degrowth is a societal, and therefore also political, process. However political change tends to be either slow or violent; let's reject the violent methods and try to overcome the slowness. Perhaps the most effective way to accomplish rapid political change is to make sure our voices are heard by our mayors and city councils, school boards, planning commissions, and other local government agencies. Local agencies because a "degrown" society will have a small fraction of the transportation resources that we've come to rely on -- no more manufacturing our goods cheaply in China, Bangladesh, or Africa and then shipping them to our homes across North America. While we may still have (I hope!) a global communications network we will pay far more for shipping goods around the world. This means that our lives are likely to be focused much more on our local environments. While there are definitely regional, national, and international policy changes required in order to successfully degrow our economies and societies, we, as individuals, will have far more influence and effect if we focus our attention on the adaptations required in our own households, neighborhoods, and communities. My best chance to gain any progress is to work on the things that I can more directly control or influence.
The thing that distinguishes this movement from others is its theory of change. It seeks to create new economies, new ways of managing resources and needs, right now. It is not primarily concerned with building enough power or will to seize existing means of production and distribution or occupying existing governance systems; it is concerned with creating new means, no matter what scale, in the face of an economic apparatus that attempts to render all alternatives impossible. As new solutions that implement shared power, shared ownership, shared responsibility, and shared destiny claim bits of physical, psychic, and experiential terrain, the movement networks them together to create a mycelium that will nourish the soil of a new world. What may appear to the untrained eye as a worker-owned bakery, a nonprofit credit union, a community revolving loan fund, or a local CSA are all actually evidence of a sophisticated network of enterprises building a new world right here in the shell of the old; and it uses every new experiment to incubate ideas that will feed everything else in the system. -- Introduction to the Next Economy by Simon Mont; Tikkun magazine, Summer 2018, page 16
Introduction to the Next Economy (PDF)
Life After Economic Growth
We do not want to get bogged down in the political and philosophical discussions about the various "isms". We don't want to destroy capitalism or establish some form of anarchy. We don't care about which political party is currently in power or may be in power next. We don't even care about whether the environmental problems are resolved by rapid intensive development of carbon-reduction technologies or by rapid degrowth. What we DO care about is making a reasonable assessment of the risks we are likely to face and prepare for the changes we expect to be most likely.
Whether degrowth occurs as the result of the catastrophic collapse of societies, or as the result of a deliberate process planned and executed both justly and swiftly, is the choice we must make. Degrowth will occur, one way or the other. Let's not make the error of thinking that the planning and execution of such a massive change could only be accomplished by our governments and major businesses -- they are largely paralyzed by bureaucracy and competing interests. We, the masses of people will initiate this process as we work toward building local self-sustaining communities that meet our needs in this changing environment. Government and businesses will adapt themselves in response to the changed priorities of their constituents and customers.
How much degrowth is required? I don't know. Some folks are suggesting that we'll have to return to nearly a stone-age level of technology; others are saying that we'll have to return to pre-industrial levels; and the more hopeful are thinking that reducing to late 19th-century levels may be possible. In any case it will require difficult and disruptive changes to the ways we live our lives. My personal guess, which I'll use as my working assumption, is that we'll need to be at about the level of technology of the mid-18th century. Once the climate is stabilized I am hopeful that we can carefully add home laundry machines (or shared community laundry facilities), heating/cooling systems for our buildings, refrigerated and frozen food storage for our homes, and shared (community owned and operated) transportation services. I'm hopeful that we could keep basic water/sewer systems for our homes, and much of our medical care infrastructure.
It is not possible to predict the details of the coming changes, only the broad outlines -- and then not with any certainty. How bad will it get? I find myself thinking that it could be this bad, or it might end up being only that bad, but most likely it will be somewhere in the middle. I'm trying to realize that the probability of the best, or the worst, outcome is small and focus my attention on preparing for the circumstances that seem most likely to occur. Recognize the worst case but don't let it paralyze you from preparing at all.
On a personal level it will demand from each of us that we grow rather than "degrow".
I won't be able to have a banana with my breakfast every morning. I'll learn to rely primarily on foods that are grown within a day's travel (by muscle-powered transport) from my home. It may be possible to still get some foods from around the world -- the cinnamon that enhances my oats, maybe even some sugar and some tea -- but these will certainly be more expensive.
Can we count on the current supply-chain making a (somewhat) smooth transition from globally sourced foods being dominant to ensuring that each local area produces and provides most of the foods consumed within that area? I hope so, but it may be prudent to prepare to emulate hunter-gatherer societies -- at least to the extent that you learn what edible flora and fauna is typically available in your area and learn how to safely and efficiently procure and prepare them. Where I live that means something like this guide could be helpful:
Wild Edible Plants of the Pacific Northwest
You should be able to see a theme developing here: "learn". Because of the localized nature of the knowledge required this may require using resources beyond what's easily available online. Local colleges, state and county agriculture departments or extension services may offer printed materials, local workshops, and other resources. Some groups of indigenous people are happy to share their cultures and practices based upon their many generations of living on the land that they are now (involuntarily) sharing with us.
I am old enough to remember members of my family using tools and methods that have long disappeared from our daily lives, replaced by "automatic" this and "power" that. A couple of examples: I learned as a child how to use the wringer washing machine that my grandmother had at her vacation cabin, and remember seeing others using a washtub and washboard to do laundry; and when I was very young I remember a few haircuts involving barber clippers that were manually operated rather than being electrically powered.
Clothes drying rack
Manual clippers at Wikipedia
Manual clippers at Walmart
There are so many of these older tools and methods that are now virtually forgotten except in dusty archives. I recently found a series of videos filmed in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s that documents some of those old skills.
HANDS Archival Films On Traditional Irish Crafts
HANDS Irish crafts documentary series 1978-89
When you're ready to start learning effective, efficient ways of living in a degrown society you might start at Low-tech Magazine. Quickly browse through the sections while you're beginning to develop your plan, then come back later when it is time to really focus on learning what you've decided you'll need to know. It is well-written and rich with links to other resources -- you may be tempted like I was (am) to spend too much time browsing here.
Here's a huge freely available "collection of documents ... assembled to allow readers to rebuild civilization". These materials were gathered from around the world. There are over 10,000 files (mostly PDF format) covering everything from basic living skills to post-graduate level. It is definitely not a quick-reference guide. I have not yet found an index for the collection, perhaps I should build one. You don't need expert data-wrangling skills to benefit from this material so don't let that keep you from browsing through the collection. The entire set will fit easily on a 32-gigabyte flash drive or micro-sd card. What I've seen of it so far has convinced me that it's worth keeping around -- after all I may need to know how to build a rocket-stove or an A-frame shelter someday.
The Library of Congress has large collections of materials available to help us learn how they used to do it in the olden days.
Here's another great resource for learning to live simply.
"The focus is on appropriate technology, sustainable energy, sustainable farming, family nutrition and local self-reliance."
Keith Addison's "Journey To Forever"
There are also some very modern resources that could help. Here's a guy who's making a serious attempt to adopt a minimal lifestyle. It is both interesting and easy to read:
The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology; Mark Boyle (2019) (BORROW)
The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology; Mark Boyle (2019) (BUY)
Peter Kalmus describes how, and why, he's changed how he lives in response to our warming climate in his book "Being The Change".
Being The Change; Peter Kalmus, 2017, New Society Publishers (read online)
A biography of Abraham Lincoln led me to a quote of his: “Nothing is more damaging to you than to do something that you believe is wrong.” In polluting as much as I was for my comfort and convenience, I was doing something I believed was wrong. Resolving that issue has at least helped me sleep better at night. -- Joshua Spodek, 2023-01-13
I disconnected from the electric grid for 8 months—in Manhattan
Don't imagine that these changes are going to be easy.
There are perhaps two main types of sociocultural barriers in the way of making the needed local level practical day-to-day changes. Easily seen are the hands-on practical barriers to living more simply and getting out from behind our desk jobs, such as the need to increase our know-how and ability to create regionally self-sufficient communities. These activities involve learning new do-it-ourselves skills such as food production and preservation, small animal husbandry, organic gardening, rainwater collection, solar energy and hot water strategies, in addition to learning community priority setting and decision-making procedures (Castil & Levine, 2005; Karen, et. al., 2014).
In short, our identities are tied up in what we do for a living and how we do what we do for a living must radically change. Because, let’s be honest, living and working, having lifestyles and livelihoods that are truly regenerative and sustainable look nothing like how most of us currently live and work.
Against the Economic Grain: Addressing the Social Challenges of Sustainable Livelihoods -- Kim Kendall, originally published by Resilience.org; January 27, 2023
Even trading our cars for more sustainable transportation, perhaps one of the easiest changes we'll need to make, does not come without its challenges.
[Y]ounger generations are driving less than their older counterparts and seeking alternative ways of getting around. The reasons range from the altruistic to the economical.
But ditching cars in a country that’s thoroughly dependent on them isn’t for the faint of heart. The car-free folks I spoke with had a common list of complaints: dangerous conditions for walking or biking, buses that run on unworkable schedules, or relatives who live in distant, inaccessible locations.
We don’t have to wait for conditions to be perfect to learn to live without cars — nor should we. As a car-free veteran, I’ve come to believe that, more than any single tool or tactic, it’s helpful to think about navigating the world without a car as a skill that can be learned.
[B]y choosing a car-free or car-light life, you can play a part in effecting that kind of change from the bottom up, which builds pressure for better transportation policy from the top down. For many people I spoke with, not driving engenders a strong sense of pride and satisfaction, of building a better world. -- Angie Schmitt; "How to go car-free — or car-light — in Middle America;" on vox.com Feb 9, 2023
How to go car-free — or car-light — in Middle America; A guide to going without four wheels, even if you don’t live in NYC.
One of the biggest changes in a degrown world will be a return to what I'll refer to as "village life". Even if ubiquitous access to high-speed internet service remains available and affordable I believe that we will be so dependent upon local resources that we will be much less likely to think of ourselves as global citizens. Most of our social interactions will be with people who live near us.
With whole sectors of our current economies either gone or reduced to tiny fractions of their current size, most of us will return to working in small(er)-scale agriculture, or as the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Local trades-persons, small merchants, and teachers will become more prominent, while various manufacturing, finance, communications, software developers, internet influencers and content creators, and government bureaucracies will be gone or greatly diminished.
With those changes in view it seems like a good idea to begin now working toward what we want to have then: strong, stable relationships with the people of our local community, and effective local government and other social institutions.
[C]onviviality and degrowth - starting with groups of individuals seeking to help each other, without the intervention of our corpo overlords - appear to be the only viable path forward. We need to build a future system that guarantees enough for the comfort and stability of everyone, globally.... -- Sunset Ash in "Embracing Degrowth" 2023-01-10
In "Earth Abides", a classic post-apocalyptic novel set in the mid-20th century, George Stewart describes how small local communities formed and supported themselves in a world that lost nearly all its human population. It is worth reading and pondering how we might respond under radically different circumstances than those we grew up in. You might even learn something useful along the way.
Earth Abides, 1949, George R. Stewart
George MacDonald tells the (fictional) story of Sir Gibbie, a destitute orphan who believes the chief purpose of his existence is to be of service to others, as he builds a community of his own. The Scots dialog in the book can be challenging (however, I still recommend it) but there is an American English condensed version of the book if you'd rather try that one.
Sir Gibbie, 1879, George MacDonald (broad Scots) [here]
Sir Gibbie, 1879, George MacDonald (broad Scots) [archive.org]
The Baronet's Song, 1983, Michael Phillips ("Sir Gibbie" condensed and translated to English)
Having talked a bit about what's coming, let's turn our attention to "what are you going to do about it?" I do not expect to change the world -- I can't fix global warming. I want to plan how my family prepares for and responds to the anticipated results of that process.
We can't immediately dismantle our resource-intensive lifestyle. I can't imagine us, at this stage of our lives (I've been retired for about a decade now), moving to a small agrarian community to pursue a back-to-the-land mostly self-sufficient life as Mark Boyle speaks of in "The Way Home". However, there are things we can do now to reduce our dependence on unsustainable technologies. I like Mark Boyle's idea of incremental change he described as "the POP model" in "The Moneyless Manifesto".
The POP Model
Peter Kalmus similarly describes a piece-by-piece transition rather than an everything all at once transformation.
This level of reduction, while incomplete, allows my family and me to continue a normal suburban life. This suggests that a similar reduction is well within reach for many of us. And as more people make significant reductions, and systemic alternatives to fossil fuel become increasingly available, going the rest of the way will become easier. -- Peter Kalmus, "Being The Change", chapter 9
Chapter 9. Leaving Fossil Fuel
There is one change we can make now that, for most American families, will also have the greatest effect toward reducing global warming: stop buying (and burning) gasoline. Switch to electric cars, or better yet: get rid of the car completely and use bicycles and public transportation systems. Here's how much gasoline we've purchased per month for the past ten years:
Year GalsPerMonth 2013 57.1 2014 45.4 2015 55.1 2016 44.1 2017 15.5 2018 21.4 2019 20.6 2020 10.7 2021 16.6 2022 12.8
How do I know that? Because in 2012 I started recording all our retail purchases in a database and for gasoline purchases I also entered the odometer readings and number of gallons purchased. I wasn't concerned about global warming, I wanted to monitor my fuel mileage. But now I have a new use for that information.
You don't need a database to keep track of your gas purchases. Drop those receipts in an envelope and at the end of the month, or end of the quarter you can add them up to see how well you've done.
I can't yet get rid of my car entirely, but I can reduce how much I use it. I got a folding shopping cart so I can walk to the local supermarket (about 0.7 miles), big-box superstore (a bit less than 1.5 miles) and hardware/building supplies jumbo mart (about 1.2 miles).
Folding shopping cart
I'm still healthy enough that I can walk to handle nearly all of these regular errands. The post office, doctor's offices, pharmacies, banks, restaurants, churches, theaters, museum, art galleries -- all are within walking distance. That is true because we selected this house in 2016 in a city of about 29,000 people with that requirement in mind. Most of those amenities are also available within walking distance of the house we bought in 1994 in a city of about 10,000 people, but then I commuted 25 miles one-way to my job in a city of 200,000 people. Many neighborhoods in that larger city would not be so amenable to walking, but even there bicycles and public transport systems make it possible to live quite well without a car.
The other changes I can make now are smaller.
I'm reducing energy usage at home by leaving my big computer and the printer off and turning them on only when I need to use them. The rest of the time I use my cell phone (augmented with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and occasionally a screencast connection to the small TV when I need a larger screen), and the very small FreedomBox that serves as our files server and backups machine. I reduced the number of lights I use during the evening hours. The most difficult for me so far has been reducing our water usage.
It would not make sense for us to move to a different home, so we'll have to work on improving the sustainability of the lives we live here. We can reduce our use of plastics (buy no more single-use plastic containers, reuse containers that our purchased items come in). We can avoid purchasing things; reusing or repurposing items that are already filling up our closets and storage shed, and buying from second-hand stores if we do have to acquire something we can't make for ourselves.
Can we grow part of our own food? Neither one of us has ever had much success at growing things, but we could certainly learn. Would the small quantities we produce make a significant difference?
These are the easy things. Are there others that would make greater contributions toward reducing our impact on the environment? I've thought about installing solar panels but that seems like its going in the wrong direction -- we should be reducing our overall energy usage rather than merely shifting to sourcing it from another high-technology, high encapsulated carbon cost source.
So far our planning for the coming changes has been only within our household. We hope to expand that to our family members scattered in various other communities soon. But the most important part of the transition we have to make is to build and strengthen relationships with the people of our neighborhood and the broader local community. Sadly, this is likely to be the most difficult for us.
Though I'm not certain that I agree with his central thesis that we (large "we" -- all of society, not so much as you and I individually) should abandon the use of money, Mark Boyle's observations about community are valuable.
Real community requires interdependency
One conclusion he reaches is that we as individuals will have greater security if we have strong personal connections within our community. The structures and modes of living within our current globally-connected society will be replaced by many thousands of local communities each built by the contributions of, and serving the unique needs of, the people who live and work and grow and play there TOGETHER.
Some of us have lived in small communities before. You may have heard complaints about "everybody knows everybody else's business". When we got married we moved to cities far from my wife's hometown, and also far from the place where my parents settled (after his years of military duty, which somewhat nomadic existence consumed my childhood years). I have often envied the stability and connectedness of her family, the majority of whom lived in western Colorado their entire lives and had close connections with their local communities. I would gladly accept the perceived loss of privacy in small communities for the much greater benefits I see there.
What sort of community do I want to live in? How can we ensure that we have enough resources in our local community? Who will grow the food we eat? Who will make and repair our shoes and clothing? Who will build and repair our houses? If I can't do all these things for myself then I'll have to rely on my neighbors to help provide them.
What goods and services can I provide to help my neighbors? Though it can be frightening when I think about how polarized and partisan public discourse has become, and my nature has always been more withdrawn than outgoing, I am increasingly feeling compelled to make contacts and build connections with those who live nearby.
When I thought of the title for this article I took a few minutes to search for other places this phrase might be used. I've sometimes decided to change my title after discovering that it is in common use elsewhere (especially if the other works are inconsistent with my message). This time I was delighted to find another work with the same title, and it is even tangentially related.
"The ultimate imperative for Christian ethics expresses the universal will of God, which is an expression of the nature of God. This will of 'agape' is that humans live in mutual regard for each other, taking care of the needs of the other." -- page 16 of "The ultimate imperative : an interpretation of Christian ethics", 1999, Ronald H. Stone. Available at:
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