Going to Extremes

by Richard Heinberg

[Originally written for The Ecologist]

As the urgent necessity of our transition away from fossil fuels becomes plain, it’s inevitable that some of us will take that necessity seriously enough to explore the edges of “normal” behavior. On the post-carbon frontier, the hardiest pioneers are those willing not only to apply ingenuity and make personal sacrifices, but also to look downright silly to the mainstream.These trailblazers of sustainability tend to come in two shades: Techno-Green or Gandhi-Green. The former hue belongs to the individual who hopes to save the world with eco-gadgets; the latter to the saintly soul passionate about ceasing to do fuelish harm.

I know a brilliant Techno-Green engineer who has every imaginable energy-saving, non-hydrocarbon-based home accoutrement—solar PV and hot water panels, a ground-source heat pump, an electric car, solar cookers—plus power monitors everywhere that feed data into a laptop recording a second-by-second readout of energy expenditure.

Gandhi-Green is the tint of another pioneer who comes to mind—an earnest young woman who insists on walking everywhere she goes (No motored rides, thanks! How and where was that bicycle made?), refuses to heat her cabin in the winter (which is easier here in California than in many places), eats mostly food she’s grown or foraged, buys nothing new, and eschews hot showers.

If there were a post-carbon contest, I’m not sure which of these extremists would win. Fortunately, there is no contest: we need both kinds of people willing to turn their lives into laboratories to test strategies that get us off fossil fuels fast.

The majority of people in our high-tech, commerce-driven society are likely to be more comfortable contemplating the Techno-Green solution. Going without anything is just not cool; indeed, it’s exciting to think that Peak Oil and Climate Change might offer excuses to buy new and better toys. Anyway, if technology helped get us into the mess we’re in, surely it can help get us out.

However, the reality is that, as the era of cheap energy sputters, we’ll all be doing without a lot of things. It will be essential to know how to be frugal with intelligence and good cheer.

Most of us on the post-carbon path find ourselves hesitating between these extremes. We use computers and other tools made of depleting metals and minerals, powered by electrons from who knows where, hoping that by doing so we are moving in the right direction in other respects. We experiment with hydrocarbon asceticism, knowing that our very existence is still enabled by a complex society running on oil, coal, and gas—a society vulnerable to convulsive failure, with endless casualties, unless we find ways to help it power down in a planned program that will doubtless depend on the services of wind turbines, smart grids, and other high-tech wonders.

We need both approaches, and we need people quirky enough, and courageous enough, to stake out territory on their fringes. Going to extremes may make one a curiosity, but in this instance it also makes one useful to our collective survival.

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