This weekend I saw the TV show Wa$ted and the documentary Born Into Brothels — two entirely different shows, but I think I saw the heart of a problem we have: we have become accustomed to a way of living that will be difficult to part with.
Wa$ted is a TV show — they come into your house, find how you’re wasting energy, propose and install solutions, follow your progress for a month, give the first year’s annualized savings in cash. The episode I watched resulted in a modest reduction in energy consumption by the family, and several refusals to part ways with some of their things. Born Into Brothels is about a photographer living in Calcutta who realizes the plight of the children of sex workers, gives them cameras, knocks down numerous barriers to help get the kids raised out of abject poverty, and has both success and failure.
These are very different shows, but it helped me see that regardless of outcome, even when the result is positive, people are resistant to change.
Without doing a disservice to Born Into Brothels, which is incredibly inspirational, I was struck by one aspect: the photographer successfully managed to get past all of the social, bureaucratic, and political barriers to help several of the kids she was working with into schools that would certainly have provided an avenue of escape … but in the end, all her work was thwarted by mothers who were unable to accept this change, taking their children out of schools. It is heart breaking.
Wa$ted made me groan — a couple was simply “way to used to their SUVs” to give them up. However in the end, the changes made in their household were expected to save $2,800 annually, and the couple was applauded for reducing their global energy footprint from something like ten times a sustainable level down to eight times (these numbers may be off). Sure, the family was able to reduce their consumption, but by an almost trivial level. Their level of consumption, comfort and waste, even afterward, is huge.
The most immediately striking thing for me was that compared to the poverty of Calcutta, Americans live an unbelievably comfortable life. We have clean water, food, education, mobility, and space — lots and lots of it. The families in Calcutta lived in confined,cacophonous, chaotic squalor. To be sure, these are polar opposites. I would not want to live like the people in the film, even if is it possible. Indeed, millions of people are able to live at all in these conditions suggests that there is indeed a lot of scope for change in our lifestyles.
The Things We Need and Cannot Do Without
Yet in America hear people saying “I cannot” make a given change, or “I need” some convenience of life, a larger house, and so on, and that people describe themselves as “green”. My family has made many, many changes to be green … but honestly haven’t made any sacrifices in our quality of life (on the contrary). Yet using the global footprint calculator, we still use almost three times as much resources as the earth can sustainably support. Every change takes a little “getting used to”, to be sure. But of the many things we though we “needed”, we could do without most of them. We need to continue changing.
Actually the picture is different — in effect many of our changes have been investments in longer-term consumption reduction. For example, we just spent several hundred dollars getting the house properly insulated. Within a couple of years, this investment will pay for the cost in savings … and our house will be more comfortable. Our monthly expenses on energy alone have fallen, rather dramatically.
Over our lifetimes, we have gotten very used to our American way of life. At first, all change seems like reduction.
The reality is that change is hard, even if the result is a change from a bad situation to a better one. In Born Into Brothels, many of the children were unable to break free from lives of poverty because the change, even from horrible conditions, was too much to bear.
I would only hope that we can consider that the changes Americans and other industrialized nations can make may seem hard, or that we’re parting with things we “need”. But the truth is, these changes are very minor adjustments. All change is hard, but some change is easier than other. And in the end, you’ll be living a better life.