What WOULD a "sustainable existence" actually look like for the average person? Is it feasible?

So all the discussion about droughts and water shortages across the world has rekindled discussion of what it would take to beat climate change and head off its related issues, including dwindling common resources. I’ve seen it said more than once that most people would not be willing to accept the change in lifestyle and consumption habits it would take to accomplish this. But it struck me that one of the reasons is that it’s not very common knowledge what it would look like. I’ve seen all sorts of implications, such as that it’d look more like a previous century than anything we’ve experienced over the last few decades, but only bits and pieces of what that actually entails.

So what WOULD it take for humanity (let’s say at current population levels, because a change in that would likely change the equation) to be able to live off the resources we currently have and/or stop climate change? What exactly WOULD the average person have to accept in terms of lifestyle and resource cutbacks? Is it feasible to expect this of them? Are those who don’t/won’t accept these cutbacks simply bad/selfish people who are standing in the way of solving a global extinction crisis?

I think this is an important issue, because having an honest and real projection is, I think, key to judging how hard it would be to achieve the goal. And yes, yes, sacrifice now will prevent equal sacrifice plus lots of death later, but this will also let us know how reasonable it is to expect the global population to swallow this.

Except it isn’t equal sacrifice later. It is an ever escalating, compounding cost. Scientists have been saying this since at least 2014 (perhaps earlier). You can actually see it in the rhetoric coming from the right. It has become “Well, we cannot take that action because it too extreme!” The time to act when the price would have been relatively small was 20-30 years ago. Now, we’re going to have to pay. Bigly. Except we won’t, so I think we just have to accept a 4 degree shift in temperature, and the human misery that will bring.

Answering your question is, unfortunately, very complex because the demands to act really vary quite a bit across sectors. In the future, there may be less electricity (hence less cooling and heating), less fuel, less food (this one regardless of whether we act or not), less meat (whether we act or not), and so on. I don’t know if anybody has done a study to look at it definitively (and I did a quick search just to see if I could find something on Google Scholar).


We could go a long way by cutting most meat consumption, switching to public transportation and cutting most long distance travel, shortening supply lines geographically, and reduce/reuse. A lot of consumption is replacing fully usable things with new things and throwing away the old ones. Some of this would improve existence for those at the lower end of the income scale, as increased public transportation for instance would force investment in solutions for all rather than for individuals with means.

This won’t happen though, because it would force investments in solutions for all rather than for individuals with means.

Yeah, God tried to make the point, but we’ve been slow on the uptake:

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, plenty of food, and carefree ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”

I do wonder how the growing trend in working from home might help for a more sustainable existence. As of July 2022, approximately 92,000,000 Americans work from home either full time or part time and I expect those numbers to increase over the next few years. From personal experience, I can say my consumption habits changed radically when I started working from home in 2020.

  • I consume less fuel because I’m not commuting. And I might go as many as 3-4 days during the week where I don’t get in my car at all.

  • I eat at reastaurants far less frequently than I did prior to COVID. I generally prepare my own breakfast, lunch, and dinner these days. I’m less likely to eat out for dinner because my lack of commute afford me more time to cook.

  • I don’t need to buy as many clothes. I’m not wearing my office clothes every day, so I don’t need to replace them. (I did have to replace my wardrobe once I dropped my first 40 pounds and I’ll need to buy more pants in a few months if that trend continues.)

  • Areas where my consumption increased: I started purchasing models (plastic mostly), paints, an airbrush, and other supplies for that hobby in 2020. And one of the reasons I don’t have to drive everywhere is because I can have things delivered to my door. Overall, I’m not sure if my consumption has increased, decreased, or remains the same.

I’m wondering how working from home with affect the urban landscape. There are establishes whose primary customer is the office worker. I’m thinking of restaurants downtown that are only open for breakfast-lunch Monday through Friday. Some of those places are going to go away.

Extremely good point. All the more reason to get a practical idea now of what this actually looks like, especially (something I forgot to ask about in my original post) enforcement, whether through government or the market.

These sort of highlight what I’m asking about: what consequences like these mean in a practical sense. Does “less power” mean CA style rolling blackouts? Does “cutting most long distance travel” mean the average citizen will no longer be able to go anywhere beyond their state’s borders? In a practical or legal sense? What does that mean for entire industries and regions (e.g. tourism spots)? If it takes ending “most” travel to save the planet, I can’t bring myself to blame the public for opposition, even the conservatives. Can you?

By the way, I just realized that this is part of the reason I’ve never liked the “twenty companies responsible for climate change” meme: the subtle implication that if we just “take care” of those companies and their CEOs, we, the average citizen, won’t have to sacrifice (as) much, and that strikes me as completely unrealistic.

It doesn’t strike me as completely unrealistic. I suspect it’s a situation where something like the Pareto principle applies, and that some people can make way more of a difference than others.

I recently read this SF book which is a take on how humanity does achieve a sustainable (or at least de-carboned) future.

Which takes a reasonably legit look at the plausible energy consumption of a net-zero economy, plus/minus the fact he’s ultimately writing a political tale about human society, not a science tale about human tech. And the author has a strong one-world egalitarian/anti-capitalist bent borne out in his entire oeurve.

Within the book world it definitely requires abandoning the idea that you (any you) are entitled to more than any indigent person from the mired-in-poverty part of the world. They can certainly have it better than they do now, and that delivered in a more modern fasion. But you can’t have (much) more than them.

If that is the case, I’d love to hear evidence for it, especially since such actions, by their nature of not touching the public as much, have much more likelihood of coming about as the general situation gets more desperate, corporate money in politics or no.

The fault of the “20 companies” argument is that it asserts that if we somehow destroyed e.g. Shell Oil*, the demand for oil they currently satisfy would disappear at the same time. With no adverse consequences for the former consumers thereof.

IMO that’s attacking the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. If instead we remove demand, supply will automatically (which is not to say “painlessly”) shrink. To be sure, e.g. Shell is doing all they can to prevent any exogenous demand reduction. It is their sworn duty to their shareholders to do so.

Yes there are higher and lower leverage places in both the money economy and the political economy to exert force for change. And yes, opposition is concentrated at those very points.

But IMO the “20 companies” argument is such a gross simplification of that as to be mere simplistic propaganda.

\* Name chosen entirely at random; I have no idea how much Shell specifically is or isn't part of the intransigent problem versus the forward-thinking future of substitution of crude oil for other things.

“Funny” thought I just had: everyone says that travel is a potentially key part of helping people understand others and reduce racism and xenophobia. It’d be tragic if the main/only way to save the planet was to make the world more isolationist and insular.

Yes because the right is largely responsible for keeping us from acting. While many conservatives have moved onto “climate change is real but too expensive to fix” there is still a large amount of “climate change isn’t even real.” Is the left blameless? No, of course, not (especially wrt nuclear power), but I am quite certain that the vast majority of the blame rests with the right-wing political parties that put oil & coal profits over the health of the planet for decades.

So do I understand the public’s reaction? Sure I can understand it, but it means the planet burns and results in a level of human misery never before seen on the planet. The latest IPCC warning is dire. Will we act? No, of course not. We’re basically forked.

No, we are not forked. Our grandkids and their kids for millennia thereafter are forked. We older folks today will be fine and our now-adult kids will be fine (enough).

And apparently that’s a good enough tradeoff for most of today’s public. Sigh. As actor Charleton Heston once memorably said, but not about the correct species:

Sure, but that’s not what I was talking about. I was talking about the effect real change and real restrictions could have on people globally. The reason I started this thread is that there’s a very real chance that to save the planet (or millions of lives), quality of life for millions of people might have to be rather severely reduced to an extent rarely done in human history.

I was saying that if that’s the case, then I would not blame people for balking, no matter what their base beliefs or actual levels of personal empathy. Thus me examining if that’s the case.

to save the planet! Yes I f***** can!

Because this is nonsense. Fast and independent long distance travel is not essential to quality of life. If we collectively decided on a fairer distribution of resources and what we produce and built out public transport, which is the only way we could get through the economic upheaval of cutting resource use, there would still be plenty of opportunities to enjoy life. Any metric where taking away the option for a fraction of people to take tropical vacations or fly cross country “severely reduces” their quality of life is a broken one. And even if it wasn’t, it would have to be weighed against the severe reduction of quality of life natural disasters are going to force upon more and more people.

Well, yeah, if travel is the only thing affected, then sure. But I don’t think it will be. Thus, again, my OP to begin with: for that complete picture beyond that single facet of life. And degree matters, of course; if you tell a liberal Californian they’ll never see their grandma in Texas in person ever again, but it’s necessary to save the planet, I think an emotional reaction is at least justified.

You maniacs! You burned it up! Damn you! Damn you all to HELL!

Ok. Understand.

Let’s start here. A fundamental fact now is that a small percentage of the world populace earn or own most of the money and consume the bulk of the resources.

And right now the total world consumption of fossil fuels is more than is sustainable. As is the total world consumption of potable water, arable land, timber, fish, and a few other basic parameters.

So one reasonable starting point is to first stop the over-consumers from over-consuming so everyone is getting the equal benefit, given that they’ll have to equally share the problems total overconsumption is causing. Then after we evenly distribute all the current consumption we can talk about how to reduce total consumption in a fair way to sustainable levels rather than the current unsustainable levels of consumption.

Right now the total world GDP divided by the total world population comes in at about US$10K per person per year. That’s it. Because of some double-counting and also the difference between prices at nominal exchange rates versus PPP exchange rates, folks in poorer countries would get more than $10K of bang for their share of the world’s bucks, while rich country residents would get less.

But for openers, we need to reduce every USA, European, etc., person to living on about US$10K/year. That’s your “fair share” of what humanity produces. And at that we’re still overproducing by far versus what the planet can sustain.

Hence why so many comfy people don’t think this is a soluble problem. Except by simply ignoring any notion of fairness and letting the poorest 95% of the world populace starve, burn, or drown while the rest party on. Call it the Titanic plan. As in the first class passengers enjoying the Champagne and caviar while the ship sinks steerage first.

Oddly enough, those 95% folks have a differing opinion of what constitutes a good plan and can vote with about 14 billion feet.

Substantially 100% of the Dopers are first class passengers on the good ship Earth, with only the most humble amongst us sitting high in the next rung down, still far above the teeming masses at the bottom as we steam headlong to our common fate.

I take no satisfaction in this. But it is where we (humanity) are.

Revolts of the poor hardly ever work. The poor mostly starve and die in those scenarios. Which will likely play out here. Biggest threat to the rich in these scenarios is someone with some sort of resources already, a raider. The actual poor are no threat.

While I muse, one possibly stupid question: why assume, under this hypothetical, that GDP would remain the same? Wouldn’t it go down significantly from the losses in industry and such?