What Downsizing really means…
That we are entering a period of decline is not in any real doubt, at least not among those with the inclination to think about it. ‘Downsizing’ seems to be the commonly used term, but few really understand what it will really mean. No one will willingly accept downsizing if it means a meaningful drop in their standard of living. So it remains a vague notion that it might be somebody else’s problem, and nothing too drastic on a personal level. There is a misplaced concept that we will drift into it gradually as oil decline eases us into another mode of living that will not be too far removed from the one that we enjoy now. We want the creature comforts that we have known for less than a century to remain a permanent feature of our imagined future.
Our most recent history shows that the slightest slowdown of our current economy by just a few percentage points brings an immediate chaos of unemployment and global destabilisation. Yet somehow that won’t apply to a permanent ‘downsizing’; that seems to follow a different set of social rules, as if we can do it and still retain a civilised existence. And of course without downsizing wages too much. We will still expect to eat, buy ‘stuff’ and carry on in employment and even retain our wheels, with the strange certainty that as long as we have wheels, we will have prosperity by involving ourselves in the exchanges of trade that will not differ much to what we have now.
In the face of imminent global chaos, from climate change, overpopulation and energy depletion, billions are being poured into development of alternative methods of transportation. Elon Musk, though producing a first class electric car, proposes it to be a vehicle for the ‘post oil’ age, which will inevitably mean a downsized environment. He ignores the basic reality that no road vehicle in the context of modern usage can function without an infrastructure that is itself a construct of hydrocarbon. The notion is that we can all get into electric cars and continue to drive from home to work and back, and our comfortable lifestyle can carry on much as before. In other words, it is the vehicle itself that creates and supports our prosperity. If we use an electric car, we can still somehow move a lump of metal and plastic around as an integral part of our employment and leisure.
But the electric car adds to the socio-economic complexity of our over-stressed life support system, it does not simplify it. In addition to the factory itself, an electric car needs sophisticated power hungry production systems, a living environment for its workers, housing, roads, schools and so on, as well as the Bolivian lithium mines and the socio-economic-industrial complexity needed in that country, all solely dependent on a vehicle concept that is ultimately a consumer of the hydrocarbon fuel it is promising to replace. All these systems are (hydrocarbon) energy intensive and expensive to produce. In a downsized society, that complexity will not exist, yet our focus on such dead ends as the electric car shows that humankind does not have the means to rid itself of dependence on the wheel. While the electric car might appear to be a bright shiny symbol of continuing wealth and prosperity, it is in fact a block of embodied energy, as subject to the laws of thermodynamics as any other construction. It demands constant energy input to maintain its viability, and serves no useful purpose in a downsized environment because the means to sustain will not be there. No industrialised nation can maintain its road transport system without the constant input of oil. Fossil fuelled vehicles, whether used on land, air or sea produce our food, sustain our infrastructure and maintain the cohesion of nations. And there are no alternatives.
We must face the painful truth: that our fossil fuelled prosperity (temporarily) allowed us to have personal transport, but it was not personal transport that created our prosperity. A downsized lifestyle will mean that we will no longer be able to move around on a whim, for no better reason than we happen to want to drag a couple of tons of steel and plastic around to buy a newspaper or a carton of milk. The car has allowed us to live many miles from our energy sources, whether food or employment. That is going to end. When considering downsized transportation, remember that probably the most useful wheeled vehicles in the pre oil environment were haycarts and war chariots. The only forms of renewable energy were derived from the waterwheel and the windmill. They were manufactured from trees, and needed the energy input from animal and human muscle to give them functionality. We cannot have a future that is dependent on complex industry. It will not work.
When advocating downsizing, there is rarely, if ever, any mention of the healthcare we currently enjoy, which has given us a reasonably fit and healthy 80 year average lifespan.