To:

  • The reader

On:

July 31

Re:

  • Less yet greater

From the soil I came, and to it shall I return.
But what of what I own? May it also be regrown?

I own a lot of stuff. Kitchen tools I bought to make a one-off recipe, clothes that looked better online than when they arrived. I also own some practical stuff, but still, my consumption bugs me. Why do I have so much stuff? Do I really need it? Does my consumption hurt people – or the environment?

My intuition is that the answer will be a gut punch. Of course my consumption hurts. It causes greenhouse gas emissions. It exploits people who deserve better. It uses up our finite supply of non-renewable resources – resources that we’ll never get back.

My consumption hurts the planet – how could it not? But actually, what if I told you that it doesn’t have to? What if there’s no obvious reason that you can’t sustainably consume as much as you’d like? Because maybe it’s not a question of how much do you own, but what is it made of?

Here’s the thing: most of the stuff I own is at least partly made of oil - a finite resource that pollutes the oceans, warms the planet, and oh by the way, just so happens to be running out. In fact, even “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” products are often covered in the stuff. Literally. Many paper and wooden products are coated in oil-based films to keep grease and moisture out. Some are coated in other synthetic chemicals like PFAS. And yet others are coated in – get this – sap or wax; natural substances that literally grow on trees. Which begs the question.

If there are natural, renewable alternatives for so many synthetic chemicals, why don’t we use them‽

The answer may seem so obvious that you could yell it at me in frustration. They’re expensive, goddammit. But… why? Why does the safe and renewable material cost so much more than the synthetic that we can’t even pretend to understand? How does that make sense? The answer, I propose, takes us back to the question of how much.

How much can one person grow? Not a whole lot, actually. At least, not with 8 billion people on the planet. There’s literally not enough space. If we were to divide the entirety of the earth’s usable land (90,000,000 km²) by the earth’s population (roughly 8 billion), we’d get… 11,000 m², or about 3 acres — including forests and grasslands — each.

So take a look around you. Like, actually move your head away from the screen. What do you see that you own? And what portion of it could be grown on your small plot of land? Because anything that you can’t conceivably produce? That’s the difference between living sustainably, and living on our shared inheritance of earth’s mineral wealth. And with that, let’s go back to the top.

Is it really possible to sustainably consume as much as you’d like? Actually, yes! It is – with one condition.

You can consume it, so long as you grew it.

Or raised it. Or dug it up — unless you used synthetic fertilizer. But if that fertilizer was synthesized from air and water using solar and wind power, that’s okay. But the machinery to do that requires metal and oil — is that okay too? I’d say so, but manufacturing requires expertise that you won’t get from working the land all day, which naturally leads to money and markets, which… I guess life is complicated, huh.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we all go and buy an acre of land and give up modern life. I just want to raise awareness about why sustainable products are so expensive, or perhaps more to the point, why synthetic products are so damn cheap. It’s that they’re too cheap. The abstraction of pricing insulates us from the unsustainable reality.

The real inconvenient truth is that living sustainably – all 8 billion of us living sustainably – means living with less. It means pricing things fairly - so that people who make and grow things can live well and raise a family. And that’s where I need to be straight with you.

Would I take a job as a farmer, or an artisan? Would I give up my comfy desk job for back-breaking labor that wouldn’t pay enough to keep me comfortable, let alone to support my family? No, I wouldn’t, and I can’t ask you to either.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day. And maybe, just maybe if we work at it, we might find a way to fix society’s incentive structures, shifting more of society’s resources to its sustainable producers, encouraging people to live off the land again. Maybe if we work at it, we can create a society of less, yet greater.