I’m a fan of coming up with guidelines to simplify my choices. Those can be rules, like ”never lie“ or heuristics like “try to own fewer things”. With this kind of simplification in mind, some people go on a rampage and institute rules for themselves (or their kids) that are more like “never eat sugar/gluten/…” or “never buy anything that’s wrapped in plastic”. In their attempt to make life easier, these people have the exact opposite effect. By oversimplifying their life, they make life much harder for themselves and almost everyone around them.
On a political level, many lovers of sustainability consider all types of non-renewable energy bad. This is a simple position to hold, but also one that cannibalizes it’s own goals. In order to simultaneously reach our climate goals and fulfil the energy needs we actually have, generation IV nuclear reactors are by far our best bet, in addition to renewable sources. They can also deal with the nuclear waste from previous generations, solving two problems at once. Opposing nuclear in favor of renewables is an oversimplified position, these days.
So whenever we try to simplify our choices, it’s our due diligence to check if these simplifications have the intended effect. Otherwise, we might move the needle in the wrong direction — for whatever goal we choose to measure.
It’s probably fair to call our nationalism an achievement. Yes, you read me right: at least we’re now caring about more than our immediate kin and neighbors, so our tribe is vastly bigger than it was a few short millennia ago. But of course, a nation-sized tribe is not nearly big enough. Europe is beginning to increase its tribe’s size to supranational, but still smaller than global. So the next goal is the global tribe. Maybe let’s not stop there—and skip the easy steps of Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, and Laniakea Supercluster. Those would all make decent tribes, given that there are additional sentient lifeforms in any of them, and we should probably strive to be part of the respective tribes.
Still, those tribes share the problems of smaller tribes: they arbitrarily separate lifeforms into groups based on chance alone, because the town a person was born in happened to be in a specific country, or the home of a lifeform happened to be in a specific supercluster.
If we want a heroic struggle, and a distinction between insider and outsider, let it be the tribe life against tribe non-life. I’m cheering for life any day. I’d like us to keep experiencing, and that should be our primary concern because everything else follows naturally. I think life is my tribe. It’s the biggest tribe I can think of. If there would be no life, the universe would be an utterly uninteresting place.
There’s one key point that the organic movement has deceived us about: it’s a consumerist lifestyle movement, not a sustainablity movement. Yes, I’m serious.
As my first example, let’s talk about organic cotton, the pride of all organic clothing labels. Cotton is already bad enough for the environment, because it uses far more resources than linen or lyocell. Organic cotton is possibly even worse, though. The use of inferiour fertilizers and non-GMO crops leads to more the water and more land use for the same amount of cotton. Somehow, the organic movement is convinced that it’s fine to keep using wasteful crops, as long as we can label it as organic, so we can feel fine about it. It seems that not changing their own shopping habits is at the core of that movement.
Secondly, avocados, which are marketed as an organic, healthy and sustainable superfood. Like all superfoods, the claims are hugely exagerrated. Avocados are, pound for pound, probably worse for the environment than beef. And beef is already a environmental train-wreck. I love avocados, which is proof of my hipsterism, I guess. But even I have to admit the downsides, which are huge. As an example, avocados spend four weeks in a precisely cooled container just to get them where I want to eat them. And that’s merely a small part of the whole chain of production. A movement focused on real sustainability would value locally grown and seasonal food much higher than superfoods. But that would mean actual restraints that its followers would need to live with.
Electric cars also prove my point, I think. Thanks to persistent marketing, people who care about the environment seriously think about switching their petrol or diesel car for an electric one. Which would mean buying a large, complex product with tons of CO2 emitted for its production. Instead, it would be best to not buy any new car for as long as possible. Constant consumption is the problem, not diesel engines! Buying less would be a real solution. But what organic or sustainable company wants us to not buy their product? Sometimes, sustainable products are an alternative to other products. But generally, not buying anything at all is vastly better.
The organic mindset is one that’s bereft of facts. For the organic movement, pretending to be sustainable is enough, they don’t need to actually check if their ideas really work. Some of them even believe that burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow will take the place of using real fertilizers. Organic is all about style and not about substance. Conversely, science-based agriculture (including GMOs) is the best we have. Simply because scientists actually check which action or regulation has the intended effect. It’s the only way to make sure we truly reduce our environmental impact.
One of the key ways or everyday behaviour influences a sustainable future are our shopping habits. I’m listing the items I try really hard not to buy. But here, even more so than my not todo list, this is a goal, not a ruleset.
- Organic anything (especially organic cotton)
- Fast fashion or trendy clothing
- Shampoo, shower gel and traditional deodorant because of their wasteful packaging
- Avocados or other wastefully produced foods
- Bottled water
- Sugary drinks
- Plastic disposables of any kind
- Short-lived toys (or short-lived anything)
- Souvenirs, useless gifts or seasonal decoration
- Low quality anything (especially also cheap electronics)
- Always the latest of everything
- Non-LED lights
- Non-renewable power
- Paper magazines or newspapers
- Plane tickets
- Anything that doesn’t spark joy
Off the top of your head, can you name a few beauty ideals?
No big trouble, I’d assume. Now do the same for brilliance ideals. And for character ideals. Much harder, right? But who would argue that beauty is more important than brilliance or character?
Firstly, let me guide you through my ideals of brilliance. Striving for brilliance is defined by questioning everything, relentlessly pursuing true knowledge, even if it is inconvenient. It means getting to the bottom of those things that everyone else merely scrapes the surface of. Brilliance is also characterized by the openness to change one’s mind when presented with logical arguments and facts, as opposed to opinions. At the same time, brilliance is mastery of argumentation and discussion, with others as with oneself.
Secondly, here are my ideals of character. A great character is created of candor and humility. Candor in the sense that they’ll never lie and always be honest and authentic. Humility meaning a calm, self-controlled demeanor, knowing about one’s own limitations. A person with great character moves adroitly through the moral landscape, because they have done their moral homework. In the end, they always value people over ideas.
Now, think back to where we started: those despicable beauty ideals. What whould happen to our culture if replaced our beauty ideals with the above ideals of brilliance and character? I for one am sure that I’d welcome that change.
Hey you! Yes, you, who has made or participated in a gift to someone in the last month. What have you given, really? It’s likely you’ve given a physical object, a possession that the receiver now has to provide space and care for. One could say, you’ve stolen time from the receiver, because you’ve added to their presumably already huge mountain of stuff, which is becoming increasingly harder to manage. Stuff is a burden. More stuff is a bigger burden. Don’t give that to your friends!
I know that’s a bleak picture I’m painting. But it’s true.
If you really want to make a gift, you have two options: the first is to give an experience, not a thing. The second is to ask what the receiver needs and get them exactly that and nothing more, in the highest quality you can afford. But if I’m the potential receiver, the best option remains: don’t gift me anything.
Saving the planet is hard. It involves many big decisions, and difficult ones at that. So I want to help you with a few impactful actions you can take to start moving in the right direction.
Consume less. Maybe even choose a smaller place to live, which will have a huge impact on your CO2 emissions. Think hard before you buy anything: will it really bring you joy for a long time? Whenever you really need to buy anything, get the best quality you can possibly afford, because it will last longer and be more repairable. The Konmari Method might help you on this path (it helped me greatly). Minimalism might also be a fit for you.
Compensate your CO2 emissions. Use a service like PrimaClima to compensate every last bit of your emissions at least 1×. Going for 2× would be great of course (compensating two tons for every ton you emit), or an even higher amount. But start with 1×. If you read this, you can probably afford 175 Euro per person per year. This compensation mechanism ensures that we rich countries channel money to poorer countries with the explicit goal of preventing them to emit as much as we did when we were getting rich.
Now, there are a few things you shouldn’t do:
Don’t vote green and be done with it. Green parties everywhere are more ideologic than scientific. They might have the right goals, but often propose methods that are proven to not work. So if you do vote green, make sure to also help them to get their science right.
Don’t buy organic and be done with it. The organic movement is more ideologic than scientific. Many measures of organic farming are worse for the environment than non organic farming. GMOs might be our saviour regarding sustainable agriculture, but the organic movement hates GMOs (for no scientific reason). Instead of blindly going for organic food, aim for sustainability by eating locally grown, seasonal food.
Don’t fly often. Treasure the rare occasions where you do fly, and make sure to compensate the CO2 emissions (remember, compensating 2× is better than 1×).
Recently, I’ve thought a lot about what I can contribute to the world. Here’s what I came up with:
Be an example for simple living. Minimalism fits me well, I think, and it’s still a movement that hasn’t fully caught on. I can do and talk about this first step towards achieving a culture of quality. I have a long way to go, though.
Co-lead an exemplary company. From what I hear, many work places still have a strongly or at least a somewhat toxic culture. I think I am already doing better than most others. But there’s a long way to go as well, towards higher quality, sustainability and an even more respectful and stress free culture.
Promote reason over ideology. As a skeptic, I always try to value facts and reason over ideology and misinformation. We skeptics are precious few, but I think I can work towards spreading the scientific mindset more and more.
Raise a thoughtful next generation. It seems that after the baby boomers, my generation is the first that wants to stop consumerism, pollution and even climate change. I hope I can teach my offspring to be eloquent advocates for the planet, empathic people and inexorable skeptics.
If we look at quantity and quality as opposite, our current culture falls squarely on the extreme quantity end.
- We value ten crappy toys over one great toy.
- We value a high salary over a fulfilling job.
- We value cheap clothing that only lasts a few months over crafted clothes that last years.
- We value large flats full of stuff over small flats with only few items that we love.
- We value a never ending, opinionated news feed over few, well researched books.
- We value complex software with many features over focused software that does one thing really well.
- We value ten mediocre cakes at a party over two really awesome ones.
- We value a large social network over having any real friends.
I could go on like this for a long time, but I think I made my point. We value quantity over quality — everywhere. We need to change that, because this focus on quantity has two main drawbacks.
Firstly, quantity over everything means we produce more than we need, but need to replace it soon because is wasn’t made well. Ever growing seas of trash are the result. What if, instead of owning twenty sweaters, we own only four but those will last ten times as long? What if, instead of publishing every crappy story, our news media would research more and only publish what they know to be true? What if we wouldn’t buy so much, because we love every item that we have, and therefore need a smaller flat and a lower salary — freeing us to accept more fulfilling jobs, less working hours and improve our quality of life?
Secondly, if quantity is our goal, we will stress ourselves and each other out much more. When we try to create more more more, we can’t keep working at the same speed. We need to constantly accelerate. Imagine instead that quality is the goal and quantity is irrelevant. Now, we can live and work in a relaxed way and have time for retrospective thoughts, which will allow us to improve quality, so we can produce better goods and services, not more.
“Oh but the economy!” I hear you say. “We need the growth.” Ok I give you growth: let’s create more more more … quality!
Every few years, someone comes along, captures an important aspect of myself and makes it visible to me.
Richard Dawkins made my realize my love for Biology and science in general, with his many writings. He also helped me uncover the fierce skeptic inside myself by being the unapologetic advocate for the truth that he is.
David Allen with Getting Things Done nudged me into the great habits of keeping inboxes and zeroing them frequently. This amplified the calmness I was born with and allowed me to stay relaxed and productive ever since I read his book.
Kenji López-Alt facilitated the discovery that I really like cooking. His scientific approach resonated deeply with me — and it doesn’t hurt that using this approach, I can actually produce food that tastes delicious!
Susan Cain with her book Quiet helped me rediscover my personality. Reading it, I gave myself more permission to be my introverted self, and not try to be more extroverted all the time. Now, I can better play to my strengths, which was — I think — her goal.
Ray Mears helped me to reiterate my love for nature and the great outdoors. Also, while I like to be the person who has everything they need with them, he helped me realize that the more you know, the less you carry, which is true literally and figuratively.
Sam Harris is almost candor itself. He made me understand and strengthen my listening skills. He deeply understands his opponent’s views and arguments before usually uprooting the best version of their argument with a more thoughtful counterpoint. That is also what I strive to do.
Tom Greever with his book Articulating Design Decisions helped me level up my skills as a designer and project manager. His down-to-earth, trustful and strategic approach to design is one that I have made my own now.
Marie Kondo, in her public persona, is an embodiment of calmness. I’ve realized that stuff was a problem for a long time. Her approach of tidying reflects my sense of order and simplicity — and makes it actionable. This is a prerequisite for my inner calmness, which I’m still in the process of restoring.
Because of these people, I’ve noticed and sharpened different aspects of myself. Thank you!