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The “Less” Revolution

by Nic Darling on April 6, 2010 · 15 comments

in Philosophy

What if we changed the word “green” to the word “less”? What if the Green Movement was the Less Movement, if Green Building was Less Building, if the Green Economy were the Less Economy? What if, instead of recycle and reuse we only focused on that third “r” of the triumvirate . . . reduce? What if renewable energy got less attention than zero energy? Would we effect more or less change? Would the revolution be more or less green? And, perhaps most importantly, what would be the implications of success in the Less Revolution?

I have been amazed recently by the sheer quantity of “green” products I can buy. Virtually everything has an environmentally friendly version or a new, improved, greener formula. Commercials, labels and marketing campaigns give me a thousand ways to purchase a greener planet one product at a time. I need “green” cleaning supplies, CFL light bulbs, recycled dish towels, efficient wide-screen 3D TVs, mercury free MP3 players, bamboo drink coasters, solar powered path lights, organic t-shirts and a hybrid car. The more I buy, the greener I feel. This stuff is all the cleanest, greenest stuff money will get me. It is way better for the planet than the stuff I used to have and the things I used to buy, but my lord, there is an awful lot of it.

What if we just stopped instead? Sure this new stuff is better for the environment, but what if we each just bought a little less of it? It wouldn’t have to be a huge sacrifice really, just a small move toward less. One less gadget (but I want an iPad). One less day of driving. One less household accessory. In an economic system that is constantly pushing for more that small move on a large scale could be a big deal.

There of course is the problem. It really could be a big deal. While less is probably more green, it is a move in direct contradiction to the operation of our economic system. While the potential for planet saving is far higher if we are simply producing and consuming less of everything than if we make those things we produce and consume better, there are serious implications in a system based on continual growth and expansion. The question than becomes, can we consume less without pulling our economy down? Can we stop buying without stalling the march of capitalist born abundance from which we draw our comfortable lifestyles? And, if not, can we possibly count on capitalist consumer culture to save us from the looming environmental consequences of it’s own making?

In one of my favorite TED Talks, James H. Kunstler said we have to stop being consumers, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. We are people after all, capable of more complexity than simply acting as the purchasers of products. We need to accept broader responsibilities than simply choosing the right stuff to buy. However, I wonder at the implications of such a move. I am no economist, but it seems like a serious foray into less could be economically debilitating. It seems like it could turn into an actual revolution, and history tells us that real revolutions are pretty painful and unpleasant things.

So, since I quite honestly don’t know enough to be definitive, let’s talk about it. Is “less” potentially greener than “green”? Could simple reductions in consumption have a larger impact than all of our technological and market-driven solutions? If so, can the economy adapt to less? Can our current economic system survive a reversal of its near continuous expansion . . . a permanent reversal? And, if we want to take one step further down this philosophical path, can consumers survive the shedding of the consumptive role and all that goes with it? Can we find new ways to define ourselves other than through what we buy?

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rockfish April 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Every discussion of economics starts with the need for “growth” as a given. Without questioning this fundamental assumption, you are limited in how broadly you can think about issue.
It’s very telling that you start with a lightbulb moment – consume less – and then promptly acknowledge the “guilt” that we are all programmed to feel when we question the consumption imperitive.
Good, meaty questions for a building blog! Keep it up!

2 Miguel April 6, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I have always thought that building smaller homes should be given more thought. Perhaps more generous LEED credits for smaller floor plans and tax credit incentives to build smaller would result int he construction of more efficient and smaller homes.

3 Willem Maas April 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Isn’t “less” what Jimmy Carter tried to pitch in the 70s? “Turn your heat down. Wear a sweater.” Etc. Seems a hard sell beyond the niche that’s already turned onto it.

4 Denis Du Bois April 6, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Interesting question. First, for reducing consumption: Taxes. Property taxes based on sf would work toward @Miguel’s suggestion.

Two-edged sword: Higher license fees on newer cars keep polluting jalopies on the road longer.

Thus tax breaks for trading up to help our environment. — weatherization, Cash for Clunkers, hybrids, etc.

But that is a form of consumption. So, maybe it should be a “more” revolution?

I’ve enjoyed following your blog and tweets over the years. Keep up the good work.

5 matthew harrison smith April 6, 2010 at 9:46 pm

The same conversation is taking place on GOOD (the magazine) sorta. I find it encouraging that many are thinking along these lines. Personally, I started with having one car in my family and choosing to cycle as my form of commute.

“The Three R’s. Reduce, reuse, recycle isn’t just a phrase, it’s a hierarchy. First focus on reducing the amount of waste coming into your home.”

Read more:

6 Jim Wild April 7, 2010 at 7:27 am

Fantastic and it is mirrored in lots of activities around the world, so maybe it will gather some momentum. It will be interesting to see how the developing countries deal with the growth of consumerism.
Having children (in the last few years) has dealt a blow to my reduce mantra, there seems to be so much of a need to buy and receive. Having recently got our kids into Steiner education – where less really is more – we have vowed to reduce our children’s things (lots which can only be described as stuff) and give them the freedom to be children and make imaginative play.

7 morgan April 7, 2010 at 11:02 am

I think the issue is not the quantity but the revenue, if we bought less of higher quality products (and most likely higher prices) we would maintain the GNP while reducing the amount of resources and energy consumed. and if these were “green” products all the better. Basically if we improve the quality of our consumption while reducing the quantity = same $ less waste/energy/resources

8 lawless April 7, 2010 at 11:19 am

“Is “less” potentially greener than “green”?”

Absolutely. We cannot buy our way out of environmental choas.

The harder question for you to ask is building NEW houses that are more efficient a better option than renovation existing homes. Renovation is more labor but in the end is the amount of resources and energy spent less overall?

That’s when it becomes hard, is when you start applying these questions to your own livelihood, not to others.

Reduce – REUSE – recycle

9 Marcus April 7, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Morgan is on the right track, but at some point the margins will become effectively maximized or at least asymptotically close to it, and once again the only path to increased revenues will be though growth and expansion.

But there are businesses that maintain steady profits and steady output without the need to expand. Most often they are small, privately owned businesses, where limited resources and acceptable lifestyle produce a ceiling for growth. I know a locqal real estate developer who takes on exactly six projects per year, because that is what he can handle and meet his revenue target while still leading the lifestyle he desires. There are numerous other examples of small businesses that operate in this manner, but not many examples of large corporations that to so. Shareholders tend to demand growth year over year, and executives and boards that fail to deliver are ousted rapidly.

Great discussion, keep them coming!

-Marcus in Austin

10 Nic Darling April 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm

lawless – The new house vs. rehab blog post is probably one I should write soon. For now I’ll say that both are an important part of urban redevelopment, particularly in a city as under-populated as Philadelphia. I will also say that reuse of previously developed land in urban areas is an important part of our strategy.

All that said, look for some Postgreen Rehab news in the very near future. (teaser)

11 mike April 8, 2010 at 1:07 am


it’s only a hard sell when everyone makes their oodles off uneducated consumers.

if you haven’t seen ‘no impact man’ – i highly recommend it. it’s interesting to see the nuts and haters that came out of the woodwork, just for trying to live a less eco-disastrous life…

12 Mike April 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

If marketed correctly, a tax on excess space could make people aware of the hidden costs of sprawl and house size (think Additionally the heightened price of square footage could elevate indoor space to a luxury, which is easier for Americans to forego than an assumed lifestyle quality. But it needs to be a premium that people strive for, and that most cannot attain. Otherwise it wouldn’t work in our consumer, growth-based economy.

Taxes on other “more” products, such as SUV’s, gas inefficient cars and energy-guzzling appliances would have to be pitched the same way, hopefully resulting in the crucial cultural leap from commonplace to luxury item. As it stands, green products accumulate status and “moral” value that can lead people to justify buying “more” and living with “more,” (according to the UK’s Gaurdian:

Using taxes to bring the costs of growth into the open might alter how we manage our economy. Maybe we’ll be inclined to behave more like the developer in Marcus’s post.

13 Goran April 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Great TED speaker, and topic.

Someone said revolution was born of the idle rich, not the struggling poor. The poor have no time for revolutions. There used to be a time when staying alive was a 24×7 job: raise the kids, feed the animals, clean out the stalls, tend the crops, hunt, chop wood, ….

Today we occupy ourselves with “shopping”, and as resources get low, big business is retooling to allow us to shop for things that require little or no resources: entertainment, music, video games, iPhone and iPad apps…. So that lack of resources doesn’t mean we ever have to spend less.

But the TED speaker is proposing that we instead focus our spare time on becoming citizens. On casting a critical eye on our surroundings, and working with our local governments to improve our public spaces.

While I do see the value of this, and would do this to make the world a better place for my daughter,and myself, I don’t quite see how the coming resource shortages are going to force or result in bring about this sort of revolution. Can anyone help with that part of it?

14 lawless April 27, 2010 at 3:45 pm

A great book covering this exact topic:

“McKibben’s animating idea is that we need to move beyond “growth” as the paramount economic ideal and pursue prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs, and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment.”

15 Gene May 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

For the western economy, reducing consumption is, in my opinion, the honest approach to sustainability. The overarching ethic in the mainstream sustainability/green/eco-minded movement (especially in home-related design) is unchanged from what came before; it still espouses the desire to replace what we already have with something that entices because it’s ‘new’ and ‘better’ (and green). Pick up any home design publication these days and it’s mostly full of design-porn. For instance, in a recent issue of Dwell, this Seattle guy invested over $200,000 to shore up the structure of the warehouse he owns, just so he can install an 800 square foot residence on top of it. And then the result is lauded because it tips its hat to density or something like that and makes it ‘sustainable.’ In my view, that whole effort is a waste of resources (money) that praises oneself. And I think this is at the core of much of the mainstream green movement which, once again, is no different that what came before. Hey – it’s his money. He can do with it whatever he wants. But let’s see it for what it is.

I’m no greenie. I love good design. I believe in the principles of stewardship. I dislike waste very much. I also acknowledge that we live in a sacrificial existence; everything comes at a cost. I don’t believe there’s a crisis of population. We’re not in danger of running out of natural resources; the real problem is accessibility to resources (notably in developing economies where corrupt governments keep the everyday person restricted). Stuff needs fixing and new stuff needs to be built. In both those cases, let’s do it well. We must live within our means, keep ourselves in check and sometimes swim upstream.

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