This conference effort is not happening in a vacuum. You will find many books, videos, web sites, and conferences with similar programs. Yet the organizers of the October conference think our approach is unique. Each of us is alarmed about the suicidal trajectory of business as usual. Although profound changes are happening everywhere, these changes are much too slow. The thesis of the conference is: there is so little time left that climate mitigation can only be successful if a vanguard among those who are causing this problem with excess consumption start practicing voluntary simplicity right now.
In other words, the conference does not promote voluntary simplicity as an efficient way to adapt to a future breakdown. The conference is based on the assumption that this breakdown can still be avoided. After the atmosphere has been loaded up with so much CO2 that a breakdown is inevitable, then we will think about adaptation. The breakdown will be an ongoing process lasting several decades and adaptation is only possible to its initial stages. We think it is too early to think about adaptation already, right now we must put all our efforts on mitigation. We think that through grassroots involvement, the worst breakdown can still be avoided. People must make big changes in their lives and consume less than before. Such a change is not easy, and the reason why these changes are necessary, the threat of future breakdown, is not a good motivator. Therefore we are stressing that this emergency is also an opportunity. The need to prevent climate change forces us to re-think the priorities and organization of our economy. The new economy that has to be built must distribute the burdens more fairly and give more security and dignity to those who are poor. Due to this increased fairness, the new economy may easily generate more happiness than our present economy, despite lower consumption levels for anyone in the middle class and above.
But let us not be carried away with dreams about living in a better society. It is by no means guaranteed that we succeed in mitigating climate change. If we don’t succeed, earth will change so much that for our children and grandchildren, life will turn into a struggle for survival, and human population numbers will be decimated. Such an unacceptable breakdown can only be avoided if those awake enough to see the danger give their absolute best. Everyone will have to insert themselves into the movement where their own resources and talents can be most effective. But in addition, the conference will argue, there is one thing that all those blessed with affluence must do: we must change our own lives — not some time in the future but today, not in private but publicly, not as a silver bullet solution, but as a supplementary tactic in conjunction with vigorous efforts in the other areas where changes are necessary. This reduction in consumption is not something that would be nice to do, but something which we must do, it is our moral responsibility.
The Transition Network has developed many good ways how to reduce consumption. But there are important differences. The basic goal of the transition network is adaptation. Transition communities prepare for an economic breakdown which they expect to happen some time in the future when cheap oil is no longer available. Our basic goal is mitigation. We don’t rely on predictions of the future but we respond to the state of the planet at present. We are addressing not the poorest who are hardest hit by climate change, but the affluent whose consumption is causing climate change. And we are much more in a hurry. The time window in which mitigation is still possible is closing quickly. Our main goal is to bend the CO2 emissions curve, to start the decline of CO2 emissions for now by voluntary demand reduction, until more effective policies have been put in place. We promote more frugal lifestyles whether or not they make the communities more resilient. If we save money by consuming less, we intend to use this money to reach more people with our message of voluntary simplicity, or to donate this money to organizations which promote renewable energy, energy efficient housing and transportation, stricter environmental laws and constitutional amendments, and which protest the continued expansion of the carbon economy, and which help the poor countries to abolish poverty in a sustainable way without fossil fuels.
A conference similar to the MESA conference was the March 2014 Joy in Enough conference in England. But again there is a subtle difference: for the Joy in Enough Conference, the main reason for simplifying our lives is the greater authenticity and happiness gained by this. MESA sees these benefits too, but in our view, the simplification of our lives is a necessary ingredient of any realistic effort attempting to mitigate climate change. Our generation must adopt much more frugal lifestyles now, even if it does not improve our own quality of life, in order to preserve a hospitable planet for our children and grandchildren.
The Dec 2013 Radical Emissions Reduction Conference, also in England, emphasizes the urgency, and this conference promotes the need for demand reduction starting now. Our conference sees itself in this tradition and it tries to be a start in this necessary demand reduction movement. Our conference is more specialized than the Tyndall conference, it singles out radical simplicity as an indispensable tactic everyone must engage in. Radical institutional and cultural changes are necessary, in order to enable people to live well while using fewer resources, and in order to distribute the earth’s bounty fairly to all human beings. Since time is of the essence and this institutional framework is not yet in place, MESA calls on as many people as we can reach to voluntarily simplify our lives now. We hope this will accelerate the needed institutional changes. The goal of the conference is to assemble a team of pioneers opening new paths which will eventually become the highway everyone is traveling.