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Could Involuntary Simplicity Simply Be the Future?

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Chinese shop in Beijing on September 25, 2011. (Trey Ratcliff)
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Chinese shop in Beijing on September 25, 2011. (Trey Ratcliff/Flickr)

Sometime this century, people may be forced to live with less. Involuntary simplicity, new research says, may result as global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions end the era of cheap, abundant energy and prompt a “downshift” in consumption.

The public needs to be prepared for this “energy descent,” says University of Michigan environmental psychologist Raymond De Young. He discusses the topic in a report in the November edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

What will it look like? DeYoung expects many Americans will likely live in much smaller homes that contain far fewer consumer goods, and because of declining fuel availability, many may not be able to afford car ownership or air travel. He says they’ll rely more on locally grown foods.

“Frankly, it may not be possible for members of Western societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern,” he says in announcing his research.

That’s not all bad, he argues. Though a resource-limited future will be more austere, he says people will still be able to live well. He says the coming downshift may even give them an opportunity to “reconnect with nature and other people in ways that provide durable well-being.”

His forecast may seem difficult to fathom given the current boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production and the decline in gas prices, which are now below $3 a gallon in many parts of the country. Yet he says that while fossil fuels will likely be extracted for years to come, their extraction will slowly decline as countries shift toward less polluting forms of energy.

A report today describes the urgent need for such a global shift. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change and limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world’s man-made carbon emissions will need to drop to net zero between 2055 and 2070, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute.  Global greenhouse gas emissions, which have grown by more than 45 percent since 1990, will need to fall by at least 15 percent by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050, says the Emissions Gap Report by 38 scientists from 22 research groups across 14 countries.

“Unfortunately, the world is not currently headed in the right direction,” says Andrew Steers, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research group. “But, with the growing momentum for global climate action, we have the opportunity to close the emissions gap.”

De Young expects technology may help ease the societal transition but won’t obviate it, adding people will likely be forced to consume less of just about everything. Also, he says this shift lacks “Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif” and will instead emerge slowly over many decades.  His paper says behavioral scientists will need to help people cope with a new normal and envision an alternative future.