Reconceiving ‘Good Life’ | Guest column

In the last Energy Matters article “Facing the reality of fossil fuel economy and climate change”, I wrote about the ubiquity of fossil fuels in our everyday lives. Fossil fuels and the numerous products derived from them have fuelled our cars, factories that make stuff we use, agriculture that puts food on our tables, and economy on which we all depend. So how can we wean ourselves from “oil addition”?

Yet the greatest threat facing humanity currently is climate change. As our global greenhouse gas emissions climbed past 400 parts per billion, we are entering into an unknown territory. Many people, myself included, have difficulty facing up to what climate science demands of us—difficulty imagining and embracing the radical changes to economies, consumption patterns, and political systems that are necessary if emissions of greenhouse gases are to be sufficiently reduced (while meeting everyone’s basic needs).

Why does our imagination fail in this way? One reason is that reduction in fossil fuel consumption will lead to economic de-growth. It goes against prosperity and threatens our notion of a “good life”, the kind of life most consider worth living.

Given that Homo Sapiens have walked the earth for 200,000 years, and that fossil fuels revolutionized industrial production only in the last 200 years or so, it is remarkable that our notion of “life” has evolved to be so completely entwined with petroleum that we have a hard time imagining “life” free from hydrocarbon addiction.

Prof. Matthew Huber of Syracuse University has detailed the petroleum industry’s attempts to saturate life in the United States with petroleum products and to shape the country’s cultural politics toward neoliberal values such as privatism, individualism, and freedom of choice. Petroleum became the material and energetic basis for aspirations toward an entrepreneurial life, home and automobile ownership, and even the nuclear family.

Americans take pride in the myth of singular, fragmented, “self-made” individuals, whose “hard-earned success” and affluence today seem inconceivable without petroleum and petro-economy. The petroleum industry has successfully equated opposition to limitless petroleum consumption with opposition to cherished national ideals. Unfortunately, this insidious view of the good life is not confined to the United States. In developing countries, many who belong or aspire to belong to the middle class have embraced this imported vision.

To adequately address the challenge of climate change and energy access for all, it is vital to recognize that the neoliberal ideals of “life” based on selfish, individual advancement does not serve us well: we have become lonely, fragmented individuals trying to out-compete each other while destroying our health, our planet.

Fortunately, humans are hard-wired to be caring, kind and compassionate, a fact confirmed by scientific studies by Dacher Keltner at the UC Berkeley. Healthier visions of the good life—ones that emphasize love, community, solidarity, compassion, and generosity—have been cherished in much of human history and many cultures. These visions and values must be nurtured to vitality to counter the “survival-of-the-fittest” narrative.

Humans are social beings with deep yearning for empathy, connections and belonging in something bigger than individual selves. If everyone can get in touch with this core yearning within each and unleash his/her brilliance, creativity and compassion, I believe the world has plenty of resources and ingenuity to blaze a new, healthier path for humanity, take care of all beings and heal the planet. When our values, communities, work, and economies come into harmony with nature, we will experience the lasting fulfillment of lives well lived.