Scott said:

“I’m not sure I buy the ethical portion of it.
You are clearly an outlier in terms of intelligence and motivation. That ability benefits society more applied to a hard problem, rather than making a rake or finding the least wasteful way to dispose of a few books.
I don’t think you are obligated to use your gifts in that way, I just don’t think checking out from the system is selfless.”

The hard problem I’m trying to solve is finding a more sustainable and resilient replacement for the current industrialized consumer society. Seeing how so many people are inherently optimistic when they shouldn’t be (e.g. believing that we’ll replace oil and gas with fusion power and airplanes with Startrek transporter technology) it is not enough to warn people and say “hey, if we continue business as usual, we’ll be in serious trouble by 2020 or 30 as the human population’s demand on the ecosystem that supports us coupled with the pollution we emit will simply quench our support system and result in billions dying”.

People don’t know what to do with that info. It’s scary and it’s overwhelming. It’s like being told that “civilization has cancer”. How do you respond to that? Is there a treatment? What can I do? I have been looking into this for 10 years and while it’s not complicated, it is hard because there’s so much to learn (such as how to build a rake and recycle books). Furthermore, many people will either see this as alarmist or simply refuse to process the information. “I’m not sick, I feel fine today”.

Heck, some people will even selectively ignore science, that is, selectively ignore our best understanding of reality if they find it inconvenient to their political or religious beliefs. Just consider the ridiculous debates/attitude on evolution and climate change. It’s like debating whether the Earth is flat or whether the moon landings were faked (It isn’t and they weren’t) and it’s a futile to use reason because many people believe that “truth is whatever they feel it should be” and that “every explanation is an equally valid narrative“. Our modern education system has done a pretty good job screwing people’s heads up in that regard. “What’s the square root of 16? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Square roots are just a mathematical theory.” How do you reason with that? You can’t.

I tried that tack.

Also saying there is a problem without giving a solution isn’t going to do much good.

What I needed to do was to find an lifestyle that would be appealing and act as a replacement for consumerism. Furthermore I needed something that would prepare people well in case it was not widely adopted AND something that wouldn’t cause a breakdown of humanity but would cause a significant reduction in the resource use of civilization if widely adopted. That’s a whole lot of simultaneous problems to solve.

The problems would be easy to solve top-down. Think about the WWII mobilization and the Manhattan project. However, as it is institutions prefer to react rather than ‘proact’ and creating a sustainable relation between civilization and nature is something that’s going to take more than a couple of years to implement, it’s better to change the course of the Titanic (or at least tell people to get off it) than letting it hit and then have a massive lifeboat mobilization.

I have also worked a wee bit in the field of sustainability and on the top (hard) level it works just as any other kind of incremental grant based science. Submit your proposal to “Build a lightweight water treatment system for the Florida wetlands to be completed no later than 2017”. And you have HUGE lists of various small projects to be completed that way. I just don’t see how that is going to do much good.

Conversely, I tell people how to build a rake, within a month 100,000 people will read it, and if I make a convincing case for ERE, many will eventually build it instead of demanding more rakes from China.

It would be really cool to have some numbers for the economic impacts of this blog.

Consider the ERE book which has sold close to 3000 copies (July 2011). If each buyer has implemented the suggestions to the suggested level (which is pretty much my level) a family who previously consumed resources at a rate of $48,000/year will now be consuming at a rate of $12,000/year. That’s a savings of resources of $36,000/year. I’m trying to keep this simple. In reality, it’s higher because things will be recycled and bought used and thus reduce the need for mining even further, but let’s say $36,000. So if everybody who bought it followed it, we’re looking at 3000x$36,000/year = $108,000,000/year. That 108 million bucks. Per year! Of course this is an upper limit. However, even if only 30 people adopted the principles fully, that is 1%, we’re still talking a million bucks a year.

Update: In late 2013, the numbers sold reached 12000, so the upper limit is getting close to half a billion.

So I consider my approach both efficient and effective compared to holding a $40,000 research job looking into the specific details of ceramic turbine blades or whatever.

And the beauty of ERE is that even if you do not care about the future of civilization (or find it inconvenient to accept the science), you can still do it for other reasons such as having more spare time or even working a job you like without feeling ‘pressed‘ by the need to make a living doing it.

I think here I addressed mostly the question of a big part of the reason I started ERE and why I still spend time on this. Specifically, whether what I do with my time is worthwhile given my motivations.

Had I just decided to drop out (as many have…I sometimes get emails from people telling me that they’ve done essentially the same as ERE only they did it 10-20-30 years ago—ERE isn’t exactly rocket science… once you start considering the world ab initio from fundamental principles, it becomes pretty obvious what to do if you want your financial freedom) and not tried to convince others, I might not be doing any good for society (in the problem solving sense) but at least I wouldn’t be doing any harm either. Also, I would say that while ERE is about checking out of the current system—checking out of the industrialized consumer system—it is also about checking into another system. One that will likely replace it.

The Great Recession should already give an indication of which system is more resilient under stress. The industrial system was seriously hurt by credit and oil shortages just a few years ago and we still feel the repercussions. Some who depended on a job to consume lost it and they could no longer consume. In addition they didn’t know what else to do for their needs so they suffered. Not ERE. For ERE, the Great Recession was effectively a non-event. It was a blip in the stock market valuations. That’s it. We’re lucky, that so far we have only seen job supply shortages. Just wait when we start seeing shortages in the food supply or the general supply of goods. Empty shelves. Now that will REALLY hurt the consumer system. ERE, again, not so much.

So in general, the more people who check into ERE or something similar like Transition Towns, the easier this will be for all of us.

Originally posted 2011-07-01 10:51:58.