How saving the planet can bring happiness

icon-mk-burning-earth
Climate change is accelerating. If we don’t do something drastic soon, akin to a War-Effort, where agriculture is transformed to feed the population in the most land-efficient way (i.e. no beef), petrol is rationed, non-emergency flights are banned etc, we’re all screwed. Unfortunately, there’s no sign at all that the powers-that-be have any interest in doing this, or encouraging the general population to make such sacrifices. There are ways that some of us could survive, but even they're not being developed.

Fortunately, we, as individuals, still have the freedom to do the right thing and reduce our contribution to climate change. This is good news because climate change isn’t just a collective challenge, it’s a personal challenge and we can’t escape that. We’ve come into this world and we have the freedom to make choices and those choices stay with us; we will know what we did. There will be no absolution, no priestly forgiveness if we chicken out of our obligations. If we choose to not make an effort to help save our planet, because we like fancy goods and cheap holidays abroad and a big car etc, then in the future, when we see the devastation of our planet caused by such selfish decisions, we are going to hate ourselves. No one can escape this result. Any attempts to argue that our personal efforts are irrelevant don't work. To show the truth of this, here's an example:

A colleague once said to me 'what's the point of limiting my carbon footprint, there's seven billion people on this planet, it makes no difference!' I replied, 'so it's okay then if I kill you?' He was shocked and said 'no, of course not!' I replied that according to his logic, he's only one of seven billion people, so it's irrelevant if I kill him or not. He didn’t like the argument but it’s still true. His life might seem irrelevant on a global scale, but it’s still precious to him. In the same way, our efforts to help save our planet are very important to us.

salad-with-meat
Here’s another example; A vegetarian friend of mine was in France and couldn’t find anything on the menu that she could, so she asked if the waiter if there was anything a vegetarian could eat. The waiter recommended the salad. It arrived and she was about to tuck in when she saw bits of meat all over it. She pointed at the pieces and said, ‘I wanted a vegetarian salad, that’s ham and chicken!’ The waiter rolled his eyes and replied ‘they’re only small pieces’. The moral of that story is that small is definitely not the same as nothing at all.

In other words, our personal decisions and our personal acts may not change the world but they change us.

Here’s the good news; adopting a low-carbon lifestyle has actually no effect on one’s level of happiness. This is probably hard to believe. The thought of not flying, not having a car (unless your job depends on it), living in a small house, not eating meat, not buying lots of foreign goods, not having a large dog, or a big wardrobe of clothes, or not having the latest new electronic kit; it all sounds like some sort of purgatory, a social humiliation, but it isn’t.

Here's a useful example of why it isn't. Years ago, one professional woman got fed up with the daily chore of working out what to wear that day, so she bought three copies of a burgundy dress and wore that outfit for an entire year. She found it a revelation. Firstly, it freed up huge amounts of time for her but secondly, and most surprisingly, many people she knew never noticed that she was wearing the same outfit, day after day. Her experience shows that many of us believe that other people will notice and be interested in what we buy or wear but in fact, many of them don’t even notice, never mind care. In my experience, what people actually notice is if you’re smiling or frowning. It’s what you wear on your face that gets noticed (and I’m not talking about a beard or make-up). Changing your face requires a lot more effort, but it's much more rewarding.

I’ve been living a low-carbon lifestyle for a while now. I haven’t been on a plane in a decade, I’m back living in the family home, I don’t have a car and I only eat a little meat and dairy. All my electronic kit is second-hand, I’ve got a folding bicycle (no more fancy bike kit for me), I have three pairs of shoes and when I go on holiday, I take a tent, and I am as happy as I’ve ever been.

road-bike
I certainly haven't always been this way; far from it. Fifteen year ago, I was in a very different situation; I was doing everything that so-called successful people do in the developed world. I had a professional job, a three-bedroom flat (or apartment), a super-fancy road bike with the latest gear, a shiny-new laptop, mobile phone and the latest audio equipment. I was going on holidays to New Zealand, Australia and a business trip to San Francisco, but in truth, none of this was making me happy. All it was doing was making me feel that I was succeeding. It was also making me feel valued, because people wanted me to turn up every day and help them with their IT problems. These aspects did make me feel good, at times, but commuting to work is, in truth, a shit existence. You’re tired a lot and you’re with other grumpy people who are also tired. Overall, I was mostly, mostly unhappy.

people-drinking
My solution to this problem? Drink! (As Father Jack would say in the TV series 'Father Ted') Booze, in some ways, is an incredibly useful chemical, because when you’re sozzled, you think you’re having a good time and everyone with you is having a great time. In fact, you’re not, you’re just drunk. As a comedian once said, ‘I love booze, it makes other people interesting’. This came home to me one evening, decades ago, when I was on antibiotics. I couldn’t drink, but my work colleagues invited me along to the pub anyway, and I said, 'okay'. The evening was a revelation. As it wore on, and as my colleagues drank more and more, they all got sillier and stupider. I sat at the table and thought, ‘oh my god, am I like this when I’m drinking? They're being total dicks!' It was just like the scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory television series when Raj drinks alcohol so he can talk to his date, but he just ends up being a twat. Leonard asks Penny, at the bar for help. 'Penny, is there’s an alcohol drink that doesn’t turn a guy into a dick?' ‘Nope,’ she says, ‘they all do that’.

But booze is also useful in another way because it’s a very useful tranquilliser. If you drink, you can blot out how unhappy you are and replace it with a feeling of warm bonhomie, or delirious lack of inhibition, depending on how much you drink. So it not only gives you a bullshit happiness substitute, it masks your actual unhappiness. When I look back at my life, from the age of sixteen onwards, the amount I drank was directly related to how unhappy I was. Boozing = Unhappiness. No amount of flash kit, holidays and pay rises was going to make any difference to that whatsoever.

But it’s very difficult to realise that sad fact when you’re actually in that situation. I know that if I said to my younger self ‘look, my friend, if you buy another guitar, or another bike, or another holiday abroad, or another hi-fi, it's not going to make you happier. You’ll get a buzz of excitement when you buy it, but that feeling fades very quickly. You may also think that other people will be impressed with your purchase but they don’t really care, they’re just performing the same programmed status comparison bullshit as you do, like a logo-obsessed parrot; no one’s winning, my friend, and no one’s succeeded. If you want to be happier, stop drinking and do the things that you admire in other people’.

To be honest, I know what my younger self's reaction would be to such a speech; ‘you’re just envious because you’ve got second-hand, ten-year-old kit and go camping, whereas I’m doing all the cool things!’. But at the same time, I know that on one Sunday morning, when he was sober and sitting in the sunshine, listening to bird-song through the window, he thought, ‘shit, why aren’t I doing something meaningful?’

Thankfully, I eventually acted on that feeling. I certainly don’t recommend anyone becoming penniless in their quest for life-fulfilment and happiness with their actions, but getting sober and weaning oneself off pointless purchases is a path to personal success. I'll admit, it does take time. It took me ten years to wean myself entirely off the temptation to buy something flashy and impressive, or go boozing, but I’m so, so pleased I’ve done it.

When Edward Snowden was stuck in an airport, fleeing CIA retribution for his leaking of the data that showed that the NSA and others were spying on U.S. citizens, he had live in a windowless room for a month. When he was finally able to leave and go outside, it was an intense moment for him; he was able to enjoy again those simple things we all take for granted, and mostly ignore when we're rushing from one appointment to another. Those things are free, but that doesn't mean they have no value.

So, in conclusion, that’s why, I think, that adopting a low-carbon lifestyle might be an onerous task in the short-term but eventually, anyone doing it will get multiple meaningful benefits and its actually a happier lifestyle than the high-carbon one, and far more fulfilling. Eventually, someone who switches to it will not only be able to say ‘I didn’t help screw up my beautiful planet’, they’ll be able to look back on their life and say ‘I became happy’.