CHAPTER 3. A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT FOR RADICAL REDUCTION: THE RIOT FOR AUSTERITY
For achieving and maintaining an extreme-low-footprint lifestyle, I consider the following two things extremely helpful, even necessary:
1) A set of concrete targets, ambitious but doable.
2) A supportive community of people who are on the same path.
I’ve discovered both of those things. And in this section, I share them with you.
Back in 2007, two eco-conscious bloggers, Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel, were extremely concerned about climate change and other impacts of overconsumption. (Astyk, who also happens to be a farmer, has since written several excellent books on food preservation and other aspects of sustainable living.)
Astyk and Edel had read a book by George Monbiot titled HEAT: How To Stop the Planet from Burning. Monbiot, a journalist and climate activist, asserted that in order to avert global climate disaster, the wealthy industrial nations needed to reduce their footprint by an average of 90%. (Actually Monbiot said 94%. The Riot for Austerity movement adopted 90% as its initial target for simplicity’s sake.) He contended that this was doable, and he set forth recommendations. Monbiot’s suggestions were focused on the realm of big government and corporations in regard to regulation, policy reform, and technological advancement.
When I got around to reading Monbiot’s book, all of his recommendations made sense to me. He wrote in a very level-headed manner and supported his assertions with data. I really appreciated the book! But at the same time, I was a bit disappointed in it because I was expecting it to include Monbiot’s own personal lifestyle practices, based on the numbers he suggested. I wanted to know what a 90% reduction lifestyle looked like in real life. All I had was my own version, which, as I’ve mentioned, wasn’t based on any hard data.
(Fast-forward to 2018: DEEP GREEN is the book I was looking for 10 years ago. I’m revealing my personal account of what it looks like to live at 10% of the average U.S. footprint. Since that book didn’t exist, I wrote it!)
Anyway, back to the Riot founders Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel. These two women took it upon themselves to translate Monbiot’s recommendations into personal actions that they, as everyday people, could take. They did meticulous research to gather the U.S. average figures and compute the Riot target values. The numbers are grouped in seven categories, each reflecting everyday needs such as electricity, water, and food. You’ll find those numbers in the next section and you’ll get a chance to calculate your own.
In his book, Monbiot points out that “Nobody ever rioted for austerity!” Astyk and Edel adopted “Riot for Austerity” as the tagline for their personal experiment, which ended up turning into a grassroots movement. At one point, several thousand people, in a number of countries, were participating. (As I mentioned, Astyk and Edel were both bloggers. That’s how I and others found out about them and got inspired to join the Riot.)
Astyk summarizes the spirit of the Riot as follows:
Someone, we agreed, had to take the very first steps to conquering the underlying doubt that we can change. Someone had to do the basic work of establishing a vision of a life in the Global North that doesn’t include conspicuous consumption of energy. More importantly even, as long as we felt that our response to climate change and energy depletion had to wait on policy measures – to wait for the high-speed rail lines and superinsulated new homes, to wait for carbon credits or whatever, we would not act. We needed to find a way to show that you can act right now – and make not a little tiny difference by carrying your cloth bag, but a big and measurable one – a change that nobody else thought was possible.
We stole from George Monbiot the wonderful line “Nobody ever rioted for austerity!” He was right – no population in human history has marched and demonstrated to have less. We figured we’d be the first.
Miranda and I set out to document our project and spend a year reducing our energy consumption by 90% over the average American’s. What we didn’t expect was that first dozens, then hundreds, and by the end, several thousand people joined us. We had expected to struggle. We hadn’t expected to find community, and most of all, to have fun. Perhaps we should have, though – as historian Timothy Breen has shown, rituals of non-consumption replace rituals of consumption and are as satisfying to most people as the consumption. That is, while during wartime, people might miss meat or sugar or drives in the country, that the communal exercise of substitution becomes a good in itself – so exchanging recipes for cakes that use less sugar and playing cards instead of taking drives becomes just as satisfying when you are acting together for a collective purpose.(6)
A Pleasant Surprise
When I found out about the Riot and started doing it, I got an extremely pleasant surprise. I saw that I could reach the targets without making any big changes from the way I was already living!
In some categories I was near the targets; in some categories I was already there; and in some categories (food and gasoline) I was somewhat above the Riot targets. With this information and support, I found it easy to make progress.
Overall, the Riot took a load off my shoulders, because when I was living my “best guess” life, I didn’t know what to aim for and didn’t know where to stop. I mention this because a lot of you who are very committed to living green might be in the same boat as I was: never feeling like you’re doing enough, and sometimes feeling burnt-out by it all.
When you have targets and a community, which you’re going to get in this chapter, you may find it a great relief! Things might actually get easier and more fun for you! And when things are easier and more fun for you, you’ll naturally transmit that to others in your attitude, which in turn will help to popularize an extreme-low-footprint lifestyle. I consider this “pleasant surprise” to be one of the key takeaways of this book.
Now for the Riot categories and targets…