Revisiting the Riot for Austerity


Almost exactly four years ago, my friend Miranda Edel and I were discussing the recent IPCC report on Climate Change and George Monbiot's book _Heat_ and the reactions that we got when we talked about about the sheer depth of the reductions in climate emissions that would be needed to stabilize the climate. Whenever we began to discuss emissions reductions on the order of 80 or 90% (depending on your country of origin - for the US Monbiot's estimate was 94%, although there are reasons to question that number now), the universal reaction we got was that it was impossible - impossible to imagine living in the developed world on so much less. So impossible there was no point in even discussing or imagining it.

Miranda and I disagreed. We felt that this critical inability to conceive of what was necessary was something that we had to - and have to - overcome. Both of us were aware of material limits on a renewable energy build out, and the time frame for such a transition, and we knew that the evidence at the time increasingly suggested that we had to make our changes sooner than we could possibly imagine such an energy transition. Moreover, both of us looked at this through the lens of energy and resource depletion as well as climate change, recognizing that there were forces driving us towards a life with less whether we like it or not.

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.

We set out to cut our usage in 7 categories - Electricity, Heating and Cooking Energy, Gasoline/Transportation Energy, Garbage, Water Usage, Consumer Good Consumption and Food Energy Consumption (we were not, in fact, striving to reduce our food intake by 90% ;-)). We measured our baselines and ran the calculations. A few months into the project, my wonderful friend Edson built a calculator for us, so that you could just plug in your elecric usage and know where you were.

People joined us from 15 countries - and did their own baselines and measurements. We had people from cities and countrysides and suburbs, the elderly and families with multiple children, the healthy and the disabled, the rich and the poor. We listened, shared strategies, argued about the best way to do things. We tried things and failed. We got frustrated when it seemed like it would never work. We celebrated, as for example, when there was a Riot for Austerity wedding!

Some fundamental revelations emerged. The first was that the first 50% reduction in energy usage isn't that hard for most of us - that was heartening. Most people could get big drops in energy usage by making changes that weren't too difficult. After that, of course, it got harder. We also found that most of us had a Waterloo - a place where we found ourselves struggling. Out here in the country it was transport energy. In the cities, it might be food and consumer goods. We shared our struggles, and thrilled when someone made it - our friends Larry and Gail dropped their electric usage to well below 90%. Someone asked "do you even live in your house?" Not only did they live there, they worked out of it too!

In June of 2008, my family had achieved 80% in all categories, at least at one point. We had achieved our 90% goal with water usage, but slid back up again to about 60% down from the American average, as our climate became increasingly wet - our 60+ inches of rain annually simply meant we didn't feel we had to reduce our water usage quite so much. We were never able to consistently keep transportation energy down to 90% - my oldest, disable son's busing and the distance from Eric's job made that harder for us out here in a rural area. We had to settle for using only 4/5ths of the energy used in most households.

We have kept our energy levels down at the 80% mark for the most part, except for water and a home renovation project that put us well over the consumer goods limit one year. By the end of 2008, a great deal of more data about climate change had emerged, and between that and the lack of political action that followed President Obama's election, it became clearer and clearer that world action on climate change either had not or would not come in time (depending on whether you think we're already past critical tipping points, which may be the case.) While we'd never expected to change the world wholly, even the most dedicated families, the ones who had been living the Riot most passionately began to ask the same questions - why should I do this if it isn't going to make any difference?

Meanwhile, my appearance in the New York Times as an advocate of carbon restriction had been played to create a new pathology - the Riot for Austerity wasn't even mentioned, and I was classed in a story with other environmental activists as a "Carbo-rexic" - someone who was pathologically afraid to use their fair share of carbon. The story did its best to portray me as a bad mother - taking several remarks out of context and implying that my children were freezing to death in their home (actually, when the article was run, the photographer wanted to take pictures of them under their blankets, but they declined because it was 80 degrees ;-)), saying they "huddled together for warmth" (again, it was 80 - no huddling!) and implying that we didn't let our son play baseball, the great American pastime because Mom is an environmental meanie. For a couple weeks after we were bombarded with threats to call CPS, and we were afraid we would be investigated. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth about exposing my family's experience in too much detail.

The Riot, born of the attention to climate change that followed 2006-7 emerged from a hope that it was possible to create a grassroots, collective response to climate change that would accompany other responses. As it became more obvious that 90% wasn't enough, that 350, not 450 was the target and that we weren't going to do anything about climate change, I shifted my focus towards adapting to energy and economic issues. While we still used comparatively ilttle energy, we focused more on "Adapting in Place" than on Rioting for Austerity.

I have wanted to revisit the Riot for Austerity for a long time, but have been hesitant to do so, to start again, because I was struggling with a good answer to the question "Why do it?" It isn't that I think it is any less critical to learn to live on much less than it was in 2007. It isn't that I think cutting carbon emissions matters less - there's a big difference between 550ppm and 800ppm. It isn't that I don't believe that one of the central projects of dealing with both climate change and peak energy is to create a new American Dream, a vision of a life that can actually go forward into the world we have - a dream that requires less money, less energy, and that replaces the consumption at its center with something better. I believe in these things, but I also understand why people ask "Why do with so much less if it won't stop climate change, won't delay an energy peak? Why live now like I'm going to have to then? Why do the hard thing, when there's so much hard coming?"

I've come to believe there are three reasons. The first, is that it isn't that hard - and that getting the most out of little is an art form, a pleasure, a life worth having and enjoying. The second is the reason articulated by my old friend and colleague Dmitry Orlov, where he observes that if you are facing a fall out of a window, you'd probably prefer to fall out a first story window, rather than a second story window - that is, everything you can do to get yourself closer to the place you are going anyway softens your fall. The third is that it is simply right. Our narrative in which we in the Global North use so much more than everyone else on the planet implies that no one else minds, that such inequities are fundamentally normal and acceptable. But, of course, everyone else does mind. Our actions make their world less habitable. Our consumption leaves less for our posterity. This is wrong - and it is based on a fundamental lie. We must find a way to change our lives, not so much because it might save us from the worst consequences of our behavior - might spare us the floods, the heat waves, the hurricanes, the tropical diseases - that's just getting out of the logical consequences. Instead, we have to change our ways because they are wrong, and we should do right instead.

So starting on June first, I'm revisiting the Riot for Austerity - my family is going to try and get back down in some of the places we've crept up, and we invite the rest of you - those of you who did it before, those of you who never to join us. I'll make some changes here - we'll probably make our group go on facebook instead of yahoogroups (not 2007 anymore ;-)), and I need to run a new set of numbers, as the data for the American baseline has changed, but the basic project is the same. So is the basic goal - as long as most of us in the North feel that there's nothing we can do but cling with both hands to a way of life that is doomed, we will both suffer the consequences of our clinging and also doom others with us. The moment we can find a way out, a new story to tell, a new way of life, and the power to act on our own, we begin again.

There's more to come, as with all new beginnings!


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I'm curious to see what we can do (within the bounds of sustainable marriage, and such parenting as doesn't bring in CPS, of course!)

I'll participate too.

Amy Dacyczyn ran into a similar problem in the 1990s, when she was publishing The Tightwad Gazette. She had an interviewer come out to do an interview on her family near the end of the newsletter's run (if I recall the timing correctly). That interviewer used her interview with a child who was honest about a particular issue she was having at the time to paint Amy's family in a poor light. The interviewer represented one of the major magazines or newspapers, I forget which one, which depends on revenue from consumer product sales for their living. My suspicion is that putting Amy's family in a bad light was perceived to be necessary to dilute the appeal of Amy's message that more fun could be had with less money spent and fewer goods. Fast forward 15 years, and now you and your family, and other prominent families spreading the same message, are the ones who need to be put in a bad light. At least that's my take on things. I applaud your courage to begin the Riot again - and courage it takes, for you're bringing a message not welcomed by those who make a profit on profligate consumption.

I found out about the Riot for Austerity last year, and thought it really looked very interesting. I'm joining.

Another great reason to reduce, and you hinted at it, is that for everything we don't buy, we not only vote with our wallet, but we put less money in to the pockets of the likes of the Koch brothers who turn around and use your money to legislate against you. Every un-bought Coke is less money for them to promote their propaganda that their products have a role in a good diet.

Count us in! We're aiming for Adaptive Rioting (Riotous Adaptation?). Either way, sounds fun.

By Stacy Canterbury (not verified) on 25 Apr 2011 #permalink

I am interested in this and feel that my husband and myself have made some of those all important moves in the right direction but am unsure I can or even should join this as I don't know how to count my household. But would like to note that my husband and myself would be interested.

We rent out our extra rooms in our house. We are over the legal limit for the laws in our locale, however, each adult has their own bedroom, there is never a line for the bathroom, there is never a conflict for use of the TV or lounge room, the home business has two or three rooms for office space. In short, we are not over crowded, everyone has privacy and is an adult. This is surprisingly common for our neighborhood because of the size of the homes, the legal environment and the location of the neighborhood to urban center and large university.

However, here is the issue. Our utilities are for the whole house and I cannot say that I can sign up my renters for this endeavor, I already do quite a few unique things like require them to compost, pay for their toilet paper so we can buy recycled, offer bicycles for my overseas renters so they do not buy a car, do group grocery store runs, I can go on.

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how I and my husband might participate?

I'd consider joining.

In the short time span you are considering here it's wrong to say: our climate became increasingly wet. Weather changes quickly, but climate doesn't become measurably wetter/drier in a few years. I am not denying climate change, just asking you to use correct terminology.

>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.>

The Orthodox Christians rioted against the Catholics-- they shunned golden idols and opulent churches in favor of more faith, less glimmer.

I'm excited. I participated in the first Riot and have been referring the site to friends but it was inactive and so wasn't as much fun. Games are much more exciting when played as a team.

I'm interested ... but have avoided facebook to date. Our useages and consumption have been creeping up -- and you would start this up just before we fly for the first time in 6 years.

By Susan in NJ (not verified) on 26 Apr 2011 #permalink

@dreamer on comment #10...I don't think Mr Monbiot intended for that to be a factual

Woooohoooo! I was too late to really get involved the last time. I've been waiting for a couple of years, hoping this would start up again!

Have you considered creating a Facebook page to promote this? You could also create some videos of stuff that you were able to do that others could do too. You could turn this viral pretty easily with just a little work promoting it, however your carbon footprint would increase lol cause video streaming is very costly, but the overall impact would be positive.

Wahoo! Here we all go again. Looking forward to he encouragement, shoulders to cry on, solidarity and community. It's amazing how this can be so much fun. We all need challenges, especially when they involve doing what we believe is good, good for all!

By Grandma Misi (not verified) on 27 Apr 2011 #permalink

"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."

I think you are missing a really large potential ally here. And I know you're aware of this, but you don't seem to have plugged it in.

That would be Mahatma Gandhi. He certainly generated lots of riots. True- they were not FOR austerity; but HE was. And, once he had attained the astonishing respect that goes with Mahatma; and which his name has never lost- he LIVED what we profess.

Another ally- the Amish; most specifically before they emigrated from Europe. They didn't start the riots; but they suffered them; and much of it was indeed because they lived (and still do) what we call an austere life.

Actually, that all adds up to yet another reason to ignore George Monodiot (who has gone off the deep end, and I'm so glad, since I always didn't really like him or his writings... )


I'm in again!
And as usual, dragging hubby and baby and kitty along with me!

I'm not sure about facebook though... it's such a time-waste vortex.. but then again, it might be easy to make an app for facebook, and it would be fun to show progress to all my friends...
Whatever, let us know when and where and I'll be there.

Whoot! Count me in. But...Facebook? No, not even for you Sharon :) I will stick to the dull, 'old' Internet.

GreenPa & C.- You each touch on something I have been mulling. How will most of us be able to adapt in place when the rules of the game are against us? Zoning laws prevent micro-farms, and 'too many' people to a house. Try biking to a job interview! As we become poorer, the stuff we use and need does not go away- it belongs to someone else.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 01 May 2011 #permalink

There is simply no way for me, by myself, with my own level of interest and technological knowledge, to keep everyone happy on this. Some people will feel strongly against facebook, but just as many people told me they wouldn't be caught dead on a yahoo group. So what's the answer? I can think of three - I can use facebook, and annoy the people who don't use facebook, I can use yahoo and annoy the people who hate yahoo, or some of you folks who have strong preferences, some time to spare and better internet skills could get together and try and figure out a better alternative. Is it possible to set up a way of having posts go simultaneously to both, for example? Do you folks want to volunteer to moderate and maintain two groups? I'm open, but I need help.


What would be the point of using either one of them? Sharon's blog allows comments, so why move into another medium at all? (As I'm unlikely to join either, I hope progress on the Riot won't be left out of Sharon's blog.)

Thanks for considering my opinion! How about this- you do it the way that works best for you. I will think about ways to modify my actions and behaviours to achieve the desired outcome. In short, I will adapt :)

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 02 May 2011 #permalink

Sharon! I have been thinking about this a lot for the past few months. Now that I am in a new location, a new house, and have a new life, I think this is the right way to start. I am starting over and want to start the "right" way! :)