Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The aspiration gap

A hardcore Plan C advocate can be aggressively unimpressed with conventional measures to conserve energy or use alternatives. The numbers themselves, can be disheartening: if we achieved optimistic projections for the amount of energy that solar and wind could provide by 2020, we are only up to, what, 2% of world BOE usage?

For someone who has invested considerable time, energy, and optimism into solar energy, into electric cars, or into getting 100 mpg from their Prius, Plan C may seem to treat their small measures or first steps, perhaps gained with considerable struggle, with contemptuous disregard: “yes, your electric scooter is cute, but where are we going to come up with the other 219 Million Barrels of Oil Equivalent per day once we are all riding those?”

While as a hardcore Plan C advocate myself, it is true that I am not impressed with these small-scale technological possible first-steps. But clarification, as well as the adoption of a new concept or two, might help smooth the troubled waters between Plan B and Plan C. After all, we want to lead Plan B activists through their disappointment in a failed Plan B into the warm embrace of a hopeful Plan C.

Ambivalence is a difficult concept and attitude for most people. Our political and social culture to not encourage it or teach it (as an aside, this could be an argument for intense study in the humanities; a great deal of modern literature is an exercise in ambiguity and ambivalence, both of which are necessary for a well-functioning modern democracy). More specifically and to the point at hand, I do not think solar panels and “ultra-driving” (driving techniques that radically maximize mpg) are bad. In fact, I think they should be adopted and embraced. Even as we make grand plans for a community power-down, we should be using CFLs, we should assiduously recycle, we must support legislation for wind farms.

Although the distinction is subtle, it is crucial: while we should adopt these Plan B measures, what I am arguing against is the celebration of them. For when we celebrate them, we indicate to ourselves and each other that these are more than first steps, that they can save us or provide an ultimate solution. Celebrating minor conservation and efficiency can make us feel safe and comfortable to an unwarranted extent, much as does the BP sun/flower logo—upon which millions of dollars were certainly spent in order to provide just that feeling. [note: written before the Gulf spill]

Then again, there are some contexts in which our more pronounced displays of ambivalence may need tempering. If you are talking to a Plan A person who has only finally consented to using CFL’s, overcoming their resistance to the quality of light that does not match the incandescent light they are familiar with, that might not be the time to alert them to Jevons paradox (that efficiency always leads to more energy use). That someone is willing to “sacrifice” a previous feeling of entitlement to whatever quality of light they want, regardless of the consequences to others, should be encouraged.

But let’s be careful about celebrating it. Or about celebrating it and stopping there. This sort of balance between encouragement and profound ambivalence, though, will be tricky and sometimes impossible. With the great dissonance between competing viewpoints, expectations, and energy beliefs, it will often be impossible to strike the right chord. Since there may be no perfect sweet-spot or balancing point in many situations, one shouldn't feel too disappointed at not hitting it.

I have been thinking about a concept that, however, may help. It helps me as I struggle with the steps I need to make in order to powerdown. While we realize at my house that keeping our heat at 55 is not redemptive, it is not a useless first step. Walking to the movies on date-night, instead of driving, may also not in the largest scheme of things be sustainable (not the walking but the movies themselves), but it is not an entirely worthless habit.

I’m calling the concept that identifies this place of cognitive dissonance The Aspiration Gap. The Aspiration Gap is that space between the changes I am now able to make and those that I know I need to make. I have a paradoxical relationship with my Aspiration Gap: on one hand, I want to close it, bringing my practices closer to my knowledge of where they need to be; on the other hand, I need to keep aspiring to more realistically sustainable changes, continually stretching and extending my aspirations. The trick, perhaps, is keeping my aspirations far enough from my current practices to keep me from becoming too comfortable, but close enough so that I don’t become overly discouraged. Perhaps this can also be one of our educational tools: part of our Transition training is helping others develop a workable aspiration gap for themselves. Imagine Transition Milwaukee providing personal Aspiration Gap trainers or coaches.

The concept of The Aspiration Gap also highlights two connected, though in some ways distinct areas where Transition and Plan C need to operate. While it is a great challenge to change our energy practices both individually and as a community, it is also crucial that we change our beliefs. While we aspire to live a Plan C life, just believing in one can also make a lot of difference. This belief system prepares us for a different future, allows us to question our various expectations and senses of entitlement. As Pat Murphy says in Plan C, “Under Plan C, the first priority for society as a whole is to drastically reduce consumption of fossil fuels . . . That means buying less, using less, wanting less and wasting less.” One of the most difficult of these priorities, I think, will be teaching ourselves to “want less.”

But, even as wanting less may not have an immediate effect on our carbon footprints or local resilience, its long term payoffs may be more significant than some of the small steps that it will also encourage. For wanting less will change how we project into the future, how we interact with each other, how we dream and fantasize. The American dream has been just that—a dream, a fantasy about how we might live. Forging the ethics, aesthetics, and poetics—and thus a new personal and political fantasy life--of a new American dream will be a fundamental part of our Transition work.

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