In their provocative article ‘Happy Planet’, Robert Adler and Fred Pearce discuss the overall situation with respect to global natural resources, the causes of climate change, the effects of carbon dioxide emissions—including global warming—and the notion of sustainable living. Their central thesis seems to be that, not only is it possible to limit or even reverse the damage that human beings have done to the planet, but this can be done without altering lifestyles to such an extent that they become unrecognizable. This paper will argue that Adler and Pearce make a convincing case for their thesis, by focusing attention on three examples that they provide of ways that human lives could continue to flourish, even in the absence of some of the destructive tendencies that have led to the current environmental crisis.
The first example from the article to be considered concerns a vision of a ‘green’ future described by Eric Sanderson, in his book Terra Nova: The new world after oil, cars and suburbs. In this vision, many urban communities are densely populated, and residents travel in only one of three ways: (i) by walking (jogging, running); (ii) by bicycle; and (iii) by way of public transport, or other shared electric vehicles. In some areas what used to be suburbs are allowed to return to their natural state, including woodlands and streams. The vision includes as well a number of compact and self-sufficient new towns, which are designed to be self-sustainable. Rather than planting only the current ‘monocultures’ of corn, wheat and soy, small farms are diversified; not only do they employ more people, but they operate largely without artificial fertilizers, and pesticides. Not only are these latter harmful to the environment, but they require a good deal of energy to produce. Finally, Sanderson’s vision includes widespread use of alternative and renewable energy sources. These include “wind farms, solar fields and geothermal plants [to] feed energy into a continent-spanning smart grid” (Adler and Pearce).
A second example from the essay concerns the common assumption that widespread sustainable living would necessarily harm the economy, or even cause it to crash. Canadian ecological economist Peter Victor has modelled the Canadian economy under a number of conditions, one of which involves the transition to a ‘steady-state’ economy—that is, an economy that neither grows nor diminishes. Perhaps surprisingly, Victor found that the combination of a carbon tax, enhanced anti-poverty initiatives, and reduced working hours allowed the Gross Domestic Product per person to rise significantly, and to stabilize there. Furthermore, Victor’s model showed that, under these conditions, unemployment and poverty were reduced, and total greenhouse gas emissions fell. This example is perhaps the most powerful in the entire article, inasmuch as a good deal of the doubt and gloom concerning the future of the environment seems to assume that sustainable living and a workable economy are mutually exclusive.
The final example to be considered here, as providing support for the overarching thesis of Adler and Pearce, concerns the fact that changes are already occurring, many of which most people are unaware of. People in the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, and even in the United States are driving less. This of course leads to a reduction in the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels, and in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There seem to be a couple of reasons for this reduction in travel by car. One is the fact that both automobiles and gasoline have become very expensive when compared to twenty- or even ten-years ago. Partly as a result of this, young people are not learning to drive as early as they used to, which leads to fewer miles traveled by car. Additionally, advances in social media and related technologies have resulted in less frequent visits to friends and family, on one hand, and to fewer trips to the store or the shopping mall, on the other. As Adler and Pearce put it, “Driving less, and walking and cycling more are seen as positive lifestyle choices these days and are increasingly a feature of city living.”
One related factor that these authors do not mention, but are certainly aware of, is the fact that young people today are much more environmentally conscious than were previous generations. In my view, this has much to do with the positive changes that are already occurring, and also with licensing the kind of cautious optimism that the authors bring to this