First, the most embarassing part. I ran overtime on my talk in Yellow Springs last weekend, and I never mentioned the Riot for Austerity at all. I thought I had time, and then I didn't, and it never got talked about. Which is really too bad, because when it did come up, later at the Community Solutions post-conference strategy session, the subject got a lot of attention and excitement. In retrospect, I think I should have made the Riot the focus of my whole talk.
Because the Riot for Austerity is a remarkable and powerful project, and one, I think, that demonstrates the sheer possibilities of personal transformation. It started out as a political gesture by Miranda over at SimpleReduce (the rules and FAQ for our project can also be found there) and me, thinking that if we could prove it was possible for people in the rich world to reduce their consumption by 90% in each category, we could answer the politicians who say that it is politically impossible to do what is necessary to stop global warming with the words "We did. Others can." We hoped to live our lives using only a fair share of the world's resources as a model.
But it became, almost immediately, something more than that. Instead of just a political gesture, it became a way of life, first for a few hundred people, and now nearly a thousand all told in 14 countries. We have a support group at yahoogroups, imaginary pie parties and sleepovers, and hundreds of people to ask any question you can from "How do I get to Ashtabula on public transportation?" "How do I engage my church community with this project?" "How much food can urban dwellers really expect to grow?" to "How do I make my shaving razors last longer?" and "What do you do about reusable menstrual supplies?" (The Riot is about 65% female, so don't ask that last question unless you really want to hear the answer ;-))
The Riot is different from other environmental groups because we're not mostly talking about buying high tech gadgets or expensive solutions. Oh, I'm sure there's some of that, but mostly the question is how to transform our lives now, today, with what we have - and how to keep living this life year in and year out. We argue sometimes, but mostly we provide support, encouragement, solutions, ideas, analysis, suggestions.
It wasn't until I began describing the Riot for Austerity to a room full of Peak Oil activists, including Richard Heinberg, Megan Quinn, Kurt Cobb, Peter Bane, Building expert Linda Wigington and others that I began to realize just how potentially powerful the Riot is. I was perhaps too close to it to realize how exciting it was that people were having fun, creating a self-organized democracy to support one another and enable them to make real change.
People were excited by this idea, particularly by my accounts of the most courageous members - the ones who came to this not from the perspective of having worked on reducing their impact for years before, but those who jumped in feet first, starting from the American norms or even above them, and who have bravely taken on a project far harder than my own - to make a 90% reduction or something very close to it, with great rapidity. Going back to my marathon metaphor of the previous post, I'm reminded of the fact that I read once that a marathon is far harder on the slower runners, because their joints and bodies have to endure far longer, and they strike the pavement far more frequently. I'm from Boston, so if you'll forgive me, there are people right now making it up over Heartbreak Hill who have never run a block before, and they are damned brave people who I'm proud to know.
American Revolutionary War historian Timothy Breen has coined a term for the rituals of boycott, of self-restraint, of collective non-participation that enabled victory in the Revolution. He calls them "Acts of Non-Consumption" and writes at length about how powerful the collective choice not to consume, to resist, to restrain oneself for a larger goal can be. I've written more about this in an essay "Can Rationing be Made Palatable", but the central truth that Breen points out is that in hard times, the pleasures of communal Austerity can be as powerful as any act of consumption - more so.
Thats what the Riot for Austerity is doing - and we're not doing it in just one area. We've chosen to reduce our personal impact in 7 categories, not just Heat, Electricity and Gas, but also Food, Garbage, Water and Consumer Goods. We're using only 10% of the American average each - or working on it. Some of us are already there (my running joke is that Larry Halpern, whose project I described in my previous post looked up a week into the project and said, "Ok, I'm done, what's next?"), some of us are a long way away, and some people may never quite achieve 90% in every category. But we are doing something potentially powerful and transformative, that offers up the hope that other people might do it too.
Because if I can do it; if the people who had never run a step or changed a bulb to a CF before can do it; if people from every country can do it, if people in cities and suburbs and rural areas can do it; if rich and poor can do it; if men and women can do it; if people with big families and single folks, young and old can do it; then there is no one who can't. And if all of us are doing it in part because we find fun, and pleasure and joy and delight in the rituals of non-consumption we're engaged in, it is just possible that millions of other people might not only be able to do it, but want to.