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Back to the Future: When Less Was More

What will life be like if wealthy countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent or more?

by George Marshall

Imagine reducing emissions by 80 per cent. It seems huge and daunting without a technological revolution. But imagine achieving that target just by turning the clock back to the time when emissions were still at that level. For example, how far back would you have to go to reduce by 80 per cent the amount that British people fly?

1972. Yes, 1972. It really isn't so long ago - and if it does seem a long time, consider that to halve flights you only have to go back to 1993.

When we try to envision a low-carbon society we often forget that one is still alive in our collective memories. Nearly half the current population of Britain was alive in 1972 and it was hardly the dark ages. People lived, laughed, and loved just as much as now.

The early 1970s marked the first time in Britain when people's basic needs were largely met. Yes, there were still pockets of absolute poverty, but by and large, people were housed, fed, clothed, and in work. They had weekends off, annual holidays and spare cash for entertainment and leisure. It was not a time of great plenty - but of ample sufficiency.

For every sector, the figures tell the same story - had we chosen to keep that standard of living and applied our ingenuity to making it better, fairer and more efficient, we would not now be facing catastrophic climate change. I feel a deep sadness that we did not make that choice, but some hope in the knowledge that a potentially sustainable society has occurred within my lifetime.

With this in mind I have been re-examining my own memories of 1972, supplemented by the statistical evidence. I want to know how it felt to live with lower consumption and lower expectations. What lessons can we learn, and can we move forward in a way that is intelligently informed by our own recent past?

Home and hearth

Although the first transatlantic jumbo jet had landed at London Heathrow in 1970, no-one in my family flew on one until well into the 1980s. Holidays close to home were just as much fun. Or, in my case, just as wretched. I cannot believe that our acrimonious family holidays would have been any less awful with a long-haul destination. As I now know, the key determinant of a good holiday is choosing the right people to spend it with.

By this reckoning my only decent holidays were spent with my mother's family near the Forest of Dean. My grandparents, Aunty Elsie and Uncle Phil were all crammed into an end-of-terrace council house, surrounded by a large vegetable garden and, beyond that, a pine plantation. My Aunty Joyce worked in an engineering factory during the week and came back every weekend on the bus.

Larger households with multiple adults were more common in the early 1970s. Households are now 30 per cent smaller, meaning we now have six million more homes in Britain to heat and power. The number of single-person households has almost doubled and the number of five-person households has fallen by nearly two-thirds. Nowhere is the change more marked than among the elderly. Whereas my grandmother lived with her children until she died, two out of three elderly women now live alone.

There was only one regular source of heat in their home - the open coal fire in the living room. The rest of the house was freezing in winter. There was no insulation, often thick frost on the inside of the windows and chilblains on the outside of our feet. Baths were a thankfully rare torture. But the compensation was that the living room and the fire became the focus for warmth, entertainment and family life. Everything happened in the one room around a square table with a check tablecloth and teapot, one (just one) pendant light above, the flickering orange fire on one side and the flickering black and white television on the other.

Nearly half of all homes were heated by coal fires in the early 1970s. The extreme inefficiency of this technology was balanced by moderation of its use. The cost of fuel was not a concern for my family - as a retired miner, my grandfather got a free coal allowance - but lugging fuel in from outside by the scuttle-load was a strong disincentive to waste.

By comparison, today's gas central heating is perfectly designed to encourage waste. The gas comes into the house by pipe and the payments go out by direct debit. And because it is so convenient and sends heat to all corners of the house it hugely increases the total heating load. Living rooms are just as warm as they were, but the overall house temperature has risen by nearly six degrees.

Forty years of investment in insulation and boiler efficiency have done little more than keep overall fuel consumption level. Yet, had we maintained our living patterns, insulated our houses thoroughly and installed more efficient heating in a few well-used rooms we could have cut our heating emissions by 80 per cent and still banished the chilblains.

Heating with individual fires concentrates life around a fire in a way that speaks to a very ancient sense of togetherness. The Danes have a wonderful word for this combination of womb-like warmth and family closeness: hygge. Nothing in my life has ever been more hyggelig and comforting than this living room where, as a child, I felt enveloped by my family's love.

Nonetheless, the benefits were mixed. Concentrated living created family closeness. But it also required compromise, negotiation and the suppression of personal needs. You could not escape to your own space and all activities had to be agreed by consensus. Private conversations or any intimacy could only happen after everyone else had gone to bed or, as my mum puts it, ‘down among the ferns'.

But central heating systems also come at a cost, because they enable - indeed encourage - people to disperse throughout the house. From the extreme of forced association, we have moved to another extreme of forced disassociation that weakens social ties and undermines our sense of identity.

Many families don't even meet for meals now, and 25 per cent of children regularly eat in their bedroom.2 Individual bedrooms become mini living rooms that have to be separately lit and kitted out with electronic equipment. When I was growing up I didn't know anyone - even my richest friends - who had more than one television in the home. Now 75 per cent of children have a TV or games console in their rooms.3 Is it any surprise that home electricity consumption has doubled since 1970 - again overwhelming the enormous improvements in the efficiency of lighting and electronics?

Efficiency gains wiped out

This process of endless acquisition and multiplication started in the 1970s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s most families acquired the modern appliances that could transform housework - the vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, washing-machine and cooker. Since then, progress has brought ever diminishing returns - upgrading to new models or buying duplicates or even triplicates.

There is a similar pattern with car ownership. By the 1970s the huge post-war increase in car ownership had levelled off and half of all households had the use of a car. Since then, most of the increase has been one of multiplication - to two or three cars in a household and travelling ever greater distances. Back in 1972, only Aunty Elsie had transport. Her Ford Anglia offered potentially unlimited mobility but in reality rarely went further than Ross-on-Wye.

Even with the opportunity of mobility, the mental framework was still one of locality. Most people still walked, cycled or took the bus to work. Almost all children made their own way to school. Virtually nothing my grandparents ate came from further than 20 miles away - local beef and lamb, vegetables from the garden, local apples in season (and homemade scrumpy cider from the windfalls).

It may have been a healthy low carbon diet, but it could have benefited from some spices and a modern cookbook. Food was, in traditional English style, bland and overcooked, and occasionally disturbing. My Uncle Phil would treat himself to a fry-up of worm-like elvers (infant eels that are now critically endangered). Supper sometimes consisted of slices from half a boiled pig's head that sat in the middle of the table staring at me.

In 1972 such meals were a cultural echo of the absolute poverty of the recent past, and people looked forward to the continuing improvement in their income. Then as now, consumption, energy use and emissions were directly related to affluence. In the past four decades household income has more than doubled in real terms, tracked closely by energy demand. The vast investment in new technology has done little more than muffle the resulting explosion in emissions - and transport emissions have doubled regardless.

The path to happiness

Looking back, we have paid a high price - in terms of climate change - for the decision to keep going for more and more. And while the continued increase in living standards has brought many benefits and new opportunities, has it made us any happier?

Surveys asking people to report their state of satisfaction have recorded a slight but steady fall since 1970.4 A major study by the University of Sheffield5 reported that perceived loneliness has increased nationally by 40 per cent since 1971. Professor Tim Jackson has combined social and environmental indicators to produce a Measure of Domestic Progress that he argues peaked in 1976.6 It seems that four decades of rapid growth in wealth - and emissions - has not converted into a proportional increase in happiness.

People's state of wellbeing is a subjective evaluation measured against their expectations of what factors constitute personal happiness and whether or not those are increasing. My family had come through the grinding poverty of the 1930s, the War, and post-War austerity and it anticipated that things would keep getting better. It is easy to be happy when things are looking up. But no-one will ever take kindly to going backwards, especially if it may require limiting ambitions, mobility and personal freedom.

The challenge then is whether we can select some lessons from the past and incorporate them into a progressive and appealing vision of the future. And again, 1972 has much to teach us. In some ways it offered the best of all worlds - the strong linkages of community and extended family, combined with sufficient mobility and consumer products to meet people's needs. It is this balance that we have lost and can seek to restore.

We know, from our own experience, that we can live perfectly well with less. We have doubled our real income since 1972 but our average working hours have only fallen by 14 per cent.7 Surely a progressive solution to climate change is to encourage and reward people for reducing their working hours and exchanging part of their income and consumption for more time with their family and friends?

1972 is a notional year, but the arguments are equally strong for 1982 or 1992. I am not holding up the world of 1972 as a model for the future. I am not ignoring the many social improvements we have made since then - not least in our tolerance and openness. Nor am I denying that many people have gained from the increased mobility and affluence. But I am suggesting that, faced with an urgent need to reduce our emissions, our personal experience contains clear evidence that we can be happy and satisfied with lower emissions and, if we select carefully, we have within our collective memory some thoroughly tried and tested models for how to do it.

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