The engine driving environmental decline is our unsustainable consumption of resources. We know we need to slow down, but our expectation is that things can only get worse when countries like India and China start wanting to live as we’ve been living. But what if they don’t want to do that?
We tend to assume that the historical sequence we’ve lived through must inevitably be repeated by every other society. But that isn’t necessarily true: Russia, for example, went from 13 per cent telephone ownership, and the expectation of decades of catch-up, to virtually total coverage in a few years—it jumped straight from a primitive landline system to mobiles. Ireland missed the industrial revolution and leapfrogged straight into the microchip era.
Similarly, suppose the big cultures of the east find our over-consumption not admirable but a bit vulgar? What if they skip the “more is better” phase and fast-forward to a worldview where Ikean minimalism is more chic than Hollywood extravagance?
There’s a precedent for this. The American revolution replaced British decadence with Puritan austerity. The French threw out their overfed nobles. And now, in the west, those of us who can afford it are living in the age of less. We shun conspicuous consumption, and are happy to pay more for food which is distinguished by what it doesn’t have in it (preservatives, colourings etc;) to buy lean hybrid cars; and to make our living spaces cleaner and simpler. We listen to music and watch films and admire paintings that are more minimalist than ever before. Having abandoned the “more is better” trope, we look back on the age of excess with a worried frown.
My hope for the future is that austerity will become the new global chic—modern, cool, and a way of telling the world that you’re not as dumb as those greedy 20th century westerners were.