Conscious Decoupling

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The means to stave off ecological disaster from an unstable climate with much more energy in it, without utter shock, hysteria, and abdication of our North American ways of life, is to decouple economic prosperity from resource use. Crazed, desperately inventive scientists, cloistered away in parts of the world like Snowmass, Colorado, and Wuppertal, Germany, have come up with equations to help us achieve this decoupling. Double the efficiency of the resources you use, cut overall resource use in half, and then swap out 50 percent of the remainder of energy used, for renewable sources.

There you have 2x2x2= a factor eight reduction in resource and energy consumption, at a pace at which, these scientists argue, no industrial or management process worth its salt could fail to adapt and continue to prosper. Indeed, the reductions would make some types of prosperity easier because you would have fewer materials and energies to supply into the system. With this kind of conscious decoupling, we stand a chance of creating a “two degree economy,” a Factor 8 economy that produces the same value, the same wealth creation potential as the runaway disaster of an economy we have now, but in a way that is sufficiently decoupled from excessive consumption of resources and energy as to avoid a global temperature rise beyond the two degree Celsius catastrophe threshold. At least a few optimists believe that we stand a chance. Others do not believe that we will be able to make this change successfully in time to prevent disaster, but forge ahead into Armageddon because we have no higher calling but to try our best.

The thing about decoupling is that, in theory, it is self-reinforcing. It is fractal, a chain reaction. You start with the global economy, you wind up at the bottom of a mine for some particular rare earth mineral in the Northwest Territories. You start with a light switch, not switched on, you wind up with 5,500 hectares of wild forest and river rather than a new hydroelectric dam. You start with your personal mobility choices, you move on to your diet, your entertainment, your housing. Your friends and lovers. What may seem like an unfathomable change from ten thousand feet becomes eminently approachable with the help of factor eight multipliers.

Things like climate change are said to unfold on a curve shaped like a hockey stick, with a long-tailed, slow start but a probability of change distribution that begins to make further change, further efficiencies, and gains easier after some critical threshold point. That’s the beauty of complex systems. Me, I’m still searching for the take-off point. So I forgo the automobile, but the emissions I thus shed creep back through airplane tickets. I live in small spaces but buy many things to fit inside. I shun animal protein but love leather. There are things I am good at, and places where I fail. It’s more dialectic than multiplicative. What if there were a decoupling accelerant? What if it were personal?

Marriage has been a significant point of failure in my life. I failed to get married. However, being Canadian, and thanks to common law, I now have the occasion to experience the equivalent of divorce just the same. But it isn’t divorce. It is decoupling. Conscious decoupling.

Over the past year, I have had a series of waves of realization about you and me and our need to decouple. The first one came on New Year’s Day. I was at the top of the staircase. You were down below. I asked you about your New Year’s resolutions. You said you hadn’t thought about that yet.

I realized that your resolutions are ever only fleeting. Your associations are fast and loose. You are short-sighted, though you think “astigmatism” sounds more interesting. You defend your right and ability to live with no real sense of memory, nor any real thought beyond tomorrow. A quotation, preferably one that indicates cause and effect between two discrete variables, is your unit of expression. You jump from Ovid to Angelou as if this did not require psychic levitation and cognitive sublimation. If you want to be loved, be lovable. If I would have known better, I would have done better. My associations are hard fought and forged with pressure, rather than fire. The piece of prose; better yet, the life’s work. For me, context, nuances, emphases, and combinations are key; they offer the prospect of synergistic outcomes, multiplication and exponential gains rather than linear functions, trade-offs and simple addition. But for which of us does this characteristic make breaking our bad habits of being together harder? The one who operates in simple combinations and straightforward assumptions? One whack at the cleavage plane could do it. Or the one who operates on a series of tangents, asymptotes, and curves? For that one, it all depends on whether the leverage points can be found. For which of us can the task of decoupling become an accelerant, a speed demon; for which a depressant, a bloated storm cloud?

“Don’t you dare judge me for being different from you.”

Am I selfish, or more so thoughtless, in my insistence upon self-sufficiency in my actions and even provision of my household’s, my children’s needs, based on my own understanding of these, even when you are not ready? Does this drive a thoughtlessness toward the contributions that those who love me make to my well-being? I rather think that it is simply unconscionable that I would ever have accepted what you call gifts as such; I just ignored them as distractions, generally harmless, and went on my way. There you were, smiling at me, for no apparent reason. There you were, prostrate once again while I had to run. Scanning science news headlines to tell me stories of discoveries in outer space and hadron colliders. Giving me empty compliments on my appearance. Making vast quantities of cake and comfort food. Surely, no partner of mine would presume that these activities could add up to anything! Now you double down, more, you Factor 8: double the drain on my energy with your staid and expectant stasis, halve your physical contribution to the household, substituting non-renewable emotional energy for whatever sunshine we once had.

Neoclassical capitalist economics is based upon a series of linear relationships between two variables: supply and demand, price and willingness-to-pay, profit and loss, raw material inputs and widget outputs. Elegant and simplistic and out of touch with all context, based upon assumptions that are blind to a finite earth with limits to how much input it can provide, and at what rate, and limits to how much waste it can assimilate. Steady-state economics is an alternative that corrects these assumptions: if we accept that our earth is finite, then our economics should accept an end goal not of infinite growth, but a steady state. It puts the cap on, which is certainly needed in order to achieve a two-degree economy. Factor 8 can explain how to get down to a steady-state level with little pain. An economy decoupled from energy and resource use in the Factor 8 sense would be sustainable. Sustainability is defined as the ability of a system to keep going in something like its current state, for a long time into the future. Forever.

When it comes to that other set of assumptions made by neoclassical economics, that human beings act independently of their relationships and their responsibilities to one another, we hit a different wall altogether. A systems view complicates the linear abstraction of neoclassical economics by proposing that, rather than maximizing a single preferred outcome (read: profit), redundancy of different entities playing similar interchangeable roles in the system builds resilience. Sustainability is supported by some amount of functional redundancy, which stands in contrast to a neoclassical understanding of efficiency.

“I’m coming at you as a friend. You are more than a friend to me. I want another chance. I have realized some things.” Sustainability, with you, is the neverending story of realizations that you can never quite put into practice. An infinite loop.

With human relationships like ours, this level of redundancy is not functional in the slightest. It’s like a union of two dinosaurs: one a T-rex, who rules by devouring competitors; one a diplodocus, who rules by crushing opponents. The predator who sees red and the lotus-eating giant who knows how to handle herself. This keeps going, this kind of redundancy, and sooner or later all of my intestines get chewed out, tooth by jowl, and your skull gets crushed to powder. A man’s got to eat. A girl’s got needs, too. Is it even within the capability of a man and a woman to choose forever, consciously?

Isn’t the going on forever part of the conceit? Because if there is no going on forever, then there is not much point in all this accumulation of emotions and expectations, either. We need a thirteen-year jubilee, you and me. A regenerative fire in the ecosystem. Let it burn, I say. See what the new pioneer species may bring. The alternative is decadence. Meaning the excessive accumulation of risk: polluting fuel and decomposing detritus.

Subsequent waves of realization about the two of us, the fat of cumulative toxic years packed into our togetherness, have usually hit me on the bus or walking across bridges. This one hit me riding my bicycle on Cambie Street coming down from the bridge: I can no longer carry you. Your scorn for me comes from the fact that I have wronged you by carrying you as far as I did. You have mostly not objected, but you also never asked to be carried. I can no longer take you where I am going. And, perhaps most painfully for me, you won’t come of your own accord. There is no functional redundancy in our system; just push and pull.

“Love doesn’t come easy, Meg,” you have warned me. “I hope you remember this in ten years, what you have done.”

I am setting you free from the life that I am going to lead in order to be part of this world that we are given, and to do everything I can to profit from this world, in material and spiritual and creative ways, and to do everything to ensure that my children will be prepared to do so, too. You aren’t into it. You have been resisting and resisting, in passive and more overtly aggressive ways. I am setting you free from the pressure to go along with this, my decision. Love may not come easy, but this in itself is no reason to hold on to all this friction.

“You’re so smug. You think you have all the answers.”

No, I feel a deep void of answers, but deeper is the dread that you are not even asking the questions until it is too late. It is about efficiency, of course. But if that were all it was about, decoupling, then it wouldn’t only be a small gaggle of woolly geniuses in the middle of brilliant nowhere who had the answer. More than efficiency, it’s about the wager, one we must accept if we are to have hope, that there is a humane answer to the puzzle of earthly limits and irrepressible human ambition. That there is an alternative to the zero-sum game that neoclassical economics assumes. And, beyond just hoping, it’s about the responsibility we have to hope.

“If you don’t show that you’re vulnerable, Meg, no one is going to come and help you.”

I have a recurring nightmare of the city, flooded, no way in and no way out, and me standing in the street with all the other able-bodied citizens. The less able are floating face down in the distance. It is raining rain that stings. I am holding my children’s hands but have nowhere to take them. I am knee-deep in warm, putrid water. For my kids, it is up to their waist.

Decoupling. What even is this feeling? Is it a shedding of skin, a renewal, a new wine in a new bottle? Is it the casting off of ballast in rough seas, a recognition that I simply can’t weather the onslaught without breaking deep and swamping? Or is it the drawing of a line in the sand—here am I, there are you, I go this way, a way you do not (cannot? are not fit to?) go? Shrugging off the yoke, peeling the bits of me free from the superstructure of us, some great, messy, oil-slicked wreckage, and slinking away from that? Thinking about cleaning up after myself, sopping up and scrubbing it out from under my feathers, maybe too late.

In response to my sense of cataclysm, you reply: “You should have thought of that before you had children with me.” Indeed.

I told you that I don’t think you can really change. That is not quite right. You can, of course; we all can and we all do, consciously and unconsciously. So you have changed, like a merry-go-round, a whirligig. Over the past year, you have completely come about at steadily increasing angles as I have called our whole thing off in more and more incessant terms. You have asserted your creativity, emphasizing your access to pictures and snippets in a manner that aims to exclude me, and you have made claims to strength and principle, referring to your role in our family as “post-feminist” at the psychologist’s office.

Surprising times are demanding a new vision for economics that has a more believable metaphor than the steady state. In chaos theory, emerging in a new unsteady climate, social dysfunction and disorder, and volatile economic system, the components of a system that lose out in extreme events share the characteristic of being fragile. The key is to seek resilience instead.

The test of real change, personal or economic, comes at a time of shock, an extreme event. It is then that we are forced to demonstrate ourselves at our most resilient. And so, it doesn’t matter to me what efforts you exert now, what new responsibilities you take on at present, what capacity you show for action and leadership in our relationship. Whatever it is, you are floating. I know what will happen when the next crisis hits because you have no foundation to root you in what has come before and no tether to draw you into the future. I know now exactly where those efforts will lead, and I can’t live with it.

What makes me so confident that I can be any better at the other end of this transformation? I can put on new make-up, take better care of my manicure and my smile, try to seek comfort in other people from time to time. But I know where I will go when the going gets tough for me, too. I recognize that at this time of my life, maybe for the very first time;I have real confidence, real footing, real poise. I can feel the leverage in that. It has to be a good idea to use that for all the power it provides.

Decoupled, at least, I know the direction my own feet can take me. Decoupled, I have a path toward a transformative take-off point in a world in sore need of about face. Besides, I would be a sucker to choose more of this suffering.

But is what I am doing a wanton use of that power, in the long run? Is it irresponsible, like failing to maintain your bicycle and just letting it rust out because you really want a different looking one?

“You used me to have children.”

When pressed for one single decision that you have made in the service of our relationship, to suggest added value that you would seek to nurture in the me–you we might have been building, you answer that it was to move to Canada with me. When asked why I should be expected to pay you to leave, your answer is because you moved to Canada with me.

You have called yourself a post-feminist and me an iconoclast. Feminist interpretation of the history of civilization shows how in society, men burn things up while women hold things together.

“You need to compensate me for the fact that I won’t be able to see my children every day.”

You are fragile. You belong to the half of the world which burns things up.

I am burdened by the notion that I have burdened you, too. I am burdened by the notion that my base vibration, when I am at my electronic resting state, is solitary and bouncing with a steady rhythm. I worry that this understanding of how I decouple down to my roots will prevent me from actually taking someone else in, taking someone else along, with me in more than a cancerous way, in a way that would mean reaching a new valence level, a new prime number beyond one.

“I hope to be your friend, someday. I hope someday you will see me that way. I am not saying right now.”

If our life together took place in yoga class and your base stance toward me had a name, like child’s pose, the name of that pose would be “not ready.” You have not ever been ready for me. And yet, I have pulled you along just the same. Through moves, career changes, babies and children, home ownership, new friends and travels, all of it. You have taken photos.

“If you ever want any photos, just let me know. I can give you a good deal.”

You are not a good listener, but then I am not a good talker. I write, but you are not reading. All this suggests little capacity for compounding momentum for the two of us, together, in any direction but frustration. But, cry as you might, your short memory still offers you some advantages when it comes to decoupling. In a month or two, you won’t remember the feeling of connection anymore. A year from now, you won’t even remember how you used to think about it. You will see old pictures and smile. I will still see the bottom ash and sludge residual and hope for more remediation, squint for a glimpse of a new bright green bud in all the rot, keep running the variables through new curves and hope for transformation, hope for take-off.

  • Meg Holden

    Meg Holden is working on becoming a better writer, reader, decoupler, and a more conscious urban environmental pragmatist. She is also an Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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