Episode #55: What are the energy requirements of well-being? (transcript)
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: And this is the podcast where we dive into a specific topic or question affecting everyone on the planet right now or in the next 10 years or so. If it can kill us, or it can turn us into super humans, we are in. Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, professors, politicians, astronauts, even a reverend. We work together towards action steps our listeners can take with their voice, their vote, and their dollar.
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Quinn: That's right. This week's episode asks, "Brian, what are the energy requirements of well-being?"
Brian: That's a very good question. Our guest today is Professor Julia Steinberger. She is a professor of social ecology and ecological economics at the University of Leeds School of Earth and Environment. Her research examines the connections between resource use, energy and materials, greenhouse gas emissions, and societal performance, economic activity and human wellbeing.
Quinn: Basically, what happens when you drive your fucking car every day.
Brian: This is good. She is interested in quantifying the current and historical linkages between resource and socioeconomic parameters and identifying alternative development pathways to guide the necessary transition to a low-carbon society.
Quinn: You reading those things is what of my favorite parts of the podcast.
Brian: Linkages is a word?
Quinn: All right. Professor Steinberger is the recipient of the Leverhulme research leadership award for her research project Living Well Within Limits, investigating how universal human well-being might be achieved within planetary boundaries. Basically, are we going to make it? She's been a researcher at everywhere.
Brian: Everywhere, I guess.
Quinn: Vienna, Zurich, MIT, and she's been published 40 times since 2009, which is just one behind Brian.
Brian: Yeah, but she'll get there.
Quinn: Yep. She seems great.
Brian: I have faith.
Quinn: You know, I forgot to mention to her ... I think she would really enjoy it, I'll have to send it to her. This tracks closely to our conversation with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, whose TED talk just dropped, how do we use the ocean without using it up, which is the same idea-
Brian: Yeah. Very, very true. Let's all be well and also not fuck everything up at the same time. There's got be a way.
Quinn: Just stop. Just stop. Right? But this was hopeful and fascinating and we talked about Winnie the Pooh, and man, she's great.
Brian: Yeah. Every episode is my favorite episode but this was really like a great episode.
Quinn: They're not all your favorite episodes. This pone was pretty dope though.
Brian: Very cool.
Quinn: All right, let's go talk to professor Steinberger.
Brian: Let's do it.
Quinn: Our guest today is Professor Julia Steinberger and together were going to talk about the energy requirements of well-being. What does it mean? Professor, welcome.
Julia: Thanks for having me.
Brian: We are very excited to have you. Let our listeners know who you are and what you do, doctor.
Julia: So, I'm a researcher who doesn't really know what my topic is anymore, but I try to understand across engineering, economics, and social sciences. I try to understand what is the amount of physical stuff that we take from the environment, in this case energy, and what do we get from it in terms of well-being outcomes. So, if you want to live a decent life and have a decent standard of living how much stuff do you need?
Quinn: That feels like a really timely question. Just because we're ruining everything and also because, do you guys have the Marie Kondo phenomenon over there yet? The Art of Tidying Up? Has that hit?
Julia: Yes, it certainly has, and I think about sparking joy and very few things spark joy but sometimes they're good enough.
Quinn: Yeah. Yeah, no, but it's a good sign. And it's funny, since that's exploded, now it's a Netflix series.
Brian: Oh yeah.
Quinn: I've seen people and talked to friends who are applying that phrase to, I think, places that weren't originally intended, but it's really interesting. Like, "Do I take on this work project? Does it spark joy?" Which is a really interesting way to sort of [inaudible 00:04:13] and guide yourself. Anyways, you can dig into that a little more.
Brian: Yeah, no it's all obviously related. Cool, very cool. I'm very excited about this conversation today. And, so Julia, what we do, and reminder to everyone out there, we're gonna go over some quick context for the topic and the question, and then dig into some action oriented questions that give us the reason why we should give a shit about what we're talking about, and of course what everyone out there can do about it, can do to help.
Quinn: Does that sound good?
Julia: Sounds fantastic.
Quinn: Awesome, so Julia, we do start with one important question, and you did say you've been cheating and listening to the podcast, which I both thank you for. So instead of saying, "Tell us your life story." We like to ask, "Professor, why are you vital to the survival of the species?"
Julia: The correct answer, the accurate answer, is I hope I'm not, but if I am, if I have a unique selling point, as it were, I think my unique selling point is that I am uncomfortable with things. So I go around ... My spirit animal is Eeyore. Do you remember Pooh bear?
Brian: Of course.
Quinn: Okay, I have three small children, very much so.
Julia: Right, so Eeyore is the character that is always not quite happy about things. If you throw him a party, he'll complain about something. So that's basically me. And I've been complaining my way through academia and life. So I started out as an astrophysicist, but that was too big for me. And then I went to experimental particle physics and that was too small for me. I'm like the Goldilocks of academia.
Julia: I then decided I was interested in the interaction between economics and the environment, and what we're doing with the environment because that seemed to be very important. And then I started trying to learn about that, and the more I learned about the technical side of what we're doing, the more I understood that actually the technology is probably mostly there - that's probably not where the biggest problems are in terms of developing new widgets, that the problem really lies in the economy. And then when I started learning more and more about the economy, I decided that the problem was probably really political, that the economy is how we express things politically. And so now I've sort of gone into the philosophy of well being and political economy, and goodness knows where it's going from there.
Julia: But that's my story. And I think that the reason that I'm necessary to the survival of the human race, if I am, is because I'm now ... can sort of articulate these big problems we have, and sort of say, "Actually this is what it looks like from all these different perspectives." And none of them is entirely satisfying, but if we use our big enough brains, then we can maybe try to understand things better, and always be a little bit dissatisfied about the easy answers. I don't like easy answers. They make me very agitated. So, I try to make things a little bit more realistic, in that sense.
Quinn: I love that, and I feel like there's a ... and sticking with the Pooh themes here ... there is an element of dissatisfaction with answers, with is just, science, right? All you're trying to do is prove yourself wrong over and over again.
Julia: Exactly, our job is to make mistakes. Over, all the time.
Quinn: Right, exactly. Which I feel like ... oh, gosh is so misunderstood these days, but also it's a really interesting parallel track to curiosity, which is just never being satisfied. And I do find that those things are helpful, and people like you, and Eeyore, certainly, can help -
Julia: Great scientists.
Quinn: Yeah, absolutely! Can help drive so much in an era where we do need that. And especially, I love that you've been around the block per se, academically, because a varied perspective like that, like you said, can help to bring so much to a conversation.
Julia: Let's hope.
Quinn: Let's hope!
Brian: Dissatisfied with the easy answer, that is my favorite thing. I always like to think that if anything in my life came easy than it's like, "Hold on! There's probably a better way to do this."
Brian: Probably something more out there.
Julia: Exactly. Let's make it more complicated.
Quinn: Exactly. That's exactly my wife's favorite thing about me, is when I go, "But!" God it drives her nuts.
Brian: Mine, too. It's my favorite thing about you too.
Quinn: Oh yeah, I'm sure. Yeah you guys and your support group. Your Quinn support group. Alright, so, I'm gonna throw a little context against the wall here, just to get all of our listeners up on the same page. Please, Professor, jump in, correct us, hang up, run away, whatever you feel the need to do.
Quinn: So, here's the thing, life can be very unjust. Not for me, as a white guy, in America, or Brian as a white guy in America, or really most of our listeners. Women, of course, have always had it more difficult, despite the fact that they made us, and we don't exist without them.
Quinn: Further down the spectrum, disabled folks and people of color ... it's not even close, is it? Americans, on the whole, are richer than most of the world, even our most disadvantaged folks. Of course, it doesn't feel that way to them, nor should it, because things are more unequal than they've really ever been, but elsewhere, it really is truly shocking.
Quinn: And as the global population has increased and keeps increasing, inequality is sky-rocketing, and becoming more stark. And the resources have become more in-demand, often on-demand in 2019. Those differences are growing.
Quinn: So we're facing a century where the population is set to peak at about ten ... maybe ten and a half billion folks, and they neither drop or hold steady. And there's a big conversation to that of course. Some people say we're not having enough babies. If babies don't turn into workers the economy doesn't hold up. On the other hand, if too many babies turn into too many workers, then there's more buying power in the world ... Well now we've got a greater consumption of resources. We're back to square one.
Quinn: So, again, we're facing a century where the demand for these tangible, finite resources will become more pressing. Not just because of abundance, but also because of scarcity. Because of massive change, because of all-natural disasters, because of a lack of, or new lack of sanitation, and or drinking water, or wheat, because of heat and the inability to escape it for a lot of folks. We've talked about that before. Because of, I mean, barreling down the pipe, automation and artificial intelligence ...
Quinn: And so some of us have tried with actual foresight, which is where these days ... take a step back and ask, "What's the basic denominator here? What's the requirement?" And simultaneously, and sometimes adversely, the fundamental right, the fundamental energy right of a basic citizen of this planet. And further, can we actually supply that to everyone with our current resources, and technologies, and policies? And if not, or if so, what changes do we need to make to get there? What sacrifices need to be made? And of course, finally, what happens if we can't? Or we choose not to? The people in power choose not to?
Quinn: So, with that for a little context, I wanna dig in with the professor here, on the energy requirements of well-being. So, Professor Steinberger, I hope I didn't totally massacre that, not entirely. I've got a comparative religion slash anthropology slash philosophy background, so these are questions I'm both familiar with and anxious to dig further into. So, can you take a step back and tell us exactly how you kind of came to this question?
Julia: Well, first of all you expressed it very well, and the only wish I have is that from your lips to all the funding agencies in the world. For me the really big ... the biggest question is, how do we carry the nine or ten billion over the threshold of the next couple centuries without really damaging things, and get ourselves into a better and more stable state of hopefully stably declining population that is messing much less with the biosphere.
Julia: How I came to this question is basically by ... Actually the central point is one of the economy. So we always come back to the, "What is the economy doing?" And in my field, which is ecological economics, one of the things we look for, we hope for ... most of us here have given up [inaudible 00:12:29] for the reasons I'll tell you ... is that we look for the possibility of the economy, which what we think sort of sits in the middle of society, and the environment ... in between society and the environment you have the economy. And that you hope that the economy is delivering good stuff to society without damaging the environment too much.
Julia: And in terms of the way you phrased the problem, when you were talking about great inequality, great harm that stunted people in terms of their life chances, in terms of being ill, not being cared for, having very, very hard circumstances, that's the two faces of the economy as well. The economy helps us organize the things we do for each other, and can do so very effectively. So all of a sudden because there is an economy, I'm able to have access to people's work and benefit from their actions, really. But it also is very exploitative and very extractive and very harmful.
Julia: So we have this really two-faced, monster creature in the middle. And when we were looking at the economy there was this dream of decoupling. There was this dream that the economy could grow and grow and grow, but somehow we wouldn't use as much resources. We would even use declining levels of resources. And because there's been a lot of inefficiency built into things, you do see in some cases, [inaudible 00:13:48] economic, the economy growing and resource usage stabilizing, but it doesn't go further than that.
Julia: So we really don't see the massive amount of reduction in resource use that accompanies [inaudible 00:13:59] economic growth. That doesn't seem to be there. But, by accident almost, I was looking at other data. I was also looking at not just economic data, I was looking at things like life expectancy, lower education rates, and what was really interesting was there you could see decoupling.
Julia: So, in this quest for looking for the economy not using ... the economy growing but using less and less resources, there was very little evidence for that. But, there was massive evidence for this other form of decoupling. So that we're able to somehow provide health, provide education, provide the basic services that people need, at much lower levels of resource use year, on year, on year.
Julia: And that's quite amazing and that's one of the few things that I know of that gives me hope for this next century, is that somehow we're seeing efficiency in that system. And so, the next part of the mission for me was to try to understand what underlines that growing efficiency. If we want to understand how much we need, what is it that actually decides that? What's going on there? And I think the answer is that it depends. But, that's usual for research.
Quinn: Yeah, that is the way research goes, right? Is we find out what we don't know.
Julia: Yeah and well, I guess one of the things I can say is that you see a great diversity. That's the other thing is that in terms of the relationship ... you know if you just look at GDP per capita versus income per capita versus energy per capita, you see this hugely correlated system. There is extremely little variation in it you. By the time you use trade corrective measures, including the energy embodied in goods and services we can see that there is very little daylight there between economic wealth and material requirements.
Julia: But, if you look at well-being indicators, so things like health, things like education again, there's a lot more variation. So there's obviously a lot more diversity in how these things can be supplied, and organized, and so that means how we organize our economies and our societies and our government matters a lot. And these are some of the things I'm trying to find out a bit more about now.
Brian: Is this something that economists and policy makers are actually paying attention to? How practical are the results here?
Julia: I hope they will be practical, and I wish they were paying attention to them, but I think that a lot of policy makers are still stuck in a vision of the economy delivering well-being. That they really have this perspective on ... the way they have understood that we translate the good things in life, is it comes down to dollars in pocket.
Julia: And that's a really, really bad way to measure well-being as it turns out. It's quite disastrous for a whole bunch of reasons. It hides huge inequalities when you're looking at averages, it measures goods as well as bads, so if you have to spend a lot of money on your out-of-pocket on healthcare because you don't have good health insurance at all, than that counts as GDP per capita, and if you spend it on spending a nice day out and having a picnic with your family that counts as GDP per capita. But it counts as less, right? Where as one thing is causing you grief, and stress, and horror, and you're really afraid about it, and the other one that's a very nice thing.
Julia: So I think that policy makers really still have this idea that we grow our way out of problems. That the more income we have, the better everything is going to be, and we solve all problems through the market. And my perspective, in terms of what I'm learning, is very different, is that we actually a lot of these things in fact should not be produced through the market, should not be delivered through the market. Because that is not going to have the right priorities in terms of it reaching the people who really need it.
Julia: And that's something that I can see very directly in terms of the work that my research group is doing in the United Kingdom where we have a lot of privatization of basic services like buses and electricity, and water even is privatized. And you really see that that accentuates poverty and inequality. It makes life much harder for people because we have these privatized systems that don't ... they don't care, they just want to recover revenue and bill people. They don't actually care about people living a decent life in terms of the things they really need to have access to.
Quinn: It's so weird how that sounds like our healthcare system.
Brian: Yeah, hmm sounds familiar.
Quinn: So weird.
Brian: I like to do this every once in awhile, Professor. If you could talk to me like I'm a first-grader, how do you define well-being versus an economist? Versus a regular person? And you were just mentioning your perspective. Why's your perspective different?
Julia: So, we kind of needed ... Well, remember, I'm a dumb physicist, right? So just imagine-
Quinn: Easy, easy!
Julia: Right? So just imagine how far this is. I can do things like understand billiard balls banging into each other, right? Sort of that level of stuff. And then they're like, "Oh! If you want to understand well-being, well you might as well go back to Aristotle, and you now have to go back..." So you have to basically, if you're entering the debate of "What is well-being?" You're actually picking fights with people who have been dead for thousands of years. Which always seems a little bit unfair. But it's fun, at the same time it's fun because, for instance, Aristotle, he's great. He's got this fantastic definition of well-being that's all about social esteem, and social relations, and like some of these beautiful pages on how he sees the human condition, and then two pages later it's like, "Oh yes, but of course we need slaves and women should stay in the kitchen."
Julia: You're like, "Wow, thank you."
Quinn: Yeah, I love reading those guys and digging in Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, all of those, but we are very happy to cherry pick what we need, and what works for the situation.
Julia: Yeah I think at the same time you have to admire him for being honest about it, at least. At least he's not some kind of hypocrite, he's laying it all out there for ... Anyways, so I've had to go back and do lots of learning. And one of the things that's very interesting is that there's all these different definitions of well-being. And you can think about it from a policy perspective, you can think about it from social perspective, from a psychologic perspective, from an economic perspective ... You have all these interesting ideas.
Julia: And one of the most interesting things to me is that they basically come down to two schools of though. The versions that we understand come from ancient Greece. There's this idea of eudaimonic well-being and hedonic well-being. And I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing those right.
Julia: But eudaimonic well-being comes from Aristotle, and it's basically saying we need to flourish in society. The thing we need to be well is we need to be able to function well in society. And descendants of that include, for instance, The Capabilities Approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, who are both Nobel Prize winning economist and a world famous philosopher. And so that strain of though sort of percolates down to our time very clearly.
Julia: And then the hedonic thought which was [Epicure 00:21:00] and the people he was associated with. Which has to do with well-being being about pleasant emotions, you want more ... it's actually the definition that we're used to thinking about. It's happiness, it's an instantaneous gratification. And you don't want to be inconvenienced, you don't want somebody to poke you with a needle, and at the same time you want nice things and to eat lots of chocolate. It's sort of that view of it.
Julia: But I think ... and it's a very individual view. It's really you as an individual, how do you go out and soak up as much happiness bubbles there are in the world? Where as this other perspective is really a social perspective. It's, how do we allow each other to achieve some of the things we want to do in life? Whatever you want to do, is your society, is your environment allowing you to achieve that? Do you have the education you need, do you have the information you need? Do you have the food and the health circumstances you need?
Julia: So, all of those things ... and the specific definition I use of it is the Theory of Human Need of Ian Gough, who is actually a dear colleague from London. Is that once you achieve a certain threshold of something, this idea of sufficiency, once you've achieved a certain threshold along a certain number of dimensions, you're probably going to have a chance at life. You might not be happy, it doesn't mean everything is going to be easy for you. You might try to do stuff, it might not succeed, but you have a chance to go out and do the things that you might want to do. You have a chance to have friends, you have a chance to lead as healthy a life as you can, you have a chance to interact with your society, you have a chance to change things, and whatever you might want to do you will have that opportunity.
Julia: But if anything is missing, if you have deprivation in any single one of these dimensions, that will harm you. And that will harm your chances to do what you want to do in life. So that's sort of the definition that we're going with because it has this concept of sufficiency. At some point, you have enough, and things are probably going to be okay.
Quinn: I love that. I think as a philosophy, it's edging more towards some specifics and some practical elements, but that feels like a guiding moral philosophy that can start to make sense and start to see where it's measuring up and where it's not.
Brian: So, what should we specifically be aiming for, for this lowest common denominator that everyone deserves? I like to function well in society. That's ... I like that.
Julia: So interestingly, the sustainable development goals have an articulation of it. But, I would argue that the ... so the United Nation sustainable development goals have things like good health and well-being, or gender equality, so these are all worthy goals. The problem with them as that they sort of mix up. And they obviously have a policy significance, but the problem is that they mix up, from our perspective, what you want as an outcome, that everybody needs to have to be able to function, and the way you get there.
Julia: So, we're trying to be careful, and not mix up the goal with the means. And so the means might be, for instance, if you need to travel to go from your house to your work place, you might do so in a huge SUV, and then you would say, "I need a lot of energy and materials to get to work." Or you might just walk there, if it's close enough, and then you would use hardly anything.
Julia: So we're trying to interrogate how it's delivered. So the way that you actually choose to do things, that's a means, not an end. And so the United Nations sustainable development goals sort of mix those up. But so we're talking about things like health, we're talking about things like having good food and water obviously, protective environment or safe environment is very important. So a safe environment at work, a safe environment in the house, and that includes both physical and social aspects. We're talking about specific categories of people who need specific things. So for instance, children have to have an extra level of protection. Women need an extra level of protection, especially during childbearing years. We're also talking about mental health, about cultural understanding, cognitive understand, and appropriate education, are really annoying. We need a sufficient education level so that people can navigate their society and not be confused or disenfranchised or taken advantage of. And so that they also have a chance.
Julia: One of the things that we like to see is this idea that Ian Gogh puts in, of critical autonomy. The idea there is once you've learned, once you have enough education, once you have enough awareness of your society, that you can actually think back on it and say, "You know what? This was pretty good, but maybe it's not good enough. Maybe I want to change things." And that you have the power to change things in your own society.
Julia: So these are some of the things that we're talking about. And then you have to translate ... and if you're thinking about policy, if you're thinking about measuring then you have to translate them to indicators, translate them to specific policy measures to make them happen.
Quinn: Sure, sure. And obviously, just by asking this question you're exposing something that's incredibly complicated because the situations and circumstances and economies and policies and ... again, digging into anthropology, I mean, the cultural touch stones and religious beliefs, all these things are so different everywhere. As they should be, right?
Quinn: We don't want some monochromatic society. That's not the goal. That is theoretically one of the things that makes America great, and makes all the different places in Europe so great. You can take a train and go two hours and go to an entirely different culture. And Africa is very similar in that respect, and Asia is very similar in that respect.
Quinn: But, I wonder ... and again, this is not a task I'm interested in being able to tackle, but it does feel like the more specific we get, the more people can get on board and see where it's working and where it's not.
Quinn: It's sort of defining measurables, but again that is this incredibly difficult and complicated task, but I wonder if the more we boil it down to the basics, as opposed to saying like, "Oh, look we need another hundred and twenty things because the way lifting mining is going in Congo." Et cetera, et cetera. It's so complicated because it's something that doesn't apply in other places. But, what are those specific basics? So that we can look out and say ... I mean, look the bigger question is are we capable of providing these things right now with the resources and the growing population or not? But I want to dig into how we measure those things because when we're looking at economic justice and climate justice and environmental justice and things like that. One of the conversations we had recently was about how fucked up heat is getting on the coasts of America and how there are not enough trees in the inner cities and so people literally can not escape, disadvantaged folks and people of color can not escape the heat.
Brian: No where to go.
Quinn: They literally have no where to go, because they don't have air conditioning. So, it's different every place, but I want to try to ... I'm curious if you've identified any specifics where you go like, "these things are integral everywhere."
Julia: So that's what we're trying to do with these things, with the categories I was just talking about. What we're trying to do is, we are trying to say, "These broad categories are necessary." So these broad categories of human needs, they will be translated into some equivalent no matter where we go. No matter the culture, no matter the history. And if in history is, for instance, women are very discriminated against, or children have very difficult conditions. Well those we would consider to be historical times and places where human needs were not satisfied.
Julia: But we're trying to distinguish, and this is something that has really been put forward again, Ian Gough, Len Doyal, and Manfred Max-Neef is that we differentiate the human need itself, from the way it is satisfied. And the way it is satisfied ... we have a word for this because we're academics. We call it satisfiers. So satisfiers are the things that changes all over the world. It changes from city to city. It changes from culture to culture, from different families might have different satisfiers. And so the question becomes, okay, how do we understand satisfiers? How do we understand how people are currently doing things and how they could do them differently?
Julia: And to do that kind of research, it becomes really interesting, but it becomes really tricky as well, because you don't necessarily get perfect data everywhere. What you can do, is you can go into communities and ask them, "Okay, given these human needs, do you agree that they're important?" And generally people do. How do you use energy to satisfy them? And what we ask specifically about is we ask specifically about energy services. We ask about the things you get from energy, like mobility, or thermal comfort, warm enough, cool enough environment, illumination ... So we ask them how do you translate energy services to human needs satisfaction?
Julia: And then we get really interesting results that are entirely dependent, for instance, if we did it presumably in Los Angeles in areas where people don't have enough ... it never gets cool enough and people have no way to escape it, they would be talking about how they really need cooling for their ... to be able to live a decent life. And that would become a big issue that we could talk about.
Quinn: And it almost seems like it's as much as you folks because of your education and your professional experience are the best to go in to these areas, but I wonder if there's also a way to empower local people because they just know these situations more intuitively. To train and empower them to ask those questions and identify both further questions that need to be asked and practical answers to them in their communities themselves.
Quinn: There's such a history of ... and my sister's ... she's a thousands times better person than I am, has gone and built schools for kids with AIDs in Africa and things like that and trust is such a big part of that. It's like, are we empowering those people to do those things? 'Cause they're gonna trust those folks more. So I'm curious if that's an element of it.
Julia: Yes, and this is something that I have to give credit to my PhD student and now Post-doc, the wonderful Lena Brantcherea, because she decided to make that part of her mission as part of her PhD. She started from a very engineering perspective, oh let's look at energy efficiency. And then she was like, "Oh no, we need to do things differently. We need to think about this differently." And what she did is she adapted this research process which is called Human Scale development, which was developed my Manfred Max-Neef and he was running these workshops in the Andes, throughout Latin America, and it's really about getting the local community to come up with a realization of the current situation they're in, the situation they would like to be in, and how to get from one to the other. So what kind of plans and programs they would like to develop for themselves.
Julia: And so it's actually a process in terms of the person leading the workshop. Maybe that's still somebody that has the power - it's not power point, it's just flow charts, or whatever - who still goes into the community to run them. But in terms of the process and what comes out it's really very much up to that community to decide what they think is important. And what's really interesting is by the process of reflecting on these basic needs, the things that we really hold to heart when it comes time to achieving our human potential, and how we currently achieve them.
Julia: And Max-Neef has this really interesting idea, which I think is actually really important for the U.S., of negative satisfiers. Some of the ways we satisfy our current needs are negative to other needs.
Quinn: Can you give an example of that?
Julia: Absolutely. Driving in cars. So people in America, Americans drive ...
Quinn: What do you mean?
Julia: So, when you go from point A to point B, you might be satisfying a need, for instance, get to work or get food. You know, you need food you need to go to the grocery store, but then you're doing it in a negative way because you're doing all sorts of things that end up causing you harm, either directly or indirectly. So in terms of your ...
Quinn: Or somebody else.
Julia: Or somebody else, harm. You know in terms of your health, because you're not moving, in terms of your own health and people around you, through air pollution, through climate change, because that's really going to harm millions upon millions of people down the line. So you're doing these things and it's taking time from you and it's also taking human interaction away from you, right? You're doing all these things and you're isolated in your car. And that is something that becomes a negative satisfier. It's something that shapes your life, but it's not really bringing you something that's very positive.
Julia: And then the question is can you identify those negative satisfiers? And say, "Okay, well how can we change things? How can we try to organize this differently?" And this is something that I'm finding throughout the different strains of research, is the way we organize our lives, the way we organize our economic activities ... It really matters in terms of how much stuff we need to live well, and I think that if we focused on that, we could get to much, much lower levels of energy requirements, and we'd be ... simply by just thinking about reorganizing ourselves with current technology, doing things quite, quite differently.
Quinn: Yeah I mean I think if we walked up to random people on the street and didn't play this podcast or introduce you to them and said, "If driving in Los Angeles a negative satisfier?" Giving them zero context, they would ... First of all, you couldn't walk up to them on the street 'cause no one fucking walks on the street ...
Brian: They'd be all in the car. There's nobody on foot.
Quinn: They're all in their car.
Julia: That's right, that's right.
Quinn: And it's literally days of their fucking lives that's gone. I mean, it's an awful place. But no, it's insane, but you're right. The chose to take the car to go to the grocery store, which seems necessary, has so many reverberations, both for you, like you said, you're sitting for an hour, not great. And the pollution, and the traffic, all those things. We have to start [crosstalk 00:35:35]
Julia: And you're taking space away from the city, right? You're also taking ... you're literally putting distance between yourself and everything else. But I think one of the things that's really important is also this process of doing this in communities, so these human scale development workshops, you really do them with people who share an infrastructure is the idea, share the community. Is that all of a sudden you're harnessing collective decision making, so it's not just the burden on one person, who's like, "Oh my god, what is wrong with my life? I drive too much."
Julia: You don't have that much freedom. That's another problem with these individual well-being perspectives, is that we're putting the burden of being happy, of being well, of being a perfect person, on a single individual. And being well is not something that one person can achieve, it's something that we do for each other. It's something that we allow each other to do, so then it becomes a question of, as a collective, as a larger group of people, can we organize ourselves differently? And I think that that's one of the things that becomes really important is it's about collective organization, prioritizing the things that will allow people to live well, and minimizing harm, minimizing pollution, minimizing over consumption of resources.
Brian: I feel like this should be a class in school. This makes me think of me sitting in high school and our homework for the day is get together with all of your friends, and right down all the shit that you do every day, and then break them apart individually and be like, "All right, well you drove to the store. Great! What were all the good things and all the bad things about that?" And then everybody works on it together and comes to this great conclusion of, "Oh, right, I didn't have to fucking do that. We can do this instead."
Quinn: We should do that!
Julia: That's exactly right. And it's only when you have the full picture of all the things you'd like to be doing and all the things you need to be doing, and when you start thinking together really interesting ideas come up because, again, relying on yourself to come up with all the solutions is a really big burden. If your friends have other ideas, then maybe you have more of a chance.
Quinn: Sure and this can be infuriating to some folks. I mean, I love going down these rabbit holes, but I'm curious, what were some of the most frequent follow-up questions, like roads you found yourself going down and exploring this. Were they technical, sociological, philosophical?
Quinn: Because, again, you start pulling the thread on some of these fucking things and it gets complicated and I can see how that could be exasperating or frustrating to some folks. Because again, no one can be perfect in these respects, as much as Brian tries.
Quinn: I'm curious, what were some of the constants as you go down these roads?
Julia: This is research we're still ... It's still very ongoing research. So, what we're learning about is a bit anecdotal in the sense that we've gone into different communities, we've learned about some of them, we're looking at international data, we're also doing quantitative measures, and in terms of the rabbit holes ... I think, well, one of the rabbit holes we've gone down a lot, but this is not as ... Hmm. I'm wondering how to answer your question.
Quinn: You can just ignore it too.
Brian: That's what I do.
Julia: Well, thank you.
Quinn: You're among friends.
Julia: Well, I think one of the things that we've tried to learn about is we've tried to learn about the political economy. We've tried to learn about some of the underlying things that would drive people to answer things certain ways. And so, what that means, for instance we decided to look about how certain forms of dependency, for instance, on cars, is created. So we have this idea of the political economy of car dependency. Where the product is not being able to live without a car. And what we see is you have all these production industries, we're basically looking at un-freedom of consumption.
Julia: So one of the stories we are told in the economy is the way we express freedom is we have some money in our pocket and we go out to the market and we spend it a certain way and then we get happiness, or well-being, or whatever. And the contrary is true, where we consume because there is production out there and that production is constrained to have an outlet, and that's us.
Julia: And if you lack at, for instance, the car dependence, when you start looking at the car industry and adjacent industries, you actually understand that they can't degrow, for instance. They have no option but to keep growing. You look at the road industry and you see how they've lobbied to keep building roads and they even had fake astro-turf protests in the UK where they like went to villages and said, "We want the motorway!"
Julia: And so you're seeing these industries that are really powerful, really entrenched industries, that make us consume.
Julia: And so, when we're trying to face that and we're trying to understand how to consume differently, and you ask people, "Okay, how would you like to consume differently? What would be necessary for you?" You come up again these structural ... yeah almost these super structures of the economy that really constrain that.
Julia: So that's one of the things that we're really trying to think about is how to give people the tools of understand, to empower them, to try to fight back against that kind of stuff. I was at an event we're going to be working in Leeds just yesterday, where we were asking people in this community that has big roads going through it, lots of air pollution, it's in a valley, what did they want, and they're like, they want different infrastructures. They don't want those cars there. They want a neighborhood where they can do things completely differently. And so, they can't do those things by themselves, but it needs to be ... If we're trying to satisfy human needs at lower energy use, we kind of have to have some political fights ahead of us, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
Quinn: Sure, again, we can't just put this on the individual person, as much as some of these things aimed to 'em, but this is the sort of thing though, where sometimes these potential complicated, but amazing answers, like this micro-mobility trend. Which, I'm not sure how much that is, has hit there yet, the electric bikes and scooters and things that have just exploded everywhere.
Julia: Oh my goodness.
Quinn: In America, transportation is, I think it's like 30 percent a greenhouse gas emissions? Right, Brian? Something like that?
Julia: It's huge. It's huge.
Quinn: But I think it is ... what is it ... 40 percent of at least urban transportation is sub two miles?
Quinn: If you go down the whole of doing the math on it and what, just on emissions, what that could do for Americans, and what those can do for cities. I mean, you look at the changes that Amsterdam has made over the past 50 years. And what Oslo and Madrid are doing now. And then you look at just those amazing pictures online, and we'll put one in the show notes, how much room 60 cars takes versus 60 people versus one bus. Just, you look at that and go ... people are like, "Ah! Scooters are everywhere!" Yeah, but they're fucking not. 'Cause so many scooters are taking up so much less space.
Julia: Yeah, and you see them zipping by, you see them zipping by as well, and it's the same ... electric bikes, they go quite fast, and they go wherever they want.
Quinn: And it's zero emissions, and they're fun, and yeah it's complicated in the winter, but again, like Norway's getting it done.
Quinn: That's fine. It's not that cold in Los Angeles.
Julia: Yeah, yeah, it's not that complicated.
Quinn: But it's also like a really cool two-sided market. Because, as much as it's radical, both ... it is the political fight, right? But these cities recognize they need to reduce emissions both for the greater good, but also for their city, but it's also people looking at it and going, "Oh this is way easier. I don't have to pay for parking. I don't have own and maintain this thing. It's actually fun. And it makes the city a more enjoyable place."
Quinn: So those sort of things, I mean which have just literally sprung up in the past couple years, at least in America, with the scooter thing, have to be just so fundamentally exciting for a mission like yours.
Julia: Absolutely, and you see how adaptable they are for people's circumstances. So, obviously not everybody can hop on a bike.
Julia: But, a lot of people can. For instance, I have friends who are engineers or architects, they work at different sites. And on a normal bicycle that would kind of be a haul. That would kind of be an ask to ask someone to go from site, to site, to site on your bike all day long. On an electric bike, it's a complete breeze. They just do it. And they get around a lot faster. I have friends who have kids and you know back in the day, you would say, "Oh my goodness, you're not going to take both your two kids to the super market and then to school and then go to work on a bike." And now of course they can because it's a cargo bike, you throw your kids in it, you throw some grocery bags on top of them. Fine, so maybe they've eaten some of your chocolate by the time you get home, but it's not ...
Brian: Big whoop.
Quinn: They were going to anyway.
Julia: They were going to anyway! And it's more fun, and you see the little kids chattering, and everybody ... it's just a much nicer environment.
Quinn: It really is.
Julia: So, I think that is potentially a game changing technology, because it doesn't require that much energy, at all, can be very, very low carbon, it's much healthier, and it makes for nicer cities, and it's really adaptable to many people's circumstances. So a lot of people who before, couldn't really do all of their daily activities on a bicycle, now they just, can. And that's amazing.
Brian: They just can. Professor, who's going to be making the big sacrifices here? And how quickly?
Quinn: As we're barreling towards -
Julia: Can I answer honestly?
Brian: Oh my god, please.
Quinn: Please, please.
Julia: The gazillionaires are going to have to make the biggest sacrifice.
Julia: So, if we're talking about great inequalities, the people who you ... we don't require, especially if we organize ourselves better, we don't require that much energy at all. So I would say that probably Americans who definitely, at a fifth of what they use on average, could live perfectly decent lives, probably can get it quite a bit lower than that. So we're really talking about huge changes. The people who will suffer the most from those changes are not the American's using less energy.
Julia: And I really wanna push back on this point because I think it's sort of the next frontier of climate denial. And just yesterday in Congress there was somebody giving testimony saying, "Oh well, of course" ... I'll read it to you because it's right in front of me. "The known risks to human well-being associated with constraining fossil fuels may be worse than the eventual risks from climate change." So they're saying -
Quinn: Oh, go fuck yourself, it's like ... ugh. These people.
Julia: Thank you!
Julia: Yeah, but I'm seeing this more and more, because they can't deny the science anymore. They can't deny the fucking science, so they're moving to saying, "We need this. It's inevitable that we, for our well-being, need lots of energy." And that's not true. People who need us to consume lots of energy are the barons of the existing fossil fuel industries. It's the oil companies, it's the gas companies, it's the pipeline companies, it's the utility companies, it's the automative industry, it's the aviation industry. It's all of those guys. They are going to suffer, but that's fine because they really need to die for us to survive.
Quinn: Yep. That's the way it goes. Sorry, champ. It's, again, it is so past them being able to deny the science if they're going, "What else can we cherry pick?"
Julia: Yeah and they blame consumers. That's the other thing they do is, "Oh, well it's consumers fault because they're consuming the stuff." It's like, actually people don't have that much choice or that much information because you've been denying things for so long. But, it's possible to live well, to reduce emissions, to reduce energy use, but the people who are gonna suffer are the ones who run these industries and profit from them.
Quinn: Absolutely. Burn it all down.
Brian: This is fantastic. So, like we said before what we wanna do always with these podcasts is help our listeners take action with their voice and their vote and their dollar. So let's hone in on one of those. Let's start with our voices. So for our context, one of our over-arching goals is to shine a light on where we need to go as a people, so, with that in mind, what are the actual questions the rest of us should be asking of our representatives?
Julia: I think the question of how to make livable low-energy, low-emission spaces around us, so cities, counties, states, I think that that has to be at the top of everybody's mind. And I think that The Green New Deal is a fantastic way forward because it really points out that we should be able to have jobs that contribute to our well-being and the economy, and that are low-carbon and low-resource use. So it's about making sure those two elements are prioritized. We're not talking about the environment as being something separate out there, where we reduce emissions, and we can't change anything else. We have to change how we live our lives, how we organize our economies, and how we de-carbonize and use less energy, altogether.
Julia: So I would really push discussions with representatives, and city counselors, and all these things and say, "What's you're integrated plan? I don't want you to see you have a low-carbon plan and a jobs plan, I want the jobs to be low-carbon. I don't want you to see that you have an education plan, and a low-carbon plan. The education has to be done in a way that the children can get to school on bicycle."
Julia: So these things have to sort of ... We can't have an incoherent ... An incoherent society is a luxury we can't really afford anymore. So that's one thing for sure.
Brian: And it's also [crosstalk 00:49:03] anymore. I mean the fastest growing job in America is wind technician. And the biggest demand is solar installer. The opportunity is now there, and it's never really existed, since like World War II, where they were like, "Hey, that guy is kind of good at building tanks. We need 10,000 of them."
Brian: It's like these things have met in the middle, and the opportunity is there to take all these people, whether they're coal miners or other people, and to retrain them or to offer these type of community college jobs out of high school, to go and make things that make you money, that are in demand, that also help benefit the environment. We can actually do that now, we just actually have to fucking commit to it.
Julia: Absolutely. And that means taking money both visible and hidden subsidies away from the fossil industries and putting them to things that are much more necessary for us. And so again, I would emphasize that this is not automatic, so we really need to be picking up phones and going to offices and complaining about this, and making a big fuss about it. So join the Sunrise Movement. You had a guest previously on your show from the Sunrise Movement.
Brian: Varshini, she was awesome.
Julia: Go listen to that one. Do whatever she says. She should be queen of the world. That was an amazing show.
Quinn: Yeah, she ...
Brian: I think we also said that. That she should be queen of the world.
Quinn: Yeah, I thought about it beforehand, but afterwards it was like, "Oh! She's pulling the strings for like the next two years here. Great! Let her be fucking emperor for two years." Like I don't care!
Julia: Absolutely, absolutely.
Quinn: So, I guess, on that note, for our vote ... It's not an election here, even though, since our election system is so broken, everyone's always fucking running for something, and everybody's committing to president here, but I would say, along that note it's using tools like 5calls.org to get in contact with your current representatives and make sure that they know that either you're supporting their actions, if they're on board with The Green New Deal, or the carbon-fee idea, rival idea, or if they're not, that you're aware.
Julia: Give them hell. Give them hell.
Brian: Right, yeah. And that you're pissed.
Quinn: Either give them support, or give them hell, and let them know that 2020 is barreling down the fucking pipe here.
Quinn: So what about their dollar? What are ways ... again we really want to get specific here, that people can, without overwhelming them, what are, let's say, three fundamental specific ways people can affect this? Figuring out the new mortgage of everyone's energy well-being? What are three ways they can effect that with their dollar?
Julia: Here's an interesting one. So, in a personal level, probably the best way they can affect it is by not spending that dollar. So, I really think that we need to move to an economy ... and there are lots, it's not just me, there's research saying this ... that we need to move to investment rather than consumption. That the balance between consumption and investment has to shift. So, you can do a lot by saving money, by not using energy, by not spending lots of money on food. Stop eating dairy and meat, that's really important.
Brian: Eat plants.
Julia: That you can ... Eat plants, plants. They deserve it. They deserve being eaten.
Julia: So I think in terms of consumption, definitely reducing consumption is a good idea. In terms of a way to spend dollars, I think supporting political campaigns is really important. I think trying to make those dollars into ... if this sounds crazy, I don't know, into community activities. Into something where you are coming together with your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends, and you're actually trying to build this new world, that we have to bring forward very fast. So, if you can do that, if you can make local versions of The Sunrise Movement, of whatever your ecosocialist group, your whatever, whatever it is! Try to do that. Try to make actions. Follow your money, if that makes sense.
Brian: It does.
Quinn: No, absolutely.
Julia: Because I think just spending money on a widget or a gadget or this or that, that's not enough anymore sadly.
Quinn: Yeah, no it's not.
Brian: Yeah, that was my favorite part of your answer, don't fucking spend it.
Quinn: I mean that was a statistic that came out recently, in America we've kind of had this crazy over-extended economic boom, and the news is like, "Hey that's great!" Also, was really bad for the environment because consumption was so high.
Julia: And also, it's also really predatory, because people are forced into consumption patterns that they can't afford, because they're poor, because they aren't paid decent wages. So you have some people sort of being ground into debt, and really sort of living insecure lives and very expensive lives, because it turns out being in debt is really expensive. So it's a completely stretched and unequal perspective when you look at it that way.
Quinn: So, I have to ask you, and this kind of leads into our lightening round a little bit, but this is sort of a different take. This is such a important thing that you're doing, right? I'm curious if there was some specific ... and like you said you bounced around academia so much and inhaled all of these different disciplines ... was there some specific moment, or maybe a relationship, you can point to that was a catalyst for your actions to get you where you are today asking these big fundamental questions?
Julia: Yes, actually. I went to MIT I did my PhD in physics at MIT.
Brian: No big deal.
Julia: And, I was with a - I'm sorry?
Quinn: No big deal.
Julia: Well, let's not get into it right now. I wasn't the best physics student, but I did leave with a degree at some point. But, that was a wonderful place, in terms of having student activism and so on, and one of the great people who was there was Noam Chomsky. And Noam Chomsky would come and give us talks, once a month, once a year or something he would give a big talk for people, and being exposed to him and his way of understanding history, his way of understanding injustice, his way of unpicking the story that we're told compared to the underlying reality, that's been really important to me, so that's followed me through. So I really have lots of admiration and respect for him.
Brian: That's pretty fantastic.
Quinn: That's a pretty fucking good answer. So we're getting close to time here. We can not thank you enough for your time today, and for your efforts to ask these questions and provoke a lot of action.
Brian: Greatly appreciated.
Quinn: 'Cause they are action-oriented questions, even though it can go down a lot of rabbit holes, and it's complicated as hell.
Brian: But we're here and we're helping everybody understand.
Quinn: Yep, we're trying.
Julia: Yeah! Well I think ...
Brian: Mostly Julia.
Julia: It's always interesting to hear questions. The answers are usually something you can do better yourself.
Quinn: I love that.
Brian: Right, right.
Julia: If you'd give it a bit of time. Yeah, well thank you.
Quinn: Alright, we've got a little bit of a lightening round here.
Brian: Lightening round.
Quinn: Who is someone in your life that's, this is sort of a segue from your last answer, who's someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Julia: My students. And my colleagues. Yeah, my students and my colleagues. Wait! Is that going to be too boring?
Quinn: No, I think that's fair.
Brian: That's very fair.
Quinn: Yeah, right?
Brian: I hope one of my teacher's answered that question one day, but they probably didn't.
Quinn: They did not. They did not.
Brian: I can hope! Question number two -
Julia: Very -
Brian: Sorry. Professor, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed? By all of the insanity?
Julia: Usually, eat chocolate cookies ... No, what -
Brian: Do you have a favorite? I'm curious if you have a favorite I would like to know [crosstalk 00:56:15].
Julia: No, no, no, no, no. I don't, no. Also I've gone vegan, so it makes things a bit more complicated.
Brian: You can still eat Oreos, but don't -
Julia: What do I do when I'm overwhelmed by despair, this is what I do. And it's been happening quite often, when I wake up in the night and I worry about the state of the world, because things are not going well. And what I do is I think of Greta Thunberg, I think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I think of the young ... mainly young women, and young men, and just the people who are climate activists, and social-justice-environ activists, and the people in countries where things are a lot more difficult, like Brazil right now. And I think, they get up in the morning and they fight. And I better ...
Quinn: I mean Greta Thunberg literally gets up in the morning and fights. I mean she is unreal.
Julia: She is amazing. And so I think of them, and I think, "Okay, maybe I can do this too. That way they won't be so lonely."
Quinn: That's really fucking awesome.
Brian: Wonderful, Julia. How do you consume the news?
Julia: Twitter. Twitter.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You sound so excited about that.
Brian: We get that answer a lot.
Julia: Well, for that Twitter is great. You follow journalists and you get the news behind the news, and then they all get fired, and then you're just like, "Right, this is again. We're all gonna die because nobody's gonna tell us the news that we need to know." Stop firing journalists!
Quinn: What's the Washington Post quote they started using? Democracy Dies in Darkness. Yep.
Brian: Oh, yeah.
Julia: It might have, and then nobody's been hired as a journalist so we don't know.
Quinn: I think there's like three people at Denver Post at this point.
Brian: Oh, perfect!
Brian: If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, Professor, what would it be?
Julia: I wouldn't bother with him. I would not. I'm not interested in him, I'm in interested in literally everybody else in the world. And if I could Amazon Prime a book to them -
Brian: Yeah, I was just about to say, how about that.
Julia: It would be, Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, which is an amazing book, and it's already changing the world and going to change the world.
Julia: Doughnut Economics. It's amazing.
Quinn: I heard an interview with her on ... maybe The Exponential View podcast? I don't know, I'll put it in the show notes and I'll send it to you. And it amazed ... she, oh my God, she's so smart. It's crazy.
Julia: It really, really is.
Quinn: It is really fascinating stuff. Last question, anything you would like to say to use sort of this podcast as a vehicle to speak truth to power? Anything you haven't said yet?
Julia: Thank you. Yes, I think that this is going to be a big fight, and I think that we need to prepare for things not to go ... that progress is not automatic, and survival, and good things happening are not automatic so we need to be kind to each other and we also need to really struggle for good things to be able to happen, and to be preserved. And so, I don't think that we have easy years ahead, but maybe we can work together.
Brian: It's like you said at the very beginning, it's not going to be easy ...
Brian: But that only should make us embrace it more.
Quinn: Yeah, absolutely. As I tell my children, we do hard things.
Brian: That's right.
Quinn: Gotta do hard things.
Quinn: Professor, where can our listeners follow you online?
Julia: On Twitter, @jksteinberer, and I also have ... I mean I'm easy to find if you just Google Julia Steinberger Leeds, then I even have an email address if they want to get in touch, or whatever, I'm happy to talk.
Quinn: Rock and roll. I hope they don't bludgeon you too badly. Professor, thank you ...
Julia: No, no, no.
Brian: It will just be me, emailing, asking questions.
Quinn: Yep, get ready for it.
Julia: Anytime! All about chocolate cookies!
Quinn: Oh, gosh.
Brian: At least a little bit.
Quinn: There's literally a box staring at us right now in the house. I've got some vegan chocolate chip cookie thoughts I'll send your way. Don't worry. We'll work it out.
Quinn: Professor, thank you so much this was fucking great.
Brian: Yes! Very, very awesome conversation.
Quinn: We really appreciate it, and your enthusiasm for these things, and your Eeyore-ness, and curiosity. It is awesome and contagious, and would be a lot shittier place without you, so thank you so much.
Julia: Thank you!
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome work out, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late at night, that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us @importantnotIMP.
Quinn: Just so weird ...
Brian: Also on Facebook, and Instagram @importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys!