From my 10+ years of research, I found that the common promise of sustainable living is the wellness-sation of it. It goes something like this “Sustainable living is fun, easy, and good for you. It’s a win-win for you and the planet”. Taking the train instead of flying from Berlin to Madrid or from New York to Los Angeles slows you down and gives you time to reflect. Not eating cheese is good for your gut and the calf’s mother. Growing your food brings you in contact with nature and decreases transport emissions.
We try to convince ourselves that what’s good for the planet is good for us. We also convince ourselves that doing this is fun and enjoyable.
Maybe the classics of sustainable living make sense to you, but let’s be honest: for most of us, they also sound bland and unappealing. I find most sustainable living practices hard work and often wonder if I am using my time wisely when I sit on buses for 72 hours instead of taking the plane for 3hrs. I have to talk myself into enjoying growing my food and not buying clothes. I love buying new clothes. I don’t like second-hand. I love when the clothes look unused, unwashed and shiny. Second-hand doesn’t do it for me. And it doesn’t make me happy to run to three different stores to get my celery plastic free. I find it hideous and tedious.
Moreover, these practices miss something essential. We ask ourselves if those actions really change the world in crucial ways.
I am yearning for a more profound transformation.
So if sustainable living isn’t about doing what’s good for you and the planet, what is it about?
Sustainable Living can be Uncomfortable
While living sustainability promises happiness and well-being — which I call first-order effect — the true benefit lies in doing those practices despite not bringing you direct benefits. The benefits are in the second-order effects.
Let me give you an example: Imagine you are on a very long bus ride. You don’t have to enjoy sitting on the bus for 72hrs (first order effect) to enjoy sitting on the train for 72hrs (second order effect). The first-order effect would mean that while sitting on the bus, you actually have a good time, maybe because you finally get to relax, have time to read a book, and slowly see the changes of the landscape while you comfortably snuggle up in your seat while you have the best conversation of your life with the stranger who sits next to you.
The second-order effect comes from enjoying the bus ride while being aware that you can’t relax in a small, stinky waiting room on wheels. You can’t read the book because you get sick while reading on a bus. You can’t see the landscape change because commercials block the window and the person next to you keeps falling asleep on your shoulder while snoring. Yet, you love the pain of going through all those things because you know it is the right thing to do. You love it in the same way a professional triathlete loves to train so hard that she purges.
Living sustainably is the opportunity to live a virtuous life. It is a possibility for us to experience a form of happiness that many of us haven’t experienced in a long time.
While the first approach offers us a hedonistic sort of immediate pleasure, the other comes from living a virtuous life. In this deliberate life, the satisfaction and meaning in life come from living it a certain way. It is not so much about the individual action, but about doing that action even if it is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Because you have a clear why. There is a higher purpose in your action to decrease the suffering and support the flourishing of as many beings as possible.
For example, I can’t deny that I would love to fly to Thailand every winter instead of the 72hr bus and train rides to Lisbon, Portugal. I can talk myself into why I love to go to Portugal and that it is beautiful to experience the journey of the trip. And I do tell myself these things. And to some degree, I believe them. But honestly: I am an adventurer, and if it wasn’t for my environmental footprint, I would choose I trip to the desert of Mongolia anytime over Lisbon, Portugal. But to me, this is not an option anymore. Although, I am able to afford it in terms of time and money. But those metrics ceased to be the defining measurements to guide my decisions.
Second-Order Pleasure of Sustainable Living
Trying to sell the concept of living sustainably as something that is fun and easy and cool and that’s why everyone should do it keeps us in a trap. Because it assumes that people are unwilling to do things they don’t enjoy doing and that — god forbid- we would ask something of someone that doesn’t give them pleasure.
But second-order pleasure is actually something that is, to many people, more meaningful. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have pleasure in what we do. But if it is out of balance and we only pursue first-order pleasure, an important part is missing. Many of us experience this as a sense of meaninglessness. The way we currently try to fill this part is through more first-order pleasure: consumerism. But no matter how much we consume, we will never feel satisfied because a deeper level of satisfaction is lacking.
The second-order pleasure comes only through doing what is challenging because it is the right thing to do, and there is a pleasure in that that can’t be bought and is never on sale. And it is a sort of pleasure that only you yourself can achieve. There is no shortcut or hack because the pleasure comes precisely because these don’t exit. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said:
“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”
The True Benefit of Living Sustainably
So the true benefit of living sustainably doesn’t come from the “joy of sustainability.” Instead, it comes from us confronting reality as it is, daring to see the suffering of the world, and acting like a very rational person in response to this suffering. And because this brings us closer to the world as-is, it gives us a life satisfaction that is — for me — hard to put into words. It’s a life of integrity. Of honor (for myself and others). Of beauty.
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