Technology, Sustainability, and Human Evolution

Posted December 7th, 2009 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 13: Technology and Simple Living

I have a bit of a growing love/hate relationship with technology. I’ve been making my living online for over a decade now so I’ve become a bit of a computer geek; but I’ve also begun to recognize that all this cool stuff is a dangerous double edged sword.

One one hand all the information channels (web, phone, television, radio, etc) bring us closer together it seems to do it in cyberspace and not in person. Some people are able to continue to make offline connections but it seems bulk of our personal relationships have moved toward online interactions. I would also argue that all our faceless interactions distract us from the real people around us. It’s a common reality these days to have families disconnected at home while each surfs the web on their own computer, watching television in different rooms, text messaging and chatting with their distant disembodied friends.

But technology is also an amazing tool for accessing information and reaching out to people you would never otherwise meet. I run into this everyday while blogging and have made really great connections with people from around the globe who share my values and enjoy exchanging ideas. So while I have a lot of harsh things to say about technology and human connections I can also clearly see how it’s become a powerful tool for bettering the world.

Clearly we need to find a balance between too much and too little technology to achieve simpler lives. I will actually go as far to describe our current predicament as a critical time in human evolution where we must choice to use our cleverness to coexist with our surroundings of face extinction. My logic is simple. Since it is impossible for a something to grow at exponential rates without end inside a closed system, the growth must at some point reach the confines of the closed system. When this happens growth is stopped suddenly causing a major disruption.

Let me bring that abstract logic back to reality… I basically just said that if humans continue to grow in number and continue consuming at an increasing rates we’re going to run into serious trouble when we finally hit a point where out cleverness can’t outwit the confines of our planet.

But humans ARE clever animals. We’ve learned to manipulate our surroundings to the point where we’ve been able to virtually extend the size of our closed system… in other words through the exploitation of petrochemicals we’ve been able to produce quantities of food far beyond what the normal environment can support. Petrochemicals have also catapulted us forward in all areas of technology and we now sit on top of a vast wealth of knowledge.

The problem of course is that simply due to greed we’ve never really had a strategic plan for how we would cumulatively use all this great black stuff. Instead we’ve allowed a few people to get stinking rich off the stuff while the vast majority continues to pretend that we aren’t running out. No one can really say when we’ll run out of gas, and those who probably can probably won’t simply because it would cause too much trouble for them now (seems logical).

Some people say we’ve already reached peak, others still say peak oil production is 10 to 20 years away. I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter because the right choice is obvious. What matters is that we have a choice to use technology to better our lives while finding a way to live in balance with the all the life around us. In fact I’d argue that it’s easier to do this than living the lifestyles many of us still currently live. The hardest part is breaking free.

Simple sustainable living and technology can coexist but a delicate balance must be maintained in order for us to achieve the goal of a sustainable life. Some would say that turning our backs to technology is the only way to truly live in balance with nature but I think our specie has come to far for that now. I think we can use our cleverness and what we’ve learned so far to slow down and find a sustainable way to live.

The trick to the success of this wild dream is that each of us must take it upon ourselves to seek our own sustainable existence. I don’t think we can wait for government and I can’t imagine we can expect much more from the billionaires that really run the show than we’ve already seen from them in the past.

The only piece of the equation we each have control over it ourselves. Choose wisely and evolve.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design. You can also read my bio at MichaelJanzen.com.

Overcoming Obstacles, Past and Future

The subject of this issue of Small Living Journal was actually my suggestion. I thought it would be useful to hear how people have solved, and plan to solve, past and future challenges. Here are some example of common obstacles and my solutions.

Past & Current Obstacles

Debt Reduction

After watching the equity in my home evaporate I began to think very differently about money. I decided that for me, debt is to be avoided at all costs because the risk it too high. For example if I were to loose my job I would put my family in a very difficult position.

I’ve made some immediate changes in spending and have chosen to eliminate every unneeded expense. Living frugally immediately puts money back in my pocket and gives back some of the freedom lost by taking on debt.

When the housing market recovers we’ll be able to move on and into a smaller less expensive home on a larger piece of land. Once we’ve landed my financial focus will be becoming debt free.

Income Growth

I have a simple plan to create multiple revenue streams by leveraging my knowledge and skills. Most of us make money by selling our time to an employer. We make more money over time as our skills and knowledge improve, advancing as our contributions increase. The problem with this is that we’re reliant on someone else to support us and if that company should fail we go down with the ship.

There is another option that everyone can capitalize on immediately, and that’s banking your knowledge. To some degree everyone is an expect in something and when you take the time to record that expertise on a blog, book, recording, video, etc, you are banking your knowledge.

I’ve chosen to blog about my passion for tiny house design and have a couple book ideas in the works. Each one of these efforts becomes a small self-sustaining revenue stream. They don’t have to be large, they just have to be plentiful and require little effort to maintain. Blogging does require a lot of time and energy but I love to do it so I’d actually say the effort is low. In other words I’ve taken something I love doing and turned it into a revenue stream.

My long term plan is to create enough small streams to help eliminate debt and give me back more and more of my time. It’s a slow process but can work if you can maintain that entrepreneurial spirit.

More time with my Family

In 2006 Julia and I adopted our daughter Katie. As every parent can attest, having a new baby is life altering. The job I had at the time was a 100-mile commute away. I took the bus mostly and then the train when the bus route got canceled.

After Katie was born I began to make the trip to San Francisco by car because it was faster and gave me back about 2 hours a day with my family. But this was still not enough, I wanted more.

One day a job opportunity presented itself and a few months later I had switched positions and was working from home full time. Working from home has saved me so much time commuting and I can even have lunch with my wife and daughter.

Not every profession is as accommodating to working from home as mine. It’s also very hard to imagine working from home if you’ve always worked outside the home. But I think if you use your creativity and do some research you might be able to find a niche that fits your skill-set. My only warning is to look for real jobs and avoid anything that looks like a scheme.

Future Obstacles

Peak Oil Transition

I realize this is a loaded topic so forgive me for blurting it out like this, but hang in there with me for a few minutes.

At some point in the future the demand for oil will exceed supply. This will be due to increasing demand and fewer sources of oil. It’s clear that business and government are focused on the problem and are injecting more resources into finding a way to curtail demand, like using energy more efficiently, and diversify energy production by exploring coal, new oil exploration, tar sands, solar, wind, nuclear, etc.

In my humble opinion, all of this momentum has created a peak plateau and I’m certain it’s all in an effort to make a smooth transition to a new alternate energy source world. Some see our future powered by coal, nuclear, and natural gas; others see a wind, solar, hydro world… but they are all united in finding a way to make the transition smooth to keep human civilization strong.

Here’s a list of things I’m doing and plan to do. Ironically no matter what your predictions are for the future, none these choices can hurt.

  • Eliminate all debt.
  • Move to a temperate climate with adequate rainfall.
  • Become less dependent on an income by building a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle and multiple small revenue streams that could theoretically survive a deeper economy downturn.
  • Move toward a sustainable lifestyle and live in balance with nature.
  • Buy only things I’d be happy keeping for a lifetime.
  • Buy only electronic devices that can run on 12VDC.
  • Invest in alternative energy equipment like photovoltaic solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines.

Life, Liberty, Happiness

While peak oil concerns have acted in part as a catalyst for my interest in simple living, downsizing, sustainability, and self-reliance; I think it’s really the desire to live a happy and free life that is my primary motivator, as it should be.

This is also something I think every human around the planet can relate to, we all ultimately want to be happy and freedom is a prerequisite. It seems many of us have strayed from that goal by giving into short-term perks powered by borrowed money and a society that seems to require the sale of our time, aka, a job.

Ironically the solution to this obstacle has been staring at us through the pages of history. Species that survive are those that are in balance with their surroundings. We are an incredibly resourceful animal. I’m certain that if we choose to solve this puzzle and take into account the need to be in balance with our natural surroundings we will prosper, be happy, and free. I suspect if we choose to use up our natural surroundings we will ultimately fail because we’ll be so far out on a limb when the branch finally decides we’ve gotten too heavy to hold.

So I’m choosing to get off the limb and climb down the tree. I certain I can find a way to live free and be happy by choosing to use my clever human ingenuity to architect a sustainable future for myself and family. I figure the more of us that put our focus on what truly sustains life the better our chances will be for a long and fruitful civilization. The first step is it to move our focus off the noise around us and redirect it on the things that keep us in balance with the life around us.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design.