Why We Need Sufficiency First

CC BY 2.0. Laundry in Lisbon/ Lloyd Alter

Making things more efficient is not enough; we have to ask ourselves what we really need.

Radical sufficiency is one of four mantras I have been pushing on my Sustainable Design students this year, coming right after radical efficiency and radical decarbonization and before radical simplicity. Sufficiency is basically asking "what is enough?" and "what is the best way to do a job?"

My slide

Slide 1 in my lecture at Ryerson University last week/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0There is lots of talk about efficiency, but nobody talks much about sufficiency. But in a discussion of the Green New Deal being proposed in Europe, Adrian Hiel writes Laundry, Sufficiency and the Climate Pact: Why a sufficiency-first approach to the Green Deal is needed for cities.

Heat pump dryer

Whirlpool heat pump dryer/Promo image

He starts with the classic example of the clothes dryer, where people are paying more for more efficient and complex condensing and heat pump dryers that will save terawatts electricity, as much as it takes to run the Island of Malta. But Hiel notes:

These are astonishing figures and a massive victory in the fight for efficiency. They are also, however, a failure in terms of combatting climate change. How much energy would have been saved, how many emissions avoided, had we simply given everyone clothes drying racks? Clothes drying racks are not about efficiency, they are about sufficiency.
credit: Stockholm archives

Stockholm archives/Public Domain
Hiel then picks up on my favorite example of sufficiency:

Another example is the idea of replacing internal combustion cars with electric vehicles. They are more energy efficient – there’s no question. But we need the sufficiency outlook where we replace cars with walking, cycling and public transport.

Kris de Decker anticipated all this in his original article on sufficiency.

The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service. Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives.

Now, while Europe is debating their Green New Deal, Hiel calls for them to consider the concept of Sufficiency.

The comprehensive plan due this summer to increase the 2030 emissions targets to 50% or 55% must include a strong element of sufficiency. That element, in turn, must be incorporated into nearly every aspect of the dizzying array of initiatives under the Green Deal. To start, carbon budgeting will shine a light on expenditures that are simply too expensive in money and carbon to continue at local, national and EU level.
credit: the future we want

the future we want/Screen capture

Sufficiency is a hard sell; The Future We Want is a big single-floor house covered in solar shingles with an a Powerwall and Tesla in the garage. I wrote in my first post about the problem of Sufficiency:

We have got nowhere on TreeHugger peddling it; ten years ago we had articles about clotheslines every week, but it didn't last because nobody is interested in that much change, thank you. Sufficiency vs efficiency is what we have been talking about on TreeHugger for years; live in smaller spaces, in walkable neighborhoods where you can bike instead of drive. Our posts on Teslas are more popular.

But we will never hit our carbon targets if we just keep trying to make stuff more efficient. We have to figure out what we really need, not what we really want. I agree with Adrian Hiel: "We must move beyond efficiency and to sufficiency. It is the only way of delivering the daunting cuts in emissions that we have to deliver."