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As we race toward the Next Big Sustainable Idea, it's worth pausing to check the rearview mirror.

Kicking off OnEarth's Answers from the Past month, in which our contributors explore how contemporary thinking on sustainability has been influenced by wisdom handed down to us from previous generations. Read more here.

When I was a kid, my father used to pad around the house, silently, turning out the lights. In his wraith-like wanderings he would occasionally click off lights in rooms that were occupied. Someone—me, my brother, or my mother—would squeal at him out of the dimness, and reluctantly he would turn them back on.

Our house was not only dark; it was also wintery. When less cold-adapted friends or relations came for a visit, my father would turn up the thermostat. Once they left, down it went again. If anyone in the immediate family complained about this, his advice was simple: “Put on a sweater.”

My father is, let’s just say, frugal, and his campaign to keep the lights off and the thermostat low was motivated primarily by energy costs. (This was the 1970s, when even the president—infamously—donned a cardigan to make a similar point.) But as my father now likes to say, he was ahead of his time. Most experts agree that, in the near term at least, energy conservation is the single most effective way for the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s where everybody who has really thought about the problem thinks the biggest gains can be and should be,” is how former energy secretary Steven Chu put it a couple of years ago. (In the same interview, Chu described energy conservation as “sexy”—which, I think, is further even than my father is willing to go.) A recent report by the International Energy Agency that looked at 11 industrialized nations—including the United States—found that investments in energy efficiency amount to less than two-thirds of the money spent on fossil fuel subsidies. Nevertheless, in 2010, the energy use avoided through efficiency measures was larger than the energy provided by burning oil.

A lot of the best new ideas of the past few decades fit this same basic pattern: they’re old.

Of course, another way of describing my father is to say he’s a throwback. For most of human history, people heated their homes sparingly, if at all.  Sources of heat such as wood, peat, and eventually coal were hard to come by, so everyone wore sweaters or their equivalents—if, that is, they were fortunate enough to have them. Light was even dearer: in colonial America, candles were usually made of animal fat, and producing them was time-consuming and difficult. (They tended to crack, melt, or—worse still—rot.) In May 1743, the Reverend Edward Holyoke, who at the time was president of Harvard, recorded in his diary that his household had produced 78 pounds of candles. In the fall of that same year, he noted laconically: “Candles all gone.”

Though the conditions of life in the United States have changed rather dramatically since then—few Americans today have to worry that their light will be “all gone”—conserving energy makes just as much sense now as it did in the 1740s (or the 1970s, for that matter). Indeed, in an age haunted by global warming, ocean acidification, and the myriad dangers posed by fracking and oil drilling and nuclear waste disposal, arguably it makes even more sense.

More in the series : Answers from the Past

A lot of the best new ideas of the past few decades fit this same basic pattern: they’re old. Consider the movement known as New Urbanism. In its charter, the movement calls for public policies that encourage compact, walkable cities with ample public spaces. As it happens, this was the only kind of city people built for 5,000 years or so, until the internal combustion engine, the oil industry, and the freeway system made sprawl possible. A variation on New Urbanism known as New Pedestrianism goes one step further. It aims to reshape car-dominated streets into lanes designed for walkers and bikers only. Here’s another idea whose time has come, and gone, and come again.

Or consider the local food movement. For much of American history, just about everyone ate locally and also seasonally—not on principle so much as because the alternative, generally, was not to eat at all. As the authors of Eating in America, Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont, observe, in colonial days “fresh food was unlikely to reach markets more than a few miles from the place where it was produced, for it was not easy to get around.” In the spring, dirt roads were quagmires, and in the winter they were frozen solid. Of course, in the days before refrigeration, most fresh foods didn’t last more than a few days, so even if there had been a way to transport them, there wouldn’t have been much point in it.

Nowadays, no matter where you live in the United States, chances are there’s a supermarket not too far from you that carries a United Nations’ worth of fresh foods: asparagus from Peru, lamb raised in Australia, fish farmed in China. Eating locally and seasonally thus requires more effort than eating internationally. It also requires sacrifice; to do so means saying good-bye to tomatoes in January and apples in April. In many fished-out parts of the country, it probably means doing without fish altogether.

windmills

Which brings me to the theme that unites these ideas—both in their original and in their contemporary forms—which is limits. When the Reverend Holyoke ran out of tallow, he bumped up against a set of constraints that were easy to understand. The candles were gone. It was pointless to resent this fact, or to try to argue it away.

Today the limits are a lot less obvious. As long as the utility bill gets paid, an apparently limitless flow of electricity emerges from the socket. As long as the pump accepts your credit card, seemingly limitless amounts of gasoline are available. But just because the limits aren’t immediately clear, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, the more we learn about the effects of our collective consumption, the more urgent the limits we’re approaching seem to become. According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, unconstrained growth in carbon emissions is likely to lead, by the end of this century, to a horrifying seven-degree increase in average global temperatures. The consequences of such an increase are almost too awful to contemplate, and include an eventual sea level rise of upward of 20 feet.

Thus the predicament we find ourselves in is in many ways the mirror image of the one our forebears confronted. It’s not that we don’t have access to resources. It’s that we have access to too many resources: tar sands oil, anthracite coal, unconventionally extracted natural gas. This predicament has led many very serious people to argue that what we really need are new technologies that will save us from ourselves. According to this way of thinking, either we have to find a way to counteract the worst effects of our emissions by, say, throwing sulfates into the stratosphere, or we need to find some new source of energy that will allow us to continue to consume at the present rate without re-creating the climate of the Cretaceous. Finding such a technology is essential, this line of reasoning has it, precisely because people are never going to choose to leave resources unconsumed.

I find this argument unpersuasive. The notion that we’re going to come up with some fix that will allow people (and, unfortunately, only people) to transcend geophysics sounds a lot like wishful thinking and, I’m afraid, will turn out to be wishful thinking. In any event, wouldn’t it be prudent, at least until such a technology is invented, to see what could be accomplished via more low-tech means?  How about if we all—metaphorically speaking—tried turning off unneeded lights and putting on a sweater?

No one has made the case for looking forward by looking back more eloquently than the poet, farmer, essayist, and critic Wendell Berry. (Like my father, I should note, Berry is a great advocate of good, old-fashioned frugality.)

“People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine,” he has written. But “human limitlessness is a fantasy”—and a dangerous one, at that. For while we may have the power to destroy the natural world, we will never entirely control it.

“Our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits,” Berry has observed. For “we are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one.”

Read more of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month.

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image of Elizabeth Kolbert
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her next book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, will be released in February 2014. MORE STORIES ➔
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Well said, Elizabeth. To suggest doing with less or simply living within our limits (as if we had another long-term choice) seems politically and perhaps more importantly, culturally, anathema. It's what our small nonprofit org preaches, and interestingly, often to receptive ears, as many people know down deep that we've got a big problems. Plus there can be real joy in getting off the consumer treadmill. Yet few leaders--religious, corporate, political--are willing to address these issues in a meaningful way, whether in the interests of short-term profits, popular acceptance or the next election cycle. That's why voices like yours--and hopefully ours--are all the more important. Keep telling it like it is-- David Radcliff New Community Project