I had a visitor recently, one of those scam artists attempting to convince me to switch my residential electrical service provider. He was a young, good looking smooth talker. After spending some time convincing us he wasn’t attempting a scam, he tried to explain how we could lower our hydro and gas bills by installing a new digital thermostat as part of a package deal with his company. If you’re a low consumer of energy, you qualify for a government discount, or so he claimed. I checked the hydro bill. In November in Canada we used 320kWh for a 3 bedroom semi. Our visitor was shocked. The average home uses 800-1200kWh per month. “Do you sit in the dark all evening, and light candles or something?” he asked. No, we have natural gas heating, and we turn off lights and appliances when they aren’t needed. This got me thinking about life habits.
Life Habits of a Stoic
In Meditations, the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius encouraged us all to think about how we live. We can be at peace with ourselves if we develop a life philosophy to live a principled, consistent life:
“You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return.”
Being disciplined, consistent, and rational in your daily behaviour can result in greatness without much real effort. The biggest effort is spent deciding on what principles you should live by, and why. Once you’ve decided how you want to live, developing self discipline to actually follow your principles is required. Your code of conduct should be a work in progress, with revisions made as you live and learn. Not only can you free yourself from mental anguish with psychological techniques, you can develop life habits to attain other practical goals, like saving money, becoming a kinder person, or setting a good ethical example for others.
Life Habits of Ordinary Folk
Ordinary folk is not a term I use condescendingly. We are all ordinary folk when we don’t have our thinking caps on. Most people don’t spend a lot of time critically analyzing their daily behaviour. My former girlfriend told me her mother claims to disapprove of sweatshops, yet her mother purchases gifts of clothing made in sweatshops for her. She does this because her family is more important to her than her objections to sweatshop labour. After all, it’s a nice shirt, and the price was good. This irritated my girlfriend to no end. How can so few people justify living without abiding by their own professed principles?
Similar behaviours and habits exist in my life, and my family. I feel that my family cares about the environment, but to we really live by this principle? My mother has a habit of disposing of cooking oils in the garbage using yogurt containers, rather than dumping the grease down the sink. She said she started doing this long ago when a plumber came to de-clog our pipes and told us that the grease builds up in the pipes over time. “What else can I do to fix the pipes?” she asked. I suggested a compost bin, but this solution was considered earlier and dismissed. Our neighbour’s compost bin attracted rats and other animals that caused a mess locally. The inconvenience caused by a proper disposal just isn’t worth the extra effort in the short term.
I consume gasoline commuting to work on the order of thousands of litres per year. To me, it doesn’t matter because I feel like I can’t control this. I have to work somewhere to live. Society encourages me to work at a job that balances many factors: adequate salary, interesting work, acceptable working conditions, and decent coworkers. If I can afford the gasoline for commuting and attain the other qualities I need, then that’s what I do.
Can we even be blamed for our behaviour? After all, some of it is quite rational. I calculated that if I were to continue my current fuel consumption for the next 40 years, I will burn about 80,000L of gasoline commuting to work. That’s a lot of gas for a single person. Multiplied by a few hundred million people driving cars, and the resource consumption is mind boggling. For what purpose? To build electronic toys? To avoid walking to the grocery store? Is there no better way to do these things?
Comparing the scope of my life impact to the world’s problems is interesting. An engineering friend of mine worked in the natural gas fracking operations in Alberta. He said that his single fracking site burned 80,000L of diesel per day to operate the electrical generator needed to power the fracking equipment. Remember that the resource extraction process itself consumes resources! This is obvious, but mind boggling. It was worth trekking 8 hours beyond the borders of civilization into the Alberta wilderness, and trucking in 80,000L of diesel per day to extract the natural gas we use to power our homes. Does my 80,000L of gasoline expenditure over my lifetime even really matter, compared to the scope of daily human activity elsewhere? It’s hard to stay motivated to conserve resources when you feel like your impact has almost no effect. By comparison, I’m not even all that wasteful! I don’t know whether I’m praising myself, or criticizing humanity.
I wonder how many resources were spent on educating me to be an engineer in the first place. Resources must be spent to even conceive and quantify the problems that affect humanity. This must happen before any problem solving even begins. There’s a thought. o.0
The Dangers of Externalities
With billions of people in the world, the sum of our habits adds up. Essentially these behaviours are similar to corporations externalizing problems. An externality is problem that you create, but leave the mess for someone else to clean up. Buying a sweater is your problem. The slave who made it for you is someone else’s problem. Disposing of chicken grease is your problem. Cleaning up the giant garbage island in the Pacific Ocean will be someone else’s problem.
I would encourage everyone to start analyzing the way they live. Write out the principles you think you live by, and then carefully observe yourself as you go about your daily life. Are you the person you think you are? Who do you want to be? How can you get there?