Living like it’s 1972

Read an interesting article by George Marshall in the New Internationalist recently about cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, a seemingly impossible task until you realise that this would only mean returning to the levels of 1972.

I was quite amazed when I read that. 1972 is not long ago. I don’t quite remember it myself, but I’m not far off. Certainly the world described by the author doesn’t seem that different from what I know, or knew. Of course the standard of living in general was lower then. But his argument is that the improvements since then have massively increased emissions while failing to improve happiness. A massive study by the University of Sheffield reported that perceived loneliness has increased nationally by 40% since 1971. Prof. Tim Jackson has combined various different measures to produce a Measure of Domestic Progress that he argues peaked in 1976.

Part of the reason is that with increased wealth, we have moved further apart. Households are now 30% smaller than in the early 70s, as large families no longer cluster together in one home but are spread over several. By the 1970s most people in Britian had access to a car and major household appliances, but it would be one per household. Since then there has been a multiplication (and also things don’t last, so need to be replaced more often). In the early 70s people tended to heat only the most well-used rooms, e.g. the living-room. Now we heat the whole house, cancelling out any improvements from better insulation and more efficient heating technology. Living rooms are the same temperature they always were, but overall house temperature has risen by nearly six degrees. A by-product of this is the loneliness – even within households, we spend less time together in the living room and more time alone in our own parts of the house, surrounded by our own individual gadgets, which increase emissions…

Going back to 1972 doesn’t sound very attractive. The 70s get a bad name among a lot of people. But when you think about it it’s not so bad. And besides, we don’t have to go back in all respects. We can take advantage of modern technology and other great innovations, but try to restore some of the balance as well. Marshall isn’t arguing that 1972 was a perfect year and that we need to recreate it, but he is saying we can learn a lot by looking back, and I have to say I agree.