Acton Commentary

Solar-Powered Simplicity: A First-World Luxury


In a statement for the Warsaw Conference on Climate Change in November, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church asks, “When will we choose to live more simply?” Anyone advocating asceticism as a healthy Christian response to consumerism and materialism will receive three cheers from me, my Patriarch not least of all. Unfortunately, it appears that Bartholomew has in mind instead a kind of trendy “green” simplicity that is a luxury only the comparatively wealthy can afford.

Two years ago, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the East coast of Japan, claiming the lives of over 15,000 people and causing a major accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In response, the Green Patriarch -- as he has been called for his environmental activism -- issued a statement, advocating for “the safer green forms of energy” and claiming, “Our Creator granted us the gifts of the sun, wind, water and ocean, all of which may safely and sufficiently provide energy.” 

Thus, the simplicity that Bartholomew wants is not just any simplicity; it is a solar-powered simplicity that he proposes as a solution to global climate change. Unfortunately, such simplicity is a luxury that many today simply cannot afford.

There is, however, a movement catching steam that might perfectly encapsulate this solar-powered simplicity. The tiny house movement is a recent trend in the United States for building and living in eco-friendly domiciles about half the average size of an apartment. Graham Hill, a tiny house architect, described his philosophy in the New York Times: “Like the 420-square-foot space I live in, the houses I design contain less stuff and make it easier for owners to live within their means and to limit their environmental footprint.”

Tiny House

Among the tiny house online community, there is a healthy realism despite the otherwise romantic appeal. Melissa Tack, who built and lives in a tiny house with her husband Chris, recently reflected, “This isn't the life for everyone, people find their happ[iness] in many different ways. I have a friend that finds her happiness in 8-12 cups of coffee a day, and others that enjoy spending their time with friends and family. Living in a Tiny House is what you make it to be.”

A further example of this measured realism comes from Christopher Smith, who built a tiny house with Merete Mueller: “Many people who live in tiny houses,” says Smith, “do so because they come from a place of privilege -- they have the ability to choose where they live or how they live.” Solar-powered simplicity, like the tiny house movement, is a first-world luxury.

Yet there are many today who do not live in tiny houses by choice but through the necessity of crushing poverty. These houses are not the quaint adventure of youthful, childless couples but often the only shelter for large, extended families. They are not solar-powered or, for that matter, powered at all.

In their recent Acton Institute monograph Creation and the Heart of Man, Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew Morriss ask, “Given the strong correlation between human well-being and electricity use, and our mandate to care for the poor, is it more important to raise energy costs by shifting to new ‘green’ technologies or to provide electricity to the world’s poor who lack access to power?”

Indeed, as they point out, contra the Green Patriarch, green energy cannot actually “safely and sufficiently provide energy” for the world’s poor. “The sun shines only part of each day,” they write,

the wind does not blow continuously, and tidal energy generation is in its infancy. The costs of these technologies are currently dramatically higher than conventional energy sources such as natural gas, coal, and hydroelectric power. Wind turbines, solar panels, and tidal energy stations have serious environmental impacts of their own, including the need for massive transmission infrastructure that itself damages the environment.

There are tradeoffs to every technology. Unfortunately, the costs of those favored as safer and greener by the Green Patriarch happen to be “dramatically higher,” and prohibitively so.

In light of this, they ask, “Is giving the 917 million Indians lacking refrigeration (equivalent to the entire population of the Western hemisphere) access to the electricity that would make that available more important than government subsidies for wind energy in rich countries?” Good question.

Is it a surprise, then, that the 2013 Warsaw Climate Change Conference (the 19th such annual conference) again failed to pressure developing countries like China, India, and others to commit to any measured reduction in carbon-emissions? The developing world far outpaces the first world when it comes to air pollution. But there is good reason for this.

 As James R. Rogers has recently noted, the most likely causes for the recent decrease of approximately 700 million people in extreme poverty worldwide include the “role of technology,” i.e. industrialization. He writes, “The technological changes that set the ground for industrial revolution of the 19th century played a significant role in the era’s economic development; and technological changes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries likely play a role in broadening the gains of production throughout the world.”

While the working conditions of many in the developing world can be cause for serious humanitarian concern, we must not forget that even these are better than the hard life of subsistence farming. A crowded, tiny house with electricity, clean water, and refrigeration is better than one that lacks these things, and these have been made affordable for millions over the last thirty years in part by “broadening the gains of production” through industrialization.

While there is nothing ignoble per se about Bartholomew’s call for solar-powered simplicity, our actions are bound by economic realities with severe implications for the poorest of the poor. While living simply to give alms to the earth may be poetic, even beautiful, we ought to prioritize the plight of the “least of these” throughout the world. What we do to them, Jesus tells us, we do to him (Matthew 25:40).

The best way to arrive at a world in which “sun, wind, water and ocean” can significantly offset the energy consumption of the developing world is through development itself, remembering, as Butler and Morriss remind us, “our Creator also granted us energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as embedding it within the bonds of matter, enabling us to meet our needs by responsibly using those sources of energy as well.”

While Bartholomew worries about the possible future harm of global climate change on those in poverty, I am far more concerned with the harm of poverty on the poor today. It is only once the poor are empowered to create their own wealth that they will be able to afford the luxury of the solar-powered simplicity the Green Patriarch desires. And for that day to come swiftly we ought all to hope and pray.