Chinese shop in Beijing on September 25, 2011. (Trey Ratcliff)

Chinese shop in Beijing on September 25, 2011. (Trey Ratcliff/Flickr)

Sometime this century, people may be forced to live with less. Involuntary simplicity, new research says, may result as global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions end the era of cheap, abundant energy and prompt a “downshift” in consumption.

The public needs to be prepared for this “energy descent,” says University of Michigan environmental psychologist Raymond De Young. He discusses the topic in a report in the November edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

What will it look like? DeYoung expects many Americans will likely live in much smaller homes that contain far fewer consumer goods, and because of declining fuel availability, many may not be able to afford car ownership or air travel. He says they’ll rely more on locally grown foods.

“Frankly, it may not be possible for members of Western societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern,” he says in announcing his research.

That’s not all bad, he argues. Though a resource-limited future will be more austere, he says people will still be able to live well. He says the coming downshift may even give them an opportunity to “reconnect with nature and other people in ways that provide durable well-being.”

His forecast may seem difficult to fathom given the current boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production and the decline in gas prices, which are now below $3 a gallon in many parts of the country. Yet he says that while fossil fuels will likely be extracted for years to come, their extraction will slowly decline as countries shift toward less polluting forms of energy.

A report today describes the urgent need for such a global shift. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change and limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world’s man-made carbon emissions will need to drop to net zero between 2055 and 2070, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute.  Global greenhouse gas emissions, which have grown by more than 45 percent since 1990, will need to fall by at least 15 percent by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050, says the Emissions Gap Report by 38 scientists from 22 research groups across 14 countries.

“Unfortunately, the world is not currently headed in the right direction,” says Andrew Steers, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research group. “But, with the growing momentum for global climate action, we have the opportunity to close the emissions gap.”

De Young expects technology may help ease the societal transition but won’t obviate it, adding people will likely be forced to consume less of just about everything. Also, he says this shift lacks “Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif” and will instead emerge slowly over many decades.  His paper says behavioral scientists will need to help people cope with a new normal and envision an alternative future.


  1. JBSmith
    Newport News, VA
    January 7, 2015, 3:34 pm

    ..I am having my heart constantly tazed with the active denial system. It is so painful, I can hardly breath. An attorney from Finland sent me a note from Rauni-Leena Luukanen-Kilde, MD, and Former Chief Medical Office of Finland dated December 6, 2000. In it she writes that the U. S. Congress is planning to put a biochip on everyone without their knowledge and consent. She writes about the torture and murders that occur to innocent citizens and about inhuman research. I have written every U. S. Senator. Senator Kaine and Senator Warner have both admitted it. How can they claim to represent me as a constituent and allow this inhuman torture to continue? Soon, I will be in my eighth year of this torture. The attorney in Finland told me I won my lawsuit and that the judges are corrupt. I also have talked with attorneys in Sweden and Ireland. Amazing how everyone in other countries can see the inhumanity and torture that is being perpetrated on me, but no one in the U. S. is willing to prosecute these filthy animals. The Oklahoma bombing was not enough to make it stop. The Virginia Tech Massacre was not enough. The Navy Yard shooting was not enough. Sandy Hook was not enough. If they are representing their constituency, then make public your current agenda to chip everyone and torture them to death. When law enforcement can break into your home and steal over $200,000 worth of your property, put salt and drugs in your food, and torture you nonstop for seven years, where is the justice system now? They are so sure they don’t have to worry about justice; they will send you a letter in the mail and admit to it in writing. How can you say anyone is safe when you have given a set of people the opportunity to be lawless? I have eyewitnesses to the torture, the breaking and entering and theft, the computer tampering, – all the crime. Is there no one in Virginia with integrity? I think not. What do you think will happen when people know that the Senate undertook this agenda without public debate? I want this off my body.

  2. Wayne Young
    Victoria BC Ccanada
    January 6, 2015, 3:03 pm

    Quite simply this will never happen – mankind will consume more and more until it is the nature of reality – no amount of desired change will make one whit of difference – no amount of delusionary alternatives will make one whit of difference – there is only one thing you can do in a cahnging environment = adapt or die – simple really – we will will continue to use fossil fuelsfor at least another hundred or so years and the only result will be in delaying the next ice age by a year or two – those that do use the cheap energy becuase make no mistake about this folks no amount of solar cells and windmills will ever come close to keep the houses warm in canada alone during the winter let alone the whole world !!!! – wars will come wars will go and people will consume more – it’s time for people to realize the reality of life and get their heads out thier keysters otherwise you might start to belive a lot of the nonsense that comes out of our vauinted halls of academia

  3. AJ Virgo
    January 4, 2015, 11:14 pm

    Population growth requires economic growth and with a one off doubling of life expectancy last century we have been forced into this grand experiment to feed clothe and employ all but it will not last.
    Mathematically we know that population will plateau and then decline around 2050 (unless we dramatically increase life expectancy again somehow which is not really on the cards).
    China has now hit “replacement” 5 years earlier than predicted so the decline will be sooner.
    Lockheed Martins proportional containment electricity generator will solve much of your supposed problems but im sure you will find something new with which to beat society down.

  4. Andrew
    December 22, 2014, 9:29 am

    When I look around I’m so pleased I never had children. Not only will future generations have far less than us but they will have a much lower standard of living. We are going backwards!
    As teenagers in the 70s and 80s we were able to buy cars and easily maintain and run them. Running costs and fuel were cheap and we’d usually cruise round town in the evening, drive into the hills or just take off down to the coast. My brother and I had a sail boat and we and our pals loved fishing and cycling.
    Kids don’t seem to do anything like that today! They just seem to ‘chill’ by drinking cheap booze, drugs, watching TV or just hanging about doing nothing! They don’t even find things to do like hobbies or pastimes.

    Unemployment was unknown and even those of us who never gained any qualifications knew we’d have no trouble finding a job. There were pages of local job adverts every week with many saying “Training given to the right candidate” – which meant “Someone – please apply!” Weekly day release from work to college was standard for all my friends and me – I chose Car Mechanics!. I stopped going to school when I was 14 and never passed an exam but I still walked into a job as a graphic designer – I was the only candidate! I soon bought my own house, started my own business and travelled the world on superb vacations.

    How many youngsters can do all that now? Even those who do bother with academia don’t seem to have much hope of finding any job let alone a stable career or future. Most kids don’t have cars today – let alone a job or their own house! Can any just start up a business like I did?

    I feel sorry for this generation and their future children and grandchildren. They will never have the happy and stress-free life we enjoyed.

  5. Margo Pellegrino
    December 15, 2014, 10:28 am

    This “battening down the hatches/living with less” is already happening as mentioned above, and with the current dichotomy between the top tier incomes and everybody else, plus certain political moves to hamper reproductive rights, we can be sure population growth will keep the need for basic consumer goods high, at least, in the US. I think the article reflects wishful thinking, and for sure that could be one reality, but perhaps other realities will be more likely, especially as we further entrench ourselves in the “new age of the robber barons.”

  6. John M. DeCicco
    United States
    November 24, 2014, 8:42 am

    I’m not so sure we’re headed in such a simplifying direction. A dematerialization of economic activity — in terms of the amount of physical “stuff” (energy resources, other minerals, etc.) — has been well underway for many decades. But population and income keep growing and so too then does the total amount of stuff (including energy) that we consume. Dematerialization has been accompanied by an ever greater complexity and diversity of globalized consumption, even if the mass markets become ever more rationalized in terms of private-actor economic efficiency. So the problem may not be in the quantity of consumption as much as it is a lack of ethics in how society produces what it consumes.

    This from a colleague of Ray’s at the University of Michigan, where debate is always healthy!