Those who run states, churches, armies and companies have always tried to choose a word that could serve as a simple watchword to motivate their followers, their soldiers, their subjects and their employees. They have spoken of salvation, homeland, profit, purchasing power, employment, growth. More recently they have started to talk about sustainable development, green economy and many other things. And now a new word, which has come out of nowhere, is creeping into political debates, companies, administrations and the media: ‘sobriety’.
And just as managers, civil servants and consultants have been commissioned for decades to draw up plans to improve profit, growth, employment or sustainability, now everyone is being asked to implement ‘sobriety’ plans.
It is understandable that with the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s cutting off of gas and oil supplies to the European Union, it is necessary to reduce consumption; and, for the sake of modesty, we call what is shaping up to be rationing “sobriety”. For some, once this crisis is over, we can put an end to this episode. For others, it will be necessary to maintain this rationing in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, for others, sobriety is justified in the long term in a different way, because it refers, in all cultures, to mortification, sacrifice, purification, redemption and the search for paradise.
In fact, today’s sobriety refers to the very ancient and universal idea of redemption; it almost everywhere involves fasting, voluntary deprivation, the refusal of all excess; it is everywhere a positive concept. It is a welcome, unifying, economic, ecological and ideological concept.
Conversely, in all the languages I know, the opposite of sobriety is always a pejorative word: intemperance, voracity, gluttony.
And yet, we cannot, we must not reduce a project for society, or even the economic project of a country, or a company, or a person, to the ambition to do less, to consume less, to have less; we cannot be satisfied with a global degrowth, of which sobriety is another name. From every point of view, setting sobriety as the ultimate ambition is a dangerous ambition:
From an economic point of view, to be content with reducing energy consumption, through some form of rationing, is to fail to see that the most effective way to consume less energy is through lifestyle changes and technical progress: for example, we must not only use fewer private planes; we must above all travel less and develop electric planes and hydrogen planes.
From a social point of view, it is obscene to ask those who have little or nothing to be sober, while those who have everything are not concerned.
From a political point of view, it is not enough to set the ambition of consuming and producing less of what pollutes; a political project must propose much more if it wants to create the conditions for a consensus, for legitimacy.
All in all, if we stick to a sobriety project, as we see it being announced at the moment, we can only enter into an economically, socially and politically suicidal dynamic.
A good solution would be to be much more than “sober” in the harmful areas; for example, we should not set ourselves the goal of consuming less gas; we should do everything possible to stop consuming it at all. Nor should we set ourselves the goal of consuming less artificial sugars; we should not consume them at all. More generally, it is not by consuming less poison that we avoid poisoning. It is by not consuming any more.
Conversely, we must not be sober when it comes to producing and consuming the goods of the life economy, i.e. the goods and services of health, education, culture, agriculture and healthy food, democracy, research, the digital economy, hospitality, support for the weakest, and everything that makes all this possible (finance, security, the press, democracy).
Forget about sobriety; we must get drunk on the economy of life.
Image: Guido Reni, Bacchus drinking (detail) 1623, Dresden