Sobriety in the spotlight

Against the backdrop of climate change, the war in Ukraine is forcing us to rethink our energy use. As a result, a new idea is emerging in our political leaders’ rhetoric: energy sobriety. Professor Sandrine Frémeaux elaborates

The economic and financial sanctions aimed at depriving the Russian economy of one of its main sources of income, ie oil and gas exports, has confronted us with our own energy dependence.

Everywhere in Europe, governments are encouraging their citizens to become more mindful of their energy use: lowering home heating and water temperature, turning off appliances that are not in use, postponing the use of certain appliances and using programmable thermostats. 

To implement energy sobriety, another question arises: can we impose such a strategy while ignoring the other, more joyful, or at least more intimate, facets of sobriety? 

If we look at the Greek (sôphrosunè) and Latin (sobrietas) etymology of the word sobriety, it means an essential virtue of self-control or temperance that is opposed to a major vice of excess. Sobriety evokes moderation and more precisely the capacity to use without abusing. The usual meaning given to sobriety as the opposite of drunkenness is not far from this more general meaning: we can remain sober by deciding to consume in a measured and reasonable way.

This positive vision of sobriety has been defended in several texts of a different nature by the French writer, farmer and environmentalist Pierre Rabhi, or Pope Francis in his call for an ecological conversion in Laudato Si. In these contexts, self-imposed sobriety can be applied by all individuals, regardless of their political or religious convictions and can be a means to seek the common good.

Sobriety helps in the pursuit of the good, in the exercise of freedom and in the search for happiness. It invites us to replace consumerism by goods and services useful to the real needs of society. It eschews individualism in favour of true freedom, the freedom to seek the common good. It replaces the hedonistic mentality that makes the search for pleasure the goal of life with eudemonic wellbeing that responds to our quest for meaning. Can’t this existential sobriety, profound and free, be a basis not only for energy sobriety but other forms of sobriety as well?

Originating in Aristotelian-Thomistic thought, the perspective of the common good invites us to practice this existential sobriety by combining concern for the needs of society with concern for oneself. Sobriety can be applied not just to leisure, but ways of working as well. Indeed, organisations as well as individuals can ask themselves questions about true good, true freedom and true happiness.

They can incrementally, or sometimes more radically, reorient themselves, make choices that are more generous to others and to themselves. What activities best meet our needs for existential sobriety? This question leads us to make choices that favour meaningful activities over superficial ones, interdependent activities over independent ones, and eudemonic activities over hedonic ones.

With this perspective of the common good, these choices can, in our personal lives as well as at work, give us the strength to accept energy sobriety, but above all face the great economic, social, and environmental challenges ahead of us. 

Sandrine Frémeaux, is a professor of law and ethics at Audencia in Nantes and author of the book, L’entreprise et le bien commun, Nouvelle Cité, 2022

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