The Wordsmith

Sobriety: The Party’s Over

How can we reduce carbon emissions and preserve the planet’s natural resources? By tightening our belts and consuming less but better. After all, sobriety is not the same as austerity.
© Sylvie Serprix

“Sobriety for Christmas” was the title of an article in Le Figaro on December 16, 2022, about consumer spending in the run-up to the holiday season. Constrained by inflation, rising costs, and energy restrictions, the French are now trying to adapt to avoid going without, according to the Paris-based daily newspaper.

The term sobriety (sobriété in French) has long been applied to the consumption, or rather the reduced consumption, of alcoholic beverages. Advertisements for wines and spirits in France are accompanied by the recommendation A consommer avec modération (literally “To be consumed in moderation,” the equivalent of “Please enjoy responsibly”). And for good reason. Sobriety comes from the Latin sobrietas, which, according to the venerable Gaffiot dictionary, means “ temperance in the use of wine.” In modern dictionaries, the term sobriety generally has several definitions, starting naturally with “ the minimal consumption of alcohol,” but followed by “the minimal consumption of food,” “a reserved attitude,” “moderation,” and “the absence of embellishments or frills” (particularly in literature and architecture). Its synonyms include moderation, abstinence, temperance, restraint, and simplicity, and the term is associated with concepts such as concision and starkness.

While sobriety is thrown around liberally in public debates in France, it is generally coupled with a modifier such as “energy” or “digital.” This is not enough to entirely satisfy environmentalists, who believe that the need for restraint applies to all natural resources – particularly raw materials, land, and water. In terms of consumption, they state that sobriety means focusing on what is essential, opting only for what is necessary, and reducing anything that is superfluous. They also believe that sobriety requires creating a new definition of well-being, one based on fewer materials, more work, fewer machines, and more intelligence. This new definition therefore claims to promote new jobs and provide an exceptional driver for innovation.

In times past, we might have preferred the term “austerity,” describing the strict management of the economy combined with freezing wages and increasing taxes. Either way, both words imply tightening our belts. However, “sobriety” seems to enjoy a better image than “austerity.” The former is supposedly voluntary, while the latter – a synonym of rolling back social protections – is imposed. In other words, sobriety is seen as happy austerity – at least for those who choose to remove themselves from consumer society. After all, when the French minister for the energy transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, spoke of sobriété subie (“forced sobriety”), she was simply referring to poverty.

Sobriety is similar to another concept, that of “frugality,” which comes from the Latin frugalis, meaning “a good harvest of fruit.” The first term is applied to society and is above all a collective approach. The second is a personal choice, or even a philosophical attitude. Unlike sobriety, it does not only relate to consumption, but also to customs and habits. It touches on ascetism, yet without the accompanying idea of self-deprivation. In the worlds of technology and architecture, frugality means striving to use the right techniques and materials, in exact quantities, for the lowest possible price. Quite an effort!

When looking at energy saving, sobriety is the term that comes out on top – both in France and in many other countries. It is even featured in the “law on the energy transition for green growth,” adopted by the French Parliament in 2015. Meanwhile, the challenge for decisionmakers is to find how to achieve sustainable sobriety, helping to reduce carbon emissions and protect natural resources without sacrificing industries. In a word – to quote President Macron – without having to go back to oil lamps and adopt an Amish way of life.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.