Recently my wife and son sat down and watched a Russian TV sketch show for kids. One skit, which they showed me because I make my own kefir, focused on that of an obese consumer boy eating bulochki (sweet rolls) and drinking kefir while watching TV in his living room. Suddenly, while opening a new bottle of kefir, out popped a genie named “Kefirych,” along with his goat.* As with other genies, Kefirych grants three wishes, though starts by trying to convince the child to wish for a cow, not these high-tech difficult-to-conjure gadgets. But justifiably, the boy, who lives on the seventh floor of an apartment building, argues against the value of having a cow.
What’s funny about the sketch is how Kefirych executed his wishes. The boy wishes for a bicycle, with a motor though; a new TV in his bedroom; and to be thinner. Kefirych complies to the letter, granting all three at once, and brings the boy to his bedroom to show him his wishes. There before the boy is his new bicycle, with a motor, and a large screen TV anchored to his wall. But it turns out to be a stationary bike—with a motor that generates electricity to keep the TV running only when the pedals are in motion—granting all three of his wishes, although not in the way the boy imagines. The sketch ends with the boy sweating profusely, pedaling hard to keep watching his show.
Where’s Kefirych When We Need Him?
As I watched, it dawned on me that we need Kefirych to come and rescue us from the dominant unsustainable consumer culture we inhabit. But what would it mean if a wise genie granted us wishes—that, like kefir are good for you even if sour tasting—and fulfill what we truly need, rather than what we think we need (or simply want). Here’s my imagining of this:
Setting: Two friends dining in an upscale local farm-to-table café for brunch. Surrounded by a diverse attractive millennial crowd. The scene starts with their smiling waiter bringing over their meals.
“Here you go: For Ryan, the Eggs Benedict, with eggs from Sunny Vale Farm. And for you, Lars, the house-made granola with a bottle of kefir from Curious Cud Farms.”
“Thank you, Jenny, these look delicious,” responds Ryan.
“Bon Appétit,” responds Jenny as she moves away.
Ryan takes a bite of his eggs, while Lars opens his kefir.
Suddenly out swirls Kefirych, the people in the background fade to nothing, conveying that they’re in a moment beyond time.
“Who, who are you?” asks Lars.
“I am Kefirych, and this is my goat (popping into existence), and we are here to grant you three wishes, but please, no stupid wishes like an iPhone 20, or especially more wishes. My goat was the last person who tried that.”
The goat bleats sadly, which kind of sounds like “Mhelllp.”
“I can’t believe this is real—who put you up to this? Is this a birthday trick or something, Ryan?”
Ryan shakes his head vigorously, and Kefirych says, “Look around you: does this look like pretend? Time has stopped, the people are gone.”
“Ok, ok, I just can’t believe it. Jeez, what to wish for. No extra wishes, ok. Umm. I definitely want to be rich.”
Ryan chimes in, “Lars, this is a chance to end poverty, to solve the climate crisis. You could end wars, prevent the end of human civilization, save the planet!”
“Ohh. Right.” Lars pauses for a long while, “Well, I guess those work too and I can keep my third wish for being rich.”
“Dear Kefirych, I wish first that everyone has a home, and enough food and energy to lead good lives.”
“Two: I wish humans weren’t hurting the Earth any longer.”
“Three: I wish to be rich.”
Kefirych waves his hands around and claps them together, and suddenly they’re in a well-decorated home.
“Lars, we’re back in your condo!”
“Your mortgage has been paid, sir.”
Lars smiles and looks around. His smile falls and he feels around the wall near him. He turns suddenly and goes to another wall, feeling that one. “Wh-where is my third bedroom? And my second bath?”
“They have been partitioned off to make a new apartment. Homelessness is a thing of the past, housing better allotted. McMansions have become cohousing communities, apartments reapportioned so everyone has a home. And by shrinking the size of everyone’s dwelling, energy use has fallen as well.”
“Lars, come and look out your window.”
Ryan rushes over and sees a lush forest sprawling out for miles.
“All those people have been absorbed into the city center, in the smaller apartments and new cohousing communities, allowing us to give land back to the Earth, addressing the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, and the other grave challenges you faced.”
“But am I rich?”
“Oh yes, you have one of the biggest homes in the city.”
Out walks another guy, sleepy faced, from another door in the apartment.
“Why, that’s your roommate of course.”
Camera pans in to Lars’s sad face with the goat bleating in the background.
Oh the Irony
That was not what Lars was expecting! But like the little couch potato Kefirych introduced to exercise, he may be far better off in the end. Of course, this guy, who just lost half his apartment, might not see himself as rich, but relatively he is superrich (and even before meeting Kefirych, he was in the global scheme of things). As many have studied, being wealthy is a relative reality, so over time, especially as he gets to know his roommate (a really cool guy who will become a close friend) Lars will realize his life is better than ever (with the exception of when occasionally having to wait for the one toilet in the house).**
Of course, Kefirych could have gone a different route: in the style of the film, Downsizing, he could have made all humans small and then our impact would have been significantly reduced (assuming we weren’t all eaten by birds and squirrels in what the survivors would remember as the Great Kefirych Holocaust). Or he could have snapped his finger and made half the population disappear, like Thanos did in Avengers: Infinity War.***
But old Kefirych is not cruel and is wise so realizes the problem is not in our total numbers.**** Instead it is how we live. We consume massive amounts of Earth’s resources to build large homes, fill them with stuff, and build and hire storage units to store even more stuff. To drive big cars, to fly around the world in search of novel experiences, to eat meat every meal, and on and on. So with the wave of his hands Kefirych addresses it all: dismantling the unsustainable suburbs, shrinking people’s home sizes, getting rid of cars and putting in bike lanes and bus routes, rewilding sickened lands. And while you didn’t see it, Kefirych even replaced most of the meat and processed foods in Lars’s fridge with fresh and local veggies (but being wise, he also embedded cooking skills in all people’s minds, so that they know how to prepare these healthily and with joy). It’s a lot to ask for, but considering the data—like the recent 1.5-Degree Lifestyles report by the Hot or Cool Institute—we need to make radical lifestyle changes to prevent runaway climate change.***** We also need to protect still intact forests that continue to draw in carbon, and heal those forests that could do so as well rather than spewing carbon out at higher speeds. Living simply, even “poorly” from a modern consumer’s perspective, is essential if humanity is to prevent runaway climate change, and the broader ecological shifts that are making Earth uninhabitable to humans (and many other species). The only question is how we make that shift, other than wishing for a wise old genie to save us.
*A play on the famous Russian genie Old Khottabych (Старик Хоттабыч)
**After all, being wealthy is often a proxy for wellbeing (sharing the common root word, wela). Having close friends, health, security, purpose, and so on is a true version of wealth, even if not as glamorous as having millions of dollars is.
***For a great analysis of the absurdity of this path of reducing impacts, read this excellent essay by John Halstead.
****At this point anyway. Kefirych might have had to do something more disturbing if our population were at 10 billion, though even that may be a feasible carrying capacity if we live truly simple sustainable—and actively regenerative—lives (though it’s hard to imagine getting to that from where we’re at).
*****I address some of these changes briefly in this essay, but it’s worth reading the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles report as well to explore how deep the change go.