Dreams of Sustainability


I've been slowly compiling my blogs, and notice a few things about the movement of topics over time. The number of words amassed is surprising. The quantity is more than enough for another book, but the content wanders too widely. I find it increasingly difficult to grab an item out of the cybersphere and use it to base a post containing any semblance of novelty. The sameness of news and its implications for change is subtle when viewed day by day, but jumps out when looked at retrospectively.

Change is central to my thesis about sustainability. If the existing culture on which we base our societal, collective actions and behavior is the root cause of unsustainability--the existence of both signs and symptoms of breakdowns, deterioration and dysfunction--then that culture needs to be changed. It will always be too late and too little to fall back on remedial measures. This last sentence is true about any repetitive pattern of overconsumption or misconsumption. [These two terms are carefully discussed by Tom Princen in his chapter in the Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption]

The first of these behavioral isms, overconsumption, refers to consumption that harms a species health and applies to humans and other living creatures. Climate change is the clearest example of excessive use of fossil fuel. Misconsumption undermines the well being of the individual: addiction of any sort, say alcoholism, being a prime example. Misconsumption can and does morph into overconsumption, and thence to the undermining of a support system essential to human [and other living forms] life and social well being.

One of the causes of the recent financial meltdown was the excessive use of credit, particularly for the purchase of dwellings. This behavior was ultimately very bad for those who lost their homes or are still teetering on the brink of foreclosure. Collectively this practice contributed to the collapse of the financial system. It was not the cause, per se; the institutional greed of the banking sector was instrumental as well. The lesson for today is not in the event but in what is being done to avoid future occurrences--very little that reflects the root causes. All the foofaraw about fixing the banking system cannot disguise the virtually complete failure to address these causes. It's not that we know what they are with any great precision; we don't. But the great fixing system we call the government could not even start to look for them. Neither could the other great fixing system--business or its euphemism, the private sector.

These systems, incapable of reflection and serious questioning, can only seek and apply fixes of one kind or another. This political season is the worst in my lifetime in this respect. Neither raising taxes or lowering taxes will do anything fundamental to change the unsustainable culture. Ramping up consumption as the remedy for improving our lives and livelihood (another way of talking about well-being) is little more than giving a drink to an overstressed reformed alcoholic.

The subtitle of my book is "A subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture." Now a few years after its publication, I am no longer confident that the subtle, long-term introduction of culture-changing artifacts and institutions is the best and most effective path toward sustainability. Direct action is critical. The social media is not the right organizing tool as my post of a few days pointed out. New political movements that admit that pragmatism, not ideology, is more suited to deal with the complexity of the world are desperately needed now. An honest look at The American Dream is long overdue, especially as the limits of the Earth are becoming more and more apparent.

We are still hearing promises of "a chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot." This slogan, generally attributed to Herbert Hoover, was used by the Republican Party in the election of 1928. What followed a few years later destroyed the life and livelihood of many Americans. Dreams about sustainability--a system that brings flourishing for all life on Earth--are hidden among all the nightmares of the present times.

"When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?" (Peter Seeger)

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Owen said:

I'd like to see some bold political leadership for a change. I'm dismayed that we haven't been able to pass any major environmental legislation this year, even with a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democrat in the White House. OK, so there have been plenty of other things going on in this country, and we can do better than the cap-and-trade system that was on the table. That said, our government is missing a major opportunity, and even the "key" legislation that's been pushed through (stimulus, health, finance, etc.) seems riddled with compromises. If you're trying to prove to people that big government spending can help the economy, why do a half-hearted job of it? Also, we desperately need to decouple corporate interests from the state and foster true democracy and representative government. Thanks to SCOTUS, I have even less hope than usual about the prospects on that front.

On the other hand, I am encouraged by things like the Transition Network, although it is not exactly political. How about you? What are some movements out there (political or otherwise) that you think are worth expanding/refining? Or do you think we need something completely new?

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

I'll look more carefully at the Transition Network. You are right to point to this as a possible source of good news.