Another year, another yowler. I looked back at the year-end and beginning blogs from the last two years as a jumping off place for this new year. Not much solid ground right now, so whatever jumping off I do has to be quite modest. Sustainability still has not entered our collective consciousness in spite of the torrent of its use and that of its distant cousin, green. The world of business and government moves merrily along selling its meager efforts as sustainability, avoiding any meaningful appreciation of the phenomena involved or any actions that would make a difference.
Meanwhile signs of unsustainability continue to add up to a pile that is already threatening to topple over and send this Planet into some unknown, but probably unfriendly place. Nicholas Kristof, in his New Year’s weekend piece in the NYTimes, pointed to the evils of inequality, referring to the important book, The Spirit Level, a careful study of the correlation of social and individual harms and income inequality. Here are a few key quotes from Kristof.
> John Steinbeck observed that, “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”
> That insight, now confirmed by epidemiological studies, is worth bearing in mind at a time of such polarizing inequality that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent.
> There’s growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.
It’s no coincidence that James Carroll chose inequality for his first column of 2011. The statistics provided by Carroll are shameful.
If a just society is defined by the relationship between the well off and the very poor, we have big trouble. US Census data for 2010 show the widest rich-poor income gap on record. In 1968, the top 20 percent of Americans had about 7 times the income of those living below the poverty line. By 2008, that disparity had grown to about 13. By 2010, it had grown even further, to more than 14. The poverty level in 2010 was put at $21,954 for a family of four. In 2010, the percentage of Americans living below half of the poverty line (or about $11,000) had grown from 5.7 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent. That the rich get richer while the poor get poorer can seem a timeless clich�, yet something is steadily corroding America. The mythic land of equality has the largest income disparity of any Western nation. How can that be?
The once sensitive and dynamic political system in the US has aged badly and suffers from hardening of the arteries. The American Dream, always a myth, is no longer even a possibility. The enabling structures, education and access, for upward mobility are in a sad state of disrepair. The material structures, factories, roads, bridges, public transportation, that facilitate the economics of those that base their livelihood on real work are old and in need of rejuvenation. The financial, entertainment, and sports oligopolies that produce much of the inequality get a disproportionate share of the national wealth, continuing to make matters worse. Thomas Franks asked in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, wondering why so many people voted contrary to their own interests. A more apt title for today would be, What’s the Matter with the US?
Much more was written in 2010 about global warming than about inequality and failures of social justice. I expect even more this year as the deniers and know-nothings take control of half of our legislative machinery. The incoming Chair of the House Science Committee Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) declared his intention to use the House Science and Technology Committee to investigate the “false statements” of climate scientists, and “subpoena” those who don’t appear willingly. Sustainability requires that we put both our societal and environmental houses in order.
Neither of these rebuilding processes will work without leaping off of the path we are on. The twin grails of finding more oil and gas and making the energy system efficient enough to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for energy are mere chimaeras. The above-mentioned Congressman Hall also said about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the same interview in the Dallas News.
“As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out – all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week – that was tremendous to me,” he said. “That we could deliver that kind of energy out there – even on an explosion.”
As I [wrote](http://www.johnehrenfeld.com/2010/12/efficiency-does-not-equal-sust.html) just before the holiday, efficiency is not the answer either. But efficiency drives business. It is a central tenet of the economic models used to plot public policy and business strategies. Growth depends on efficiency improvements. But growth cannot be the long-run strategy. There simply isn’t enough Earth to allow for continuing growth in material terms. And certain not if growth adds to rather than reduces inequality.
These are a few very simple, pretty obvious truths about the world of today. Yet we are living out a new American dream (no caps this time). This is not a dream with the usual metaphorical expansiveness and promise of the American Dream (caps). It is the unreal visioning that comes from the illusions that ideology of all and any sorts inevitably create. It promises a false freedom based on unlimited choice and the ability to build walls between one and the world. The life-sustaining power of relationships and strong ties to others is enervated by social practices that lessen cultural bonds and destroy community.
I hope I can write about these inconvenient and unpleasant truths and their opposites in a convincing way this next year. To flourish, the quality that signals the presence of sustainability, we have to live in truth, as Vaclav Havel so eloquently wrote. These truths have a Janus-like quality. One face is the truth that looks back at the world as it is: staggering under the load of our species’ excesses. The other is the vision of the world as it should and could be: one where flourishing is everywhere. The New Year begins with the month of January, aptly named for this god of myth.
The promises around which so many now construct their lives in our modern worlds are mostly false. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There may not even be a rainbow if the environment continues to collapse. Novelty and unlimited choice are, even if only passing fancies, full of hidden harms that erode our inner peace and satisfaction. I thought for a while that the vision of sustainability alone might be enough to promote a change in the culture, but I do not believe that it is close to being enough. It takes a Jason-like attack. Both sides of the truth are necessary. It’s no fun being a Scrooge. Sustainability is not humbug, however. I will try this coming year to keep up a two-pronged attack, pointing out the folly (yes, folly) of our ways while arguing that there is another flourishing world out there waiting for us to create it. I look forward to all my readers’ help in doing this. I just do not want to wait until that inconvenient truth becomes undeniable.