The buzzwords at last Tuesday’s book launch of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? were those that you would expect from a room full of environmentalists worried about the planet’s future: “climate change”, “sustainability”, “planetary boundaries”. While it may seem that these words are used almost nonchalantly by many of the environmentally-conscious, the symposium, much like the publication itself, characterized itself by really trying to dig deeper into the meanings of such critical, movement-defining terms.
Worldwatch president Bob Engelman kicked off the symposium by talking about the concept of “sustainability” and questioning whether it is still possible. In the spirit of the opening chapter of State of the World 2013, which he authored, Engelman instructed attendees to be wary of “sustainability” becoming nothing more than “sustainababble” (this “CO2 is Green” ad campaign is a particularly egregious example of Engelman’s sustainababble). He encouraged those listening to be critical of greenwash, and, given the intransigence of governments and institutions domestically and internationally, to take the struggle for the environment into their own hands. After all, he concluded, the responsibility for acting now on sustainability rests on everyone’s shoulders. In other words, we shouldn’t just blame corporations and governments for being in on the sustainababble game—we ourselves should step up our individual and collective efforts to get to true sustainability.
The first panel of authors, entitled: “Getting to True Sustainability” reflected the mission of the first two-thirds of the book, which discusses ways of measuring sustainability and determining whether it is still possible for us to achieve it in time. Worldwatch researcher Shakuntala Makhijani talked about the hope of renewables, Canadian professor Jennie Moore pointed out ways in which individuals can live “one-planet” lifestyles, water specialist Sandra Postel referenced the importance of taking into account our water footprints when measuring our environmental impact, and economist Eric Zencey proposed measuring energy use in physical thermodynamic terms rather than straight economic terms.
Although the four authors approached sustainability from very different backgrounds, their passion was tangible and their consensus was clear: despite (or maybe in part because of) all the sustainababble out there, we most likely won’t get to true sustainability before it’s too late.
However, the symposium would not have done the book justice if it did not uplift attendees after presenting such a bleak view of the future. Indeed, among the buzzwords of the day were more importantly “social movements”, “resilience”, and “resistance”. One of the most important messages of State of the World 2013 is that in the probable case that humanity doesn’t get its act together in time, we need to have tools to deal with the “long emergency” that is to come.
The second author panel, “Preparing for the Long Emergency”, explored ways in which we can help not only ourselves but also the planet’s most vulnerable adjust to a changing, more hostile climate. Writer Laurie Mazur set the tone for the discussion in recognizing that by virtue of their agency, humans are incredibly resilient creatures and yet, our societies and systems aren’t. As such, part of the struggle will be making those systems as resilient as we know they can be. Michael Maniates, himself an educator, touched on the themes he discusses in his chapter about teaching youth to be prepared for the turbulence ahead. State of the World 2013 project co-director Erik Assadourian spoke about taking a page from the books of religion and transforming environmentalism into a genuine life philosophy, while researcher Pat Murphy complemented the other panelists’ theories with Cuba’s forced crunch experience and the the constructive lessons about cooperation and sustainability it can provide us.
After the second panel, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson gave the symposium’s keynote speech. A true science fan, his take on the ever-evolving human condition was quick to inspire hope to those in the room. He argued that if we consider that humans evolved by cooperating with each other and planning for the future, the ‘flawed human nature’ argument for why sustainability is not possible is invalid. On the contrary, he proclaimed, our humanity can give us nothing but hope for the future! Stuart Clarke, executive director of one of State of the World 2013’s financiers, the Maryland-based Town Creek Foundation, then went on to echo Stanley Robinson’s sentiments in his closing remarks: ultimately, humans are characterized by their values systems. If we are to get to make the transition to sustainability as pain-free as possible, environmentalism must cease to be agnostic on values; rather, it must harness the capacity humans certainly possess for innovation, for resilience, and most importantly, for compassion.