Getting to True Sustainability



Despite scattered attempts to impute progress on climate change to the U.N. summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, the consensus persists that it produced lots of gaseous talk and no significant action—leaving, according to one cartoonist, Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer gasping for purer air.

Climate change is only the most prominent environmental trend that threatens sustainability; the first section of this book details several other areas where humanity seems to be overdrawing its accounts with nature. Yet we are hardly helpless. This section samples a variety of measures that, if pursued vigorously, could set us on a sustainable path. Indeed, had we done so after the first Rio summit 20 years ago, we would be well down that path now.

A long first stride would be jettisoning consumer cultures. As Erik -Assadourian writes, consumerism has turned out to undermine both human well-being and the planet’s life-support functions. But it is a willfully engineered way of living, supported by enormous sums spent annually on advertising, subsidies, tax breaks, and public relations. We can, and must, replace it with a culture of sustainability.

Many cultural options might qualify as sustainable, but certain attributes seem critical. Robert Costanza and his coauthors argue for an economy that focuses on human well-being rather than on economic growth as an end in itself. Pavan Sukhdev urges sharp reforms of corporations—the main agents of the “brown economy”—which account for 60 percent of global gross domestic product but also generate trillions of dollars of externalities and exert pernicious influence on national policies. Jeff Hohensee describes the efforts of international accounting agencies to build externality disclosure into routine corporate reporting—an important step in the right direction.

Energy is perhaps the most daunting challenge before us. In a real sense, fossil energy is the author of modern civilization—but now threatens to destroy it. The only solution, say Thomas Princen and his colleagues, is to take a true precautionary approach and leave fossil fuels in the ground by “delegitimizing” them, as happened with slavery and smoking. In their place, we must rapidly transition to renewables, and T. W. Murphy tallies the pros and cons of solar, wind, biomass, and other alternatives. He notes, however, that they are inferior in many respects to fossil fuels and warns against delaying the renewable transition so long that it diverts too much energy from other uses. In any case, such a transition will falter absent serious efficiency efforts, and Phillip Saieg reminds us that buildings remain a neglected but highly promising sector for those.

Like energy, global agriculture is at a turning point. Danielle Nierenberg notes that 1.5 billion people are overweight while billions of others are hungry or malnourished, all while the system wastes staggering amounts of food. Agriculture can help solve multiple problems through reducing food waste, promoting agroecological approaches to farming, and focusing on nutrient-rich, indigenous foods rather than high-calorie commodified foods. Those indigenous foods are stewarded by native peoples all over the globe, and in separate chapters Melissa Nelson and Rebecca Adamson (with her co-authors) make the case that the ongoing mistreatment of native peoples is not only unjust but shortsighted, as it threatens loss of valuable knowledge of key biodiversity habitats and ways of living sustainably in them.

Finally, how to achieve these changes? If civilizational survival is not motivation enough, Kathleen Moore and Michael Nelson believe that eco-disasters are violations of human rights and principles of justice. Dwight Collins and his coauthors suggest that an appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe, through the teaching of Big History, can support effective planet-wide action.

In the end it boils down to politics. Melissa Leach offers strategies for bridging and connecting top-down and bottom-up approaches and stresses deliberation, citizen mobilization, network building, and the shrewd exploitation of political openings. Creating such a movement, says Annie Leonard, requires the realization that individual actions are “a fine place to start” but “a terrible place to stop.” They must be linked to organized political action, to “bigger visions and bolder campaigns” for broad change.

—Tom Prugh

Cartoon credit page 111: Victor Ndula/Cartoon Movement