Countless choices in human lives are reinforced, driven by, or stem from traditions, whether religious traditions, rituals, cultural taboos, or what people learn from elders and their families. Taking advantage of these traditions and in some cases reorienting them to reinforce sustainable ways of life could help make human societies a restorative element of broader ecological systems. As many cultures throughout history have found, traditional ways can often help enhance rather than undermine sustainable life choices.
This section considers several important traditions in people’s lives and in society. Gary Gardner of Worldwatch suggests that religious organizations, which cultivate many of humanity’s deepest held beliefs, could play a central role in cultivating sustainability and deterring consumerism. Considering the financial resources of these bodies, their moral authority, and the fact that 86 percent of the people in the world say they belong to an organized religion, getting religions involved in spreading cultures of sustainability will unquestionably be essential.
Rituals and taboos play an important role in human lives and help reinforce norms, behaviors, and relationships. So Gary Gardner also looks at rites of passage, holidays, political rituals, and even daily actions that can be redirected from moments that stimulate consumption to those that reconnect people with the planet and remind them of their dependence on Earth for continued well-being.
Traditions shape not just day-to-day activities but major life choices, such as how many children to have. Tapping into traditions—families’ influence, religious teachings, and social pressures—to shift family size norms to more sustainable levels will be essential in global efforts to stabilize population growth. Robert Engelman of Worldwatch points out that the prerequisite of this will be to ensure that women have the ability to control their reproductive choices and that their families and governments let them make these choices in ways that respect their decisions.
Another important and unfortunately diminishing force for sustainability is the wisdom of elders. Through their long lives and breadth of experience, elders traditionally held a place of respect in communities and served as knowledge keepers, religious leaders, and shapers of community norms. These roles, however, have weakened as consumerism and its subsequent celebration of youth and rejection of tradition have spread across the planet. Recognizing the power of elders and taking advantage of all they know, as Judi Aubel of the Grandmother Project describes, can be an important tool in cultivating traditions that reinforce sustainable practices.
Finally, one long-lived tradition that has been dramatically altered in the past several generations is farming. Albert Bates of The Farm and Toby Hemenway of Pacific University describe how sustainable societies will depend on sustainable agricultural practices—systems in which farming methods no longer deplete soils and pollute the planet but actually help to replenish soils and heal scarred landscapes while providing healthy food and livelihoods.
Several Boxes in these articles also discuss important traditions, including the need for ethical systems to internalize humanity’s dependence on Earth’s systems, the value of rekindling an understanding of geologic-scale time, and the importance of reorienting dietary norms to encourage healthy and sustainable food choices.
These are just some of the many traditions that need to be critically examined and recalibrated to reflect a changing reality—one in which 6.8 billion people live on Earth, another 2.3 billion are projected to join by 2050, and the ecological systems on which humanity depends are under serious strain. Cultures in the past have also faced ecological crises. Some, like the Rapanui of Easter Island, failed to alter their traditions. The Rapanui continued, for example, to dedicate too many resources to their ritual building of Moai statues—until their society buckled under the strain and Easter Island’s population collapsed. Others have been more like the Tikopians, who live on a small island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. When they saw the dangers they faced as ecological systems became strained, they made dramatic changes in social roles, family planning strategies, and even their diet. Recognizing the resource-intensive nature of raising pigs, for instance, they stopped raising them altogether. As a result, Tikopia’s population stayed stable and continues to thrive today.