Creating a Sustainable Society: Four Questions We Should Ask

Austerity isn’t inspiring. If we want a sustainable society we need a vision for a beautiful and abundant future.

| February/March 2010

Mountain Lake

We need to stop defining our vision one partisan issue at a time and look at our future holistically.


I used to go backpacking with a friend who drilled holes in his toothbrush handle to decrease its weight. With his goose-down sleeping bag, dehydrated food, and plastic utensils, he could tell you within an ounce exactly what his pack weighed. His obsession was amusing, but not attractive.

Another friend favored fire-grilled steaks and would hit the trail with 10 pounds of beef in his backpack. Sometimes he also brought fresh potatoes and some whiskey. He relished the smell of meat cooking in the mountain air, the twilight glowing pink beneath a ring of peaks. Sometimes he strapped a guitar to his pack.

For a camping companion, I preferred the steak-and-whiskey friend.

We environmentalists have drilled a lot of metaphorical holes in toothbrushes. But we haven’t found ways to bring enough people along on our journey. If environmentalism had Ten Commandments, they would all begin, “Thou shalt not ...”

In 1970, MOTHER EARTH NEWS warned that our fossil fuel habit was destructive, industrial agricultural was damaging our land and water, population growth was unsustainable, and contemporary lifestyles were separating people from nature in ways that undermined our health and our emotional well-being. We’ve stuck to that message for 40 years, and we’ve pretty much been proven correct. But being right hasn’t done any of us much good.

For a long time, politicians discounted environmentalists. Nowadays, the green vernacular is more widely spoken, but we still are not making much progress toward a sustainable society. While we trade our incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents, we simultaneously allow our population in the United States to grow at a rate that builds a new Chicago every year. In unprecedented numbers we choose organic food, while destroying the rain forests to increase the supply of cheap soybeans and beef. About a billion people suffer from hunger, while a similar number are overweight because they eat too much. One step forward, two steps back.

lee einer
3/7/2010 10:52:59 AM

We are wrestling with a false dichotomy. Frugality is not impoverishment. Consumerism is the path to poverty, not abundance. Reducing our energy consumption, converting our lawns to gardens, switching from chemical cleaners to simple household provisions like vinegar and baking soda, these things all lessen our financial burdens, enabling us to either enjoy more discretionary income or reduce the hours worked for wages. Yes, the author is right. The path to earth-friendliness is the path to abundance. It is the updated version of the salty old New England wisdom, "waste not, want not."

concetta hurlbert
3/2/2010 10:37:28 AM

I love this article's approach to our mission to create sustainability. So often we hear nay-sayers pooh-poohing all the latest ideas and suggestions as impossible, impractical and naive. The author of this article, and all the writers of Mother Earth News, for that matter, put the true issue in focus. We do need to collectively commit to changing not just our light bulbs, but our way of thinking and our levels of consumption. Yes, it is important to teach struggling nations tools for food production, but we also have to remember that we cannot teach them to overconsume as we do, for we have seen that is not sustainable, responsible or earth-focused.

fran tracy
3/1/2010 7:23:03 PM

There are some thought provocing ideas presented in the article and in the comments following. I disagree that we have to give up the way we live to help the poorer countries in the world. GIVE A MAN A FISH AND HE EATS A MEAL. TEACH A MAN TO FISH AND HE EATS THE REST OF HIS LIFE. When you give things to people without expecting or demanding anything in return you are creating a welfare society and that is what is happening in the USA. The country works best if the economy is allowed too work under a free market basis. Sure some do great and some fail but it is the same in nature. The strongest flourish and reproduce and the weak die. To rebuild our great nation we need to drill for our own oil in the richest oil feilds whereever they are. Only a small portion of the beautiful places would be affected if we drilled for all the oil in the US. That would solve our trade issues and eliminate us funding the governments that want us to fail. We do need to recycle more. 1. Every household should have a composter or a compost pile and use all the kitchen scraps that are appropriate to go into the compost. 2. Every household that has a yard should plant at least one fruit or nut tree and that could be coordinated with your neighbors so one would have apples, another pears, anothers nuts and share betweenthem but it needs to be done voluntrily and the excess can be given away or sold. 3. everyone should recycle all the materials from their daily lives. Fran

melanie b
3/1/2010 4:07:48 PM

check out The Zeitgeist Movement ..... The Zeitgeist Movement is not a political movement. It does not recognize nations, governments, races, religions, creeds or class. Our understandings conclude that these are false, outdated distinctions which are far from positive factors for true collective human growth and potential. Their basis is in power division and stratification, not unity and equality, which is our goal. While it is important to understand that everything in life is a natural progression, we must also acknowledge the reality that the human species has the ability to drastically slow and paralyze progress, through social structures which are out of date, dogmatic, and hence out of line with nature itself. The world you see today, full of war, corruption, elitism, pollution, poverty, epidemic disease, human rights abuses, inequality and crime is the result of this paralysis. This movement is about awareness, in avocation of a fluid evolutionary progress, both personal, social, technological and spiritual. It recognizes that the human species is on a natural path for unification, derived from a communal acknowledgment of fundamental and near empirical understandings of how nature works and how we as humans fit into/are a part of this universal unfolding we call life. While this path does exist, it is unfortunately hindered and not recognized by the great majority of humans, who continue to perpetuate outdated and hence degenerative modes of conduct and association. It is this intellectual irrelevancy which the Zeitgeist Movement hopes to overcome through education and social action.

3/1/2010 3:25:27 PM

I really appreciate this thoughtful article. The overall message of the need for a positive vision resonated with me. I think that we must not completely discount, however, that some people may only be motivated to make fundamental changes to their behavior through fear of loss. We need to both strive for abundance and beauty and be mindful of what is likely to befall us all if we don't change our current ways. I think the first question, is it fair, is a deeply philosophical one. What is fair, anyways? Is it fair that individuals should be able to keep the fruits of their labor? Is it fair that some should starve while others live a life of admitted overconsumption? We all know that some places and some people are inherently blessed with more resources than others. What is the fair response to that? I don't have an answer- but I am glad that this article is stimulting me to think about that today. I also am pondering the "repeatability" standard. It seems to me that some of the very best solutions to difficult problems are idiosyncratic to the circumstances- place, time, people involved, etc. Maybe it is simply the principles of the solutions that must stand the "seven generations test"...

katey culver
3/1/2010 12:00:56 PM

I disagree from a semantic perspective. Maybe there is no disagreement in concept, but semantically it's huge. Conservation and Abundance go hand in hand. Wild nature is all about Abundance, not about Surplus. The Oak that produces 1000s of acorns does not create surplus. Each acorn has a life and a purpose. Some, a very few, will become Oaks, some will be food for wildlife and some for the soil. There is no waste and no surplus. My dictionary defines Austere as "severely simple; unadorned". A walk in the wild will quickly dissuade thinking conservation is austere. Wild nature inspires so much we are driven to care for it so we can enjoy it over and over. I take issue with "Science, technology, literature and art spring only from societies in which the surplus resources created..." Science, technology and art spring from every culture without creating surplus. Literature springs from civilized cultures which created the concept of Surplus and the devastating Lack that some then have to live with. As a Permaculture designer how can I deny surplus when it's part of our credo: Care for Earth, Care for People, Share the Surplus"? I rewrote the credo to fit my thinking: Care for Earth, Care for People, Honor the Abundance. If I am to be admonished over the sanctity of Mollison and Holmgren's words, my response is: Perhaps what I practice is PerMamaCulture! My point is let's be aware of the framing we use and the framing we buy in to.

3/1/2010 9:47:33 AM

I believe there are many people who want sustainability but don't know where to begin. Education is a most remarkable tool. In the area where I live, there are small pockets of people teaching the benefits and pleasure of farming. Perhaps if we could get more people showing other people how to being, then we could do this properly. Thanks Bryan for this most inspiring article.

3/1/2010 9:37:31 AM

Is it even reasonable to hope for a sustainable society in the US? All through history we have seen mighty empires rise and fall. Perhaps it is just human nature (sometimes selfish and destructive) but we seem unable to look at the Big Picture. The Big Picture is that we are running out of natural resources like oil, uranium, and the human population continues to grow bigger (the world population is expected to DOUBLE by 2050). We could hope that people will simply voluntarily do the right things -- use less natural resources, stop drilling in protected areas, approach Zero Population Growth (worldwide not just in first world countries), stop looting, hoarding and rioting after natural disasters but it doesn't seem likely. The human race will either develop eco-friendly solutions at great political cost or we will all die in an attempt to keep ourselves on the top and let the rest of the world starve. Maybe it just depends on how much does the suffering of others bother you? And for far too many, it does not bother them one little bit.

3/1/2010 8:29:42 AM

Thank you for this article which is so thought provoking. "Quality time" really hit home. I have always used that phrase to mean, for instance, planting seeds with grandma and watching not only the plant grow but also the love of growing things in my grandchildren's eyes. Quite a "productive" quality time, I'd say. Then the thought on justice and the economic realities of so many countries where abject poverty is rampant. Most Americans have no idea what at least 75% of the world have to do to survive. We think we can help the problem by adding cash to the coffers of corrupt governments, but in reality the starving are the last to receive any of that oh-so-needed!! help. While politicians seem to believe that throwing money at problems is the answer, you and I and every individual with some surplus can only help thru helping individual families. I do not forsee a global solution to a 'sustainable' lifestyle. However I am hopeful that we can change the quality of life for individuals (and by extension their families) in a "one person at a time" approach.

mark hathaway_2
2/4/2010 1:30:09 PM

Thanks for your wonderful article, Bryan. I wholeheartedly agree with your emphasis on inspiration and beauty. Certainly, we need to be aware of the depths of the ecological and social crisis we face, but guilt and fear will never prove to be sufficient motivation for the radical changes that are required in the way we live. Love, beauty, creativity, and joy must be at the heart of meaningful transformation. I think the book I recently co-wrote with Leonardo Boff would be of interest to your readers in this light. It's called "The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation." It is a "search for wisdom in a time of crisis" in which we see the transition toward a sustainable and just society in terms of liberation - a movement toward ever-deepening creativity, communion, and diversity. To find out more, see

pat miketinac
1/19/2010 10:07:13 PM

Someday people will realize that government is the greatest threat to sustainability because it takes away more and more of the fruits of our labor, dragging us down to subsistence levels trying to pay for all their programs. The English philosopher John Locke knew in the 1600's how important life, liberty, and property are to sustainability of civilization. His writings were well read by our Founding Fathers. The innovation to solve our problems depends on minimal interference.

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