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.
  • sustainable society - green fields
    In the past, conservation has been our primary approach — an ethic that is admirable but won't inspire the creation of a sustainable society.

  • Mountain Lake
  • sustainable society - green fields

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

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