Creating a Sustainable Society: Four Questions We Should Ask

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We need to stop defining our vision one partisan issue at a time and look at our future holistically.
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In the past, conservation has been our primary approach — an ethic that is admirable but won't inspire the creation of a sustainable society.

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.

Most of the time we’ve gone about this task backward, advocating personal change without offering incentives. Conservation has been our primary approach — an ethic that is admirable, but uninspiring. Austerity is a drag. Most people know that — and resist it.

Abundance, on the other hand, is attractive. If we are to lead creative, innovative, and beautiful lives, we need some surplus time and energy. Most of the significant achievements in our history have been accomplished in the presence of abundance. Science, technology, literature, and art spring only from societies in which the surplus resources created by some people enable others to live reflective, inventive lives. We will not engage the great engines of human creativity with a vision of pure frugality. If we are to create a sustainable future, we need more positive criteria.

Inspiration Close at Hand

My farm is my passion. It’s a pretty place, and it produces a lot of food. We grow meat on natural prairie and vegetables in the garden. The soil and the grass remain healthy and productive as long as we control the number of cows, sheep, and goats.

Dozens of animal species live here with us. The grassland swarms with voles, mice, rats, coyotes, owls, foxes, hawks, eagles, snakes, frogs, and thousands of species of insects. Every day we see something new — an owl in the low pasture or a colony of tiny frogs in a wet spot behind a shed.

If we plowed up the pastures and planted corn, our farm could create more food, but at the expense of the natural beauty of the place.

I love what we’ve created here, and it didn’t take much work. I would like to live in a world in which we treat the whole planet with the same regard my family and I feel for this piece of prairie.

A Philosophical Hologram

To create that world, we need to stop defining our vision one partisan issue at a time and look at our future holistically. Because prescriptions, commandments, and statements of fact are — by their nature — divisive, I suggest instead a set of simple questions to guide our aspirations.

A hologram is created on paper or film by encoding millions of tiny reproductions, each containing light from the original two-dimensional image. Consider the following four simple questions as points of light, which, if replicated millions of times by millions of individuals, might create a three-dimensional world. Imagine using these criteria to guide our actions. Imagine the ways the criteria might shape eventual outcomes if we put all our actions to this test.

1. Is It Fair?

We all think we’ve been treated unfairly at times, but we support our society as long as we believe, on the whole, that it is a fair society. If any part of the world consistently believes that our power institutions are unfair, we won’t be able to form the global consensuses we need to address our global problems. Therefore, we need to build a sense of fairness that attracts consensus.

That’s a tall order. We don’t need complete international agreement to start making progress. But if we don’t maintain a fundamental standard of fairness, we can’t begin. If we make fairness a touchstone in our homes, our businesses, and our governments, we’ll set a groundwork on which a global sense of fairness might be built.

2. Is It Repeatable?

To make any significant difference, we need tools and practices that can be repeated across space and time. For example, North American sustainable-forestry practices can’t be applied in Brazil until Brazil’s timberlands are no longer needed for grazing and crops. How can conservation organizations funded by wealthy Westerners protect Africa’s mountain gorillas if their human neighbors in central Africa perceive that the gorillas have a higher standard of living than their own? Solutions, if they are to be effective, should apply across the globe. Sometimes that will require that we solve an economic problem before we can solve an environmental problem.

A solution needs to hold its value as we repeat it over time. “Seventh generation sustainability” is a useful concept based on the laws of the Iroquois Confederacy, a group of Native American tribes from the northeastern corner of North America. Because the tribes had no written language, it’s hard to be sure this is an Iroquois idea, but it’s good thinking nonetheless.

The notion is that we should live in a way that is sustainable for at least seven generations to come. We should care for our land so that it is healthy and productive 150 years from now. That sort of defines sustainability, doesn’t it?

3. Is It Beautiful?

The Sydney Opera House resonates with its setting in the southern Pacific Ocean by reminding us of the beauty of the chambered nautilus, a Pacific cephalopod whose shells are exquisite. The opera house covers 4 1⁄2 acres with concrete, plywood, and glass; is difficult to heat and cool; and is not, explicitly at least, a tribute to nature. Yet its design symbolically places humankind — opera, ballet, and great theater — in nature. It reminds human beings throughout the world of the beauty and vulnerability of the Pacific Ocean, linking human aesthetics to nature in a powerful way.

The greatest achievements in American conservation during the 19th and 20th centuries were motivated by beauty. The national parks of the United States — from Acadia in Maine to Denali in Alaska — were chosen for their beauty. That beauty was captured by artists. How many of us first encountered Yosemite through the lens of photographer Ansel Adams? Or Yellowstone through the eyes of painter Albert Bierstadt?

Fairness and sustainability have been part of the ecological dialogue all along. Unfortunately, beauty sneaks into the discussion only incidentally these days. But isn’t it a critical component? Even if we could envision a human future without beauty, why bother? Would anyone want to go there?

4. Does It Create Abundance?

When my wife and I were raising our children, we heard a lot about “quality time.” The idea was that because we had so little time to spend with our children, we should spend our few hours together reading books and playing intellectually stimulating games. That way, we could be great parents even if we worked 50-hour weeks and exercised two hours a day.

In our experience, quality time was a big fraud. Although some family activities were clearly superior to others, the thing that really deepened our relationships was quantity time — long hours in the car, on a hike, or even in front of a mundane television program with nothing much to do except talk to each other.

It may be counterintuitive, but we need surpluses to be creative. And we certainly need to be creative to solve problems. If we have only enough arable land to support all of us, then we can’t let farmers experiment with new techniques or innovative crops. If our employers provide us with only the resources necessary to attend to today’s business, then our business will be blindsided by tomorrow’s problems. We need “extra” time and money to brainstorm, innovate and invent.

Consider what single activity or person is the most important in your life. If you had no time or money to spare, could that important activity or beloved person be part of your life? Many of the things that are most important to us are created from abundance. We depend on abundance.

Choosing to protect wilderness exemplifies abundance. In the United States, we’ve taken advantage of our vast natural resources to set aside tracts of land as wilderness areas, promising never to exploit them for food, timber, or minerals. Yet in regions where natural resources are scarce and people struggle to survive, the wilderness may contain wood, meat, arable soil, and marketable minerals that make the difference between human life and death.

Wilderness may not be a luxury to all of us, but keeping it wild is definitely a function of abundance.

Imagine Our Destination

A lot of people think we’re on the verge of a global, man-made environmental catastrophe. Most people who talk about protecting the environment have trained their attention on the causes of the looming disaster. Then the voices become more strident: “We have to stop living this way!”

In the face of this intensity, it becomes more and more difficult to discuss how we would like to live. Such a discussion strikes the alarmed mind as a trivial distraction.

But if we train our ingenuity solely on efficiency, we squander opportunity. The conservation ethic and the efficiency ethic, in their purest forms, both lead to the same dreary destination: a world that has maximized its human population at the expense of beauty and creativity. We need space and capital to realize our potential as a species.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS has always been mostly about positive visions. We’ve focused on the ways in which creative, conscientious people live sustainable, fulfilling lives. We’ve helped them create their dream homesteads and gardens and unique, remarkable homes.

We learned a long time ago that we couldn’t attract an audience if our primary subjects were environmental problems. Our readers came to us for ingenuity, inspiration, and beauty. So we told stories about homesteading and taught people about self-reliance. We wrote a lot about food gardens.

Maybe we did have it right all along. We need to keep the same approach, only now we need to expand our ideas from homesteads and food gardens to a fair, sustainable, beautiful, and abundant world.

Bryan Welch is the publisher and editorial director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Beautiful and Abundant: Visualizing a Sustainable Human Future. To read more, check out his blog, Rancho Cappuccino.

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