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To-Do List for a Sustainable Civilization
Alan AtKisson, 5 Apr 05

The following is an edited version of my Foreword to the book Natural Advantage of Nations, so technically © 2005 by Karlson 'Charlie' Hargroves and Michael H. Smith (Eds). Republished here with their kind permission. - Alan AtKisson

The challenge of sustainability places greater demands on us than is commonly understood. People often speak of "balancing" economic, social, and environmental needs -- as though performing a mere tight-rope act, a skillful stroll above the crowd and the safety-net, was all that was required.

But there is no safety-net; to fail is to crash. The crowd cannot just watch; all must participate. And we need far more than balance: we need transformation, a wave of social, technical, and economic innovation that will touch every person, community, company, institution, and nation on the Earth.

Consider the widening abyss between how we run our economies, and what Nature's systems can tolerate. Consider the rising levels of international tension as the gaps increase between the have-a-lots and the have-not-at-alls, the techno-rich and the food-and-water-poor. Consider that we are losing whole peoples, whole species, whole ecosystems.

Technology is, of course, an enormous blessing. Bhutanese villages celebrate the arrival of electricity as though it were "the coming of the sun." Few alive today understand the horror of smallpox and other diseases that have been all but eradicated (even though other diseases, like AIDS and malaria, continue to haunt us). Who wants to turn back the clock on dental care?

The developed world's quality of life represents success in the human struggle of a hundred thousand years -- the struggle for survival, health, longer life, safety from Nature's unpredictable rages, comfort, happiness. Those living in the world's richer demographic groups can now expect their children to grow up healthy, to see grandchildren do the same, and to watch all this from the vantage point of technology-based personal satisfaction.

But this amazing accomplishment has come to us via catastrophically destructive methods. It is physically impossible to spread such wonders to the whole world, doing things the way we do them now. It is very likely impossible even to maintain this quality of life for those who already have it, without enormous changes.

In the industrialized world, we do not need "sustainable development". We need sustainable re-development, a set of transformations in the direction of sustainability, in virtually every sector.

Here are just a few of the challenges we actually face, challenges that we inherited from our recent ancestors and that we will almost certainly pass on to our descendants:

The complete redevelopment of our energy systems. Energy is the life-blood of our economies, but producing it is destroying our climate, damaging our health, and degrading nature. We must make our energy sources and systems climate-neutral, or better yet climate-restorative. This transformation involves much more than just energy efficiency or hybrid engines. We must either put fossil-carbon-based energy systems essentially to rest in our cars, planes, and power plants; or we must find a way to permanently sequester the carbon and manage the Earth's atmosphere, permanently.

The complete redevelopment of chemical, material, and building technologies. While we have begun a transformation in all these areas, the work remains far from finished. We still release dizzying amounts of poisonous substances into nature, where they accumulate in living bodies. We still build incredibly wasteful, toxic, and inefficient products and buildings. We are now adding the wild cards of nanotechnology and biotechnology to this strange brew. How we make things, and how we think about how we make things, must change radically.

The complete redevelopment of industrial agriculture. If we are to feed the world and coming generations, we need farming and food production systems that do not depend on fossil fuel, fossil water, chemical pesticides, ever-increasing nitrogen fertilizers and the like. Despite many wonderful experiments with change, most people's very lives still depend on one or all these things -- all of which are known to be dangerous, devastating, or deadly. This is perhaps the transformation nearest to our survival needs.

The preservation of the world's remaining species and ecosystems. I say "remaining" to remind us that much is already lost. The cost of that loss is immeasurable, even in gross economic, human-centered terms. Cures for cancer, models for chemical production, and farmable sources of food have all certainly disappeared, without our knowing it. Gone already are many sources of inspiration, joy, and -- think of the dodo -- even laughter. "Nature" as we have known it for millennia is disappearing. And yet there is no more precious inheritance to preserve for future generations than the richness of life itself.

Stable and long-lasting international peace. We must never forget that human beings have created the means to destroy whole cities at the press of a button. We have created garbage with power to poison us and other creatures for thousands of years. We are, as I have written elsewhere, "doomed to a high-technology future," because we must forever maintain our technical capacity to deal with the results of opening of Pandora's Box. For this and so many other reasons, striving for basic peace, stability, and security is not an ideal; it is a precondition for the maintenance of civilization.

Given the scale of these challenges, perhaps our greatest need is a drastic increase in the number of people who understand them, accept them, and dedicate their efforts to addressing them. And fortunately, the increase is well under way, as the number of people working directly on "sustainability," or incorporating it into their existing work, continues to grow exponentially.

The continuing explosion of creative and determined efforts to build a better world is hope-giving, but it is not so hard to understand. If this "to-do list for a sustainable civilization" is not worth the dedication of a life's work, what is?

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Well done, Alan. Thanks for posting this Alex.

These are cogent descriptions of changes we must make to the design of our civilization(s). But what are the instructions? This isn't quite a "to-do" list, because it doesn't explicitly say what to do. This is an excellent, inspiring piece, but it articulates goals, not actions. You touch on this in the next-to-last paragraph.

No one person knows "what to do." But we need to learn how to learn, as a network, what to do. Some people call this "social learning" or "distributed problem solving." I'd suggest that this is vital for the "to-do" list.

Then, of course, is the actual doing. Learn. Do. Share. Learn. Do. Share, repeatedly.

Posted by: David Foley on 5 Apr 05

A T. Rex (on it's way to the edge of the cliff) magically turning itself into a group of colorful birds ("hey, we've made it!") is in fact an easy trick, because many parts of the dinosaur are ready to change, and they can help each other. (Please excuse the poetry/animated logo.)

May I suggest we set up, perhaps as a wiki, an "Appreciative Inquiry" process around this "to-do" list? The questions are: What do we already have in each area? What else is needed (inventions, developement, implementation, acceptability, etc)? How can we make change *easy*? How do we network around making things happen *glocally*? Where are those networks? What are the priorities and the dates we want to work against? What do we need to openly think about?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 6 Apr 05

Thanks ALAN. I agree with LUCAS that we need to track this organizing framework. Who's going to do it? How can we start? And I feel that DAVID is getting at a very important addition to the list: increasing the capacity for contributions from more and more kinds of people. For that to happen, many need help from immediate and overpowering concerns (fear, hunger, thirst, war, enslavement), many need confidence and permission to conribute(I think especially of young people), and they need the communication tools and audiences. How do we best act?

Posted by: Will on 7 Apr 05

We can begin dividing difficult tasks up into smaller, doable pieces. Prioritise. And get down to action.

Posted by: James Pochury on 12 Apr 05

This piece of Alan is very useful for my work: I am about to review a 40-year urban design of a SouthAsian City. I use "sustainability" as the "organizing framework" to approach this task. What urban systems are /or are not sustainable over the next 40 years? And why are they not sustainable? What are the options? Are the options within the capacity/interest/acceptance of the urban/national government leadership and its citizen-representatives to adopt? I will look into what Alan suggested: energy systems, revenue systems (are there subsidies?), water systems, land use systems, circulation systems (how long is the average - shortest/farthest - city travel from home to work?) Etc. You're doing good work, guys keep it up. I am watching, and profiting from the essays.

Posted by: Emmanuel I. Astillero on 12 Apr 05



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