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On Earth Day
Alex Steffen, 21 Apr 06

Green is the new black. No buzz-phrase better sums up both the excitement many of us feel about the blooming environmental and social consciousness around us and the essential hollowness of the answers being promoted by many newly-minted eco-pundits.

The flood of environmental magazine cover stories, documentaries and advertisements has pushed us over a public-opinion threshold, which is great. But the solutions being touted by many of our new-found allies are themselves creating a new kind of problem -- people who should know better are selling a muddle-headed, style-over-substance, "lite green" environmentalism at a time when we need to be rebuilding our civilization to avoid disaster. To be blunt, we're being sold out.

People are being told to buy organic cotton T-shirts, keep their tires inflated and recycle their beer bottles. But the reality of the situation is that the impacts of these sorts of actions are totally out whack with the magnitude of the planetary problems bearing down upon us. Those of us who care about the future of the planet need to reclaim this moment from those who would have people think that our biggest challenge is picking the most stylish vegan shoes.

With every passing day, we are discovering that things are worse than we thought. Our climate is ripping apart at the seams at a rate that's surprising even the so-called alarmists. Natural systems are collapsing. The ocean seems headed towards a series of catastrophic tipping points. Economic inequity is producing a planet of billionaires and a billion desperate people. Our political systems are suffering a massive crisis of legitimacy, while insane fundamentalists, violent criminals and two-bit dictators (wearing both uniforms and Armani suits) are stealing or destroying everything they can get their hands on. Everywhere on the planet we find an empty consumer culture so accepted we barely speak of it, except perhaps to make an ironic joke. We have placed a Great Wager on the future of humanity, and the odds are getting worse.

In the face of this reality, recycling a bottle is an act so insignificant as to be merely totemic. Paper or plastic? Who the hell cares?

In the developed world, few of us, essentially none of us, currently live a "one-planet life." The vast majority of us, even of those of us who have committed ourselves to change, consume more resources and energy than our sustainable share: indeed, it is very, very difficult to live an individually sustainable life, because the very systems in which we are enmeshed -- which enfold and make possible our lifestyles -- are themselves insanely unsustainable. We're driving our hybrid SUVs down the highway to the Collapse.

Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight, created through the workings of vast systems whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little influence as single individuals. Alone, we are essentially powerless to change anything that matters. We can't shop our way to sustainability.

I believe we are bombarded with messages encouraging us to take the "small steps" precisely because those steps are a threat to no one. They don't depress sales of fashionable crap we don't need. They don't bring people into the streets or sweep corrupt politicians from office. They certainly don't threaten the powerful, entrenched interests who are growing fantastically rich off keeping us locked into the systems that make our lives such a burden on the planet and impoverish our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

Buying a hemp hoodie is not a blow for better world, it's at best a mere gesture towards the idea that the world ought to better. And, here in the Green Spring of 2006, we must finally admit to ourselves that gestures are no longer enough. That to be focused on lifestyle tweaks and attitudinal adjustments at this moment in history is like showing up with a teaspoon to help bail out a sinking ship. If the New Green degenerates into handing out more stylish spoons, we're screwed.

We don't need more carpool lanes. We need to eliminate fossil fuels from our economy. We don't need more recycling bins. We need to create a closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system. We don't need to attend a tree-planting ceremony. We need to become expert at ecosystem management and gardening the planet. We don't need another unscented laundry detergent. We need to ban the vast majority of the toxic chemicals upon which our livestyles currently float and invent a completely non-toxic green chemistry. We don't need lite green fashions. We need a bright green revolution.

To really change the world we need to hand out real tools: rugged, free, collaborative tools for understanding the world and our role in it, for seeing the systems in which we are trapped; tools for learning how to work together to either transform those systems or destroy them completely and bioremediate the rubble. Tools that help us as people make meaningful changes in both our own lives and the world. We need to make people participants, not consumers. We need answers that address peoples' lives, not their lifestyles.

We need to take back the ballot box. With the exception of a couple small nations like Finland, most governments on earth are now seething messes of corruption, oppression and entrenched privilege, and our government here in the U.S. is worse than many. We need transparency, accountability, genuine equity, real democracy and human rights. No environmental or social issue transcends the need for worldwide political reform, and none of our huge planetary problems can be solved without it.

We need to seize the trading floor. Most large corporations, and most of the markets we've established through regulation, incentive and tradition, demand that we participate (as employees, consumers or investors) in ecological destruction, unfair labor practices and an assault on the public realm. We need to grab hold of these economic systems, strip them down to their component parts and rebuild them anew. That means supporting (or becoming) clean energy entrepreneurs, green builders, sustainable product designers, socially-responsible investors, and so on. We need a new generation uncompromisingly innovative and determined regulators, planners, bankers, insurers. We need to take back business as a realm of service and do away with the dinosaurs who dominate it today, and we need an army of people ready to put their careers and investments on the line to do it.

We need to share. There is no sustainable future without a vigorous and lively public realm. We need to defend the commons, from the air we breath to the culture we create together. That commons is everywhere under attack from those who would privatize it for profit and stifle innovation to protect the status quo, the way, for instance, that the music and film industries are trying to take away our ability to freely (and legally) share our own music and videos, because they're worried not only that someone might illegally share some of their music or videos, but because the explosion of free music and video we're seeing threatens their out-of-date business models. We must counter-attack, supporting open culture and public ownership, and working everywhere to redistribute the future.

We need better mousetraps. The stuff that surrounds us is crap: toxic, wasteful, unjust, ugly. We need innovation everywhere, real innovation, stuff that isn't just marginally better or superficially green, but stuff that is actually, right now or as soon as possible, an order of magnitude more efficient, completely non-toxic and closed-loop. We need to support the folks out there trying to design these things. We need to laud their efforts, invest in their inventions, and generally do everything we can to get better design, technology and thinking applied to every aspect of our lives. Then we need to help regular people separate the bright green from the greenwashed.

We need to grow new systems. The systems which surround us are awful. Some of them we can hack. Some of them simply need to be replaced. Suburban sprawl, for instance, is simply wrong: there's no way to make it sustainable. We should simply bring it to a halt. Farming, on the other hand, needs to be reformed -- and through conscious buying, political activism and ethical leadership, we can help steer agriculture away from petrochemical factory farming and towards innovative local sustainable farms. Some of our choices nurture changed systems -- those are the choices we need to show people how to make.

We need to help each other. Consumer-based approaches and "simple things" lists tend to reinforce our sense that the only sphere in which we can act is our own little private lives, and that isolates us. But the isolation we all sometimes feel in the face of the magnitude of the problems is itself a major part of the problem. None of us can change the world single-handedly: as Wendell Berry says, "to work at this work alone is to fail." We need to organize, mobilize, join together, act in concert. We need to seek out our allies and get their backs when they need us. That happens through applied effort, not impulse buying.

We need to admit that we're at war over the definition of the future. There are a lot of powerful interests spending a lot of money to keep people ignorant, make them uncertain, postpone action, encourage cynicism and apathy, and lock them in the mental prison of thinking that no better future is possible. To the extent they are successful, nothing we advocate can happen. We need to fight back. We need to speak clearly, intelligently, and, if possible, with humor and passion. We need to label our opponents (from climate denialists to apologists for the status quo) what they are -- enemies of the future. We need to make the nature of our times crystal-clear for all to see. We need to hew to the demanding standards our actual real situation imposes on us -- that we achieve measurable sustainability, honest-to-goodness one-planet living, for everyone, within our lifetimes -- and scorn the mental tyranny of small goals. We need to break through the meaningless chatter around environmental and social issues, and point to genuine alternatives, hold real conversations, and create a culture that speaks to the soul of our times.

We need, above all else, to show that another world is possible, indeed, it's here all around us, though we do not see it. We need to inspire not only our fellow citizens but ourselves with visions of what we're beginning to accomplish together, visions of what a planet brought back to sanity will look and feel like, visions of how we will live in a bright green future. That future should be beautiful and stylish, dynamic and creative, but it must before all else be genuinely sustainable, or it's not much of a future at all, is it?

The world is listening. It's our obligation to tell it a better story.

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Comments

More-or-less, I couldn't agree more. But I could do more. In terms of finding allies, as I've mentioned in a number of comments over the past year or two, I believe you/they/we need to look to religious and spiritual communities as powerful and equally-concerned friends. The interfaith movement in particular offers new territory for winning friends and building coalitions. Theirs is a language of the spiritual impetus for living in greater harmony with nature as well as the necessity to leave the world of the future as one in which all people have physical peace and well-being in which to pursue inner peace.

Please feel free to contact me if you're interested in finding or working with interfaith groups in the U.S. or abroad (though software developer by day, I'm part time staff for the United Religions Initiative by evening, as Regional Coordinator for North America).


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 21 Apr 06

Alex, thank you.


Posted by: Randy J. Hunt on 21 Apr 06

Finally, and Earth Day essay worth reading!. Earth Day, with its charade of Ten Simple Things You Can Do... has become a kind of joke -- a day when we buy cloth bags and then drive around to all the earth events patting ourselves on the back all the way. Now with the clamor of Peak Oil and Global Warming and Resource Wars ringing in our ears, people are waking up to the need for more robust solutions. Thank you, Alex Steffen, for being bold enough to name the hard truths we need to hear, so we can begin remaking our lives in earnest.


Posted by: Fiona Theodoredis on 21 Apr 06

This is one of the greatest things I've ever read in my time here on Earth. If only the rest of the environmental movement had the hope, the passion, and the desire for real results that WorldChanging has. May the 'green spring of 2006' prove to be a new start for us.

Happy Earth Day WorldChanging.


Posted by: Danger on 21 Apr 06

happy earth day!


Posted by: __earth on 21 Apr 06

Alex, this is the manifesto that needed to be written. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops, the overpasses, the gas stations. It needs to be shared in the bikelanes, on the buses, passed from hand to hand on the streetcars. It needs to inspire the humble, and disconcert the comfortable. It is brilliant. Thank you.


Posted by: Ted on 21 Apr 06

great article, thx - too many people and businesses generating waste...what a materialistic society we live in.


Posted by: materiallove on 21 Apr 06

agree. this is amazing.

-
A


Posted by: andrew jones on 22 Apr 06

to do little steps is good

to buy a cloth bag instead of petrol plastic bag is good, also to buy a bioplastic bag

to replace petrol in the car with ethanol or biodiesel, is good

i do not believe in accusation, altough i believe that there are billions of money in all parts of the world are being invested to keep economy eco- and socially unfair ... because poisoned consumers consume more, need more medical treatment

i totally agree with supporting the big changers, the deep green businesses

perhaps it might be good to link together or create an easy usable database where consumers
can type in the product they want and producers get listed as result, rated by how much green / social fair their products are

one step towards this are the green business pages
http://www.coopamerica.org/greenbusiness/

and initiatives like http://www.ibuydifferent.org/


and ... it might also be an inspiration to look at the growing numbers of ecovillages, how they
build green lifestyle

http://gen.ecovillage.org/


Posted by: andreas buechel on 22 Apr 06

Some reactions cast in the idiom of the original polemic, not a critisim but an addition -- think AND:

"We don't need... We need to... We don't need... We need to..."
Also, we don't need to plan out or predict the future to the last detail. But we certainly do need to stop all the crazyiness. Let's not be cornered by those who would tell to "stop complaining" unless we have something better. I may not be sure that a "neobiological industrial" future is the answer, but I'm damned sure that fossil fuels are part of the problem.

"...we need to hand out real tools: rugged, free, collaborative tools for understanding the world and our role in it."
We also need open networks to collberate on. These are under real threat. We need open infrastructures to support our tools.

"We need to seize the trading floor.... We need to grab hold of these economic systems, strip them down to their component parts and rebuild them anew."
We also need to make the current dominant economic players irrelevent. Direct confrontation is difficult and dangerous. We need to create alternative economies. We need to replace entire supply/value chains.

"We need to share."
We also need to rebuild a culture of sharing, where people are lauded for what they give, not what they take. If we could do this one thing I suspect the rest would fall into place.

"We need better mousetraps.... We need to support the folks out there trying to design these things."
We also need to be the folks out there. We will never be more than passive consumers if we allow others to define our material culture. Making something green will always be more rewarding than buying something green.

"We need to help each other.... We need to organize, mobilize, join together, act in concert."
I have some spare time who wants to work on an open source version of google earth? Or how about figuring out how to make biodegrable toothbrushes. Or how about something you've been thinking about...?

"We need to label our opponents... what they are -- enemies of the future."
We also need to remember to shame not with the violent anger of a hooligan (not a comment on the post), but with the gentle clucking of a mother. Give them a face saving exit rather than an opening to be agreived.

"We need, above all else, to show that another world is possible, indeed, it's here all around us, though we do not see it."
Many worlds are possible, let make a few.


Posted by: David Ottina on 22 Apr 06

"and we need an army of people ready to put their careers and investments on the line to do it"
What would you suggest studying? I live Germany and want to do something in the field of sustainability. But my skills are in physics and mathematics. Is a physics study a good basis for making a change?

So far and thanks a lot for this encouraging reading Alex,

Daniel


Posted by: Daniel on 22 Apr 06

Hi Alex,

I disagree and I want to tell you why.

First, I buy organic T-Shirts, I am now mostly vegetarian and I buy organic, locally produced food (Not USDA organic), I buy hemp clothing and shoes, I buy organic fair-trade chocolate and coffee, I travel by mass transit and by walking, I am consious of my water use and my electricity use, and, my ecological footprint is half of the average North American.

Am I a feel good environmentalist or have these simple choices led to real change? Judging by my ecological footprint I would say that, in fact, simple choices do make a difference. But beyond my ecological footprint there are wider implications that come from simple, conscious acts.

As more and more people buy organic, more and more pesticides are being phased out of use. As more and more people buy fair-trade, more and more farmers are getting a decent wage and their communities are benefiting too with more schools and community spaces. As more and more people buy hemp, an important new green industry is flourishing. As more and more people eat less meat and more vegetables... As more and more people travel less by car and more by walking, bicycle or mass transit... As more and more people... I think you get the picture.

Admittedly, driving hybrid SUVs is a bad idea. But conscious consumerism works and is transforming whole industries - Agriculture, textiles and clothing, mobile transportation, cosmetics and personal care, energy, paper, forestry, fisheries, etc.

You say it well yourself when you state, "We need to support the folks out there trying to design these things. We need to laud their efforts, invest in their inventions, and generally do everything we can to get better design, technology and thinking applied to every aspect of our lives."

And again, "Farming... needs to be reformed -- and through conscious buying, political activism and ethical leadership, we can help steer agriculture away from petrochemical factory farming and towards innovative local sustainable farms. Some of our choices nurture changed systems -- those are the choices we need to show people how to make."

Now, admittedly conscious consumerism alone is not going to do it. We need to get more organized and we need to be more effective. We need to do many of the reforms you've mentioned (Democratic reform, Economic reform) and more. We need Education reform and media reform. We need to reform our energy systems and to have a more concerted effort at steering people towards Good, Healthly work.

But don't take swipes at conscious consumerism. It too is part of the solution (not the whole solution). It too is making great changes and is largely responsible for the changes in industry that I've mentioned above.

If you are frustrated, like me, that we aren't moving fast enough or that we aren't making deep enough changes, then simply state that. There is no need to take cheap shots at conscious consumerism - which is helping, not hindering our efforts towards a better world.

Jeremy Kirouac


Posted by: Jeremy Kirouac on 22 Apr 06

I'm too young to remember the First Earth Day
to the recall if it cocincided with the 70s oil crisis. But the 3.00 plus dollars paid at the pump makes people a lot more conscious.


Posted by: Enrique on 22 Apr 06

Excellent piece Alex. I enjoy yr writing and this is spot-on.


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 22 Apr 06

Thank you, everyone, for the kind words.

Jeremy: I laud what you're doing. That's great. I will point out though that you are making an extraordinary effort (eating vegetarian; buying "organic, locally produced food," "hemp clothing and shoes," and "organic fair-trade chocolate and coffee": using mass-transit and walking, bringing down your water and energy consumption and so on) but by your own acknowledgement, "my ecological footprint is half of the average North American."

Since the average North American has an ecological footprint of 10.3 hectares, that would make your footprint 5.15 hectares. Given that the current equitably sustainable footprint is 1.7 hectares/person (and that is shrinking with ecological erosion and population growth), we'd need three planets for everyone to live the way you're living now. In other words, even with your admirable level of conscious consumption, you're living a three-planet lifestyle.
http://www.ecouncil.ac.cr/rio/focus/report/english/footprint/

That's not to say that you should stop doing what you're doing. It is to say that what I said above is true: "it is very, very difficult to live an individually sustainable life, because the very systems in which we are enmeshed -- which enfold and make possible our lifestyles -- are themselves insanely unsustainable."

So, I'm not taking "cheap shots" at anything, Jeremy. What I am doing is describing an objective reality, which is that shopping alone can't come anywhere close to creating sustainable lives, that to do that we need systemic change, and to the extent that people think their conscious consumption is a *substitute* for collaborative action to produce systemic change, it is part of the problem and not the solution.

That said, it sounds to me like you're really clued into the need to make big changes, and are also doing everything you can as an individual. That's great. Unfortunately, that's not the norm right at the moment.

Daniel: I'm not the right person to give you that advice, being more a humanities guy myself, but I would point out that there are a number of professional and acadmeic associations of scientists dedicated to working on sustainability issues, and a background in physics and math would seem to offer a number of paths towards working on energy and related issues. Let us know what you find out!


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 22 Apr 06

councious buying and investing is important for giving the market-oriented capitalism a reason to change from "nature does not count, profit counts"
style to a win-win situation where the consumer has a good feeling when buying green and the producer can ask a good price for it because the production will not harm nature, the product will last long and the people involved in production process get well paid and treatened fair...

important is to give the establishment the chance to change their production lines not under pressure ... but motivated by an awakening "wanting to be green" by mass amount of consumers

and for this, also the halfgreen products can be a jumping on possibility for eco-beginners ( to test out how it is to pay more for having a green feeling )

but it should be very clear, what exactly one is buying, how much it is green and how much it is marketing


a directory with a rating system, how much green a product is and how much ressources it is consuming... could help in empowering the consumer


Posted by: andreas buechel on 22 Apr 06

Daniel: An education is only as good as what you do with it. Physics could be wasted in developing weapons for anti-ICBM systems or it could be used to save the earth through creating new clean energy systems. It's the same with business, art, chemistry, psychology, economics, or literature.

It sounds like you've got the skills, the next step is to see opportunities. If you look for them, there are ways to make a huge difference in many areas. Find something that engages your heart, something that makes you feel passionate, something that uses your skills (or skills you'd like to acquire) - and give it your best shot.
I wish you the best, we're all in this together.


Posted by: Danger on 22 Apr 06

Thanks for this piece, Alex. You're right: it is time (for Worlchanging too), to leave the politically correct sclerosed chatter behind, and to radically politicize action.
I hinted at this in my post, but you deleted it because it presented a dissenting view. Nice start! :-)


Posted by: Lorenzo on 22 Apr 06

Alex, great post and a huge challenge. I am pleased when I see people start to take baby steps towards creating a smaller ecological footprint. Because I know how hard change is.

I know we don't have a lot of time. But, how do make the point to humanity easily and effectively. I read your whole post but most people won't. We need to step by step, easy guides. I believe the concern is there, but people don't really know where to begin.



Posted by: Arjun Singh on 22 Apr 06

About Andreas Buechel's idea of a "green directory" where one could view the unadvertised aspects of the products that we buy:
A group of Notre Dame design students are currently developing an open source product database at www.globalcost.org to catalog the unadvertised health, social, and environmental impact of a wide range of consumer products. This includes everything from food to clothing to consumer electronics.

The site is almost ready for beta testing, and it's fully functional, but we're still adding support for cataloging retailers and restaurants. We agree with Alex that getting everybody to buy sustainable is not going to fix the world's large scale problems, but it's a necessary step along the way. Everybody from WorldChanging is welcomed (and encouraged!) to visit and contribute to our site before it opens in a month while things are still under construction. We have a very limited staff working on this project, so we appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thanks~


Posted by: Brandon on 22 Apr 06

It is certainly past time for a piece like this that pulls no punches about the magnitude of the task we face.

However, I wouldn't knock the 'ten simple things' approach and dismiss it. Even if certain laissez-faire interests are promoting it as a 'pacifier' now, it still has its place. It can be reframed into something more positive.

...It is, if nothing else, an awareness raiser, and can be the first step towards realising the true extent of the problem.

What *does* need to be stressed with every utterance of that beguiling maxim, though, is that it is the merest beginning. eg: 'Your journey starts with ten simple steps... but it doesn't end there.'


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Apr 06

Is the glass half empty or half full? Alex points out that Jeremy still has three earths to go, but I'm quite impressed that the conscious consumerism Jeremy practices can save what amounts to three earths! (Alex says, "recycling a bottle is an act so insignificant as to be merely totemic." Well, if everyone does it, apparently not!) Which means if people follow Jeremy's lead then we are half way to sustainability. What's wrong with that? Why should that be ridiculed? Most people still won't even do that, how are we going to get them to make radical changes if people in the green movement start making fun of them for being "lite green" when in fact these ten step changes can save planets worth of resources? Anyone who makes the effort to do things that will help change the world should be applauded, encouraged, and shown how to do more which I thought was the point of this site.


Posted by: Tavita on 22 Apr 06

"Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose with certain people, names and places rooted to the center like a giant oak tree around which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid, that there are no such roots and centers, but that any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement and complel the system to gyrate round it..."
Emerson

Obsolete national sovereignty system seems to be a major cause of many of society's ills. International issues (environment, security...) need to be addressed by a global federal union of democracies (for starters)
Problem is we are trying to deal with international issues with no (or close to none) international governing body that you would need to effectively deal with such topics (directly elected by the people of course,bill of rights, etc))
Seems we need a two track approach: internal (realization of spiritual brotherhood) and external (establishing effective supranational governing structures).


Posted by: Paul on 22 Apr 06

Thanks, everyone!

Tony, you are of course right -- what I am trying to say is not that small actions should not be taken, but that in the absense of a commitment ot broader action, they're woefully inadequate.

Tavita, I encourage you to reread the essay. The point is precisely that saving a couple planet's worth is not enough, especially when doing so involves sustained dedicated day-to-day attention to every small detail of our lives. We need systems which make sustainability the norm, and small actions do not always lead to those systems, no matter how admirable.

Lorenzo, if you follow the very clear community guidelines about civility, your comments will not be deleted.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Apr 06

hear hear!

best to come out of worldchanging in awhile. thank you, alex. i feel like this is the essay i've been waiting to read. this is deadly serious and this is totally radical, and anything short of those things is simply not enough. and not enough leaves us good as dead. we simply don't have time for it.

tavita's comment -- while thoughtful and just plain nice -- is a good example. we can't afford to spend time patting ourselves on the back for the planet's worth of resources that's saved by buying a bunch of green products. that planet is not a surplus. we can't now move it over into the 'gains' column, because it never existed in the first place. it's a step towards sustainability, yes, but still leaves us with a fundamentally unsustainable balance and thus headed for catastrophe. and here's the urgent and difficult thing about sustainability: the more time we spend living unsustainably, the less resources we have left with which to sustain ourselves. in that light, why should green consumerism and other 'easy things to save the planet' be highlighted, focused on, and/or portrayed as viable solutions? individually, many of them are good and laudable things, yes, but they are not adequate models meriting celebration. insofar as such things are framed as enough of a solution in themselves, then they are not even good and laudable.

we need to stop wasting our time trying to 'green' business as usual. we need to talk seriously about real sustainability, precisely how far we are from that end, and what radical changes and strategies might get us there.


Posted by: aheartwell on 23 Apr 06

I have been frusterated of late with some of the debates going on in the discussion section of Worldchanging articles. Nuclear or Biofuel? Carbon Sequestration or Clean Coal? I think the truth, the true systemic change we need to wrap our heads around is NEITHER. There is no need to make tiny incremental changes that have dubious benefits, when real tools that systematically increase our sustainability exist. Zero emmission building are being designed, hydrogen is being produced using photovoltaics wind and geothermal, and cities can be designed so that I can simply walk to where I work and shop.

We need exponential changes... take the efficiency you can achieve using technology and ingenuity, and then generate the much reduced amount of energy you still need with renewables. That is how we reduce our footprint by %90. The combination of systematic changes is nessesary. Happy earth day! I hope we can all continue to share ideas that reduce needs on one hand, and satisfy those needs sustainably on the other.

Thankyou for setting it straight again Alex.


Posted by: Adam on 23 Apr 06

Nice writing Alex. Clearly, we need to make sure that every day we move more towards an intelligent sustainable future. Every day we take our habits that were once small steps and bring them in one way or another to the bigger picture of great change.
We need to offer people help in understanding and living with the urge to eat and shop. I agree with the person who talks about interfaith coalitions, but also don't forget AA and their related organizations. Such organizations are masteres of getting people to stop destructive behaviors.

In honor of this article and Earth Day here is my list of sustainable methods.

1. Don't use when you don't have to.
2. Use intelligently.
3. Help friends not use when they don't have to.
4. Stay calm and collected and plan forward.
5. Make your voice clear and steady.
6. Accept the things you cannot change.
7. Maintain the courage to change the things you can.
8. Remain intelligent and grow your capacity to understand and appreciate.
9. Don't use when you don't have to.


Posted by: Judd Franklin on 23 Apr 06

Ok, this is what I don't get, on the one hand Alex says,

"We need to seek out our allies and get their backs when they need us. That happens through applied effort, not impulse buying."

Yet,

The point is precisely that saving a couple planet's worth is not enough, especially when doing so involves sustained dedicated day-to-day attention to every small detail of our lives.

Pretell, how is "sustained dedicated day-to-day attention" to be equated with "impulse buying?"
How is "sustained dedicated day-to-day attention" not "applied effort?"

If we could get most people to be that conscious, there would be a revolution, but we have a long way to go; people like Jeremy are a very small minority. How is dismissing such efforts seeking out our allies and covering their backs?

And a related problem I have with alex's piece is that I can't see how one can make fun of people trying to make concious choices and then call for a revolution? Take back the ballot box? Perhaps I don't read this site enough, but I can't recall any calls to political action, canidates endorsed, or bills in congress that should be endorsed or defeated; the site strikes me as terribly apolitical. Has a phone number to a congressman or senator ever been given out? Where's the "political action" category for the site?

Don't get me wrong I agree with much of what Alex says, but there's something of an elitist tone that if I'm not an "expert at ecosystem management and gardening the planet" then my efforts are to be patronized as "admirable", but a waste of time.
Somehow, buying local food and compact flourescent lights doesn't save any real energy. Way to build allies!


Posted by: Tavita on 23 Apr 06

Tavita, the point is that most of us are not doing much of any real significance when measured against the magnitude of the problems and the speed with which they are bearing down on us.

I'm sorry if your sensibilities are offended by that, but that's the objective reality here: we're a prfoundly unsustainable society, and we need massive change to avoid disaster. Being a little less unsustainable in our daily behaviors would not be a bad thing, but it won't keep us from catastrophe.

There's nothing wrong with taking small steps -- indeed we encourage it frequently on the site -- there is everything wrong with thinking small steps are enough.

More over, I am not at all convinced that the small steps/ consumerist approach actually does lead to any profound change in behavior or mindset. Plenty of people recycle, eat organic and send checks to environmental groups while driving SUVs, buying 3000 ft2 homes on the suburban fringe, and generally leading 15-planet lifestyles. To say that this is any kind of progress towards sustainability is simply to deceive ourselves.

If I have to make a choice, I'll take people who are making the big choices and not sweating the small stuff, any day of the week.

(And, as a sidenote: Worldchanging is non-partisan, and we don't generally focus on specific pieces of legislation. There are plentry of other great groups that do that. We are not, however, apolitical, as the fact that we've run several hundred posts on civic action tools and models will attest.)


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Apr 06

Thanks Alex, this is a great piece.

I read Doing Democracy when it came out, and I heartily recommend it. Its discussion of four different roles for activists - Citizens, Professional Opposition, Rebels and Change Agents. Buying local organic food (citizen role) and fighting for real standards are complementary activities (professional opposition organizer). We needed rebels to disobey the law and uproot GMO crops or hang banner off bridges, and we need change agents that help (re-)establish farmer's markets, co-ops and CSA programmes.

The Farmer's Market is a great place to find a green-conscious constituency. I can't count the number of organizing drives that have occurred there. Peace marches, re-zoning issues, sales of LED Christmas lights the year before they became mainstream, membership drives for advocacy groups- it all happened while the organic sector kept growing 20% annually.


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 23 Apr 06

Hi Alex.

Your article is spot on in the sense that we need big change. My question then is how do you get the millions of people to "join the revolution" if the changes are so immense they can't get their heads around it?

"We need to create a closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system." Most people I know would throw a big "WTF?" my way if I started talking like that. My uncle thought that the only way to get clean energy was to install solar panels, when mains delivered Green Power is available to him. Education and little steps are what's required - then he will become and advocate and become a world changer himself.

The "ten steps" are not enough, but they are one method to get engagement on a wide-spread level so that the "participants" that can make the big changes are aware of their options.

I'll be the first to admit that the ten-steps pattern is tired and probably isn't the most effective way of getting the message across. But by making things real and personal, the ten-steps pattern helps people to understand that their choices, when amplified (and Worldchanging has talked about amplification in the past) do make a difference.

The trick is to not let it stop at the ten-steps - it's to then say "fantastic - those changes have made a difference (and showing how much of a difference), but we need more".

How do you propose we open the door to a wide base of people that want to do the right thing and start the dialogue? Your article is seems to be filled with the ideals we should be activating, but seems to me to be very light on the methods. And that, I think, is the crux of the problem.

How do you engage someone who knows something needs to be done, but doesn't know what to do? By calling for revolution? By asking them to write to a politician (which they may have never, ever done before in their life)? I doubt that this would resonate with many people.

(I don't mean for what I've just said to sound offensive in any way - these are serious questions that myself and my colleagues are wrestling with every day and I sincerely would like to know...)

Where I work we have received feedback from people that want to make a difference that even something seemingly as simple as changing their electricity provider is too frightening for them because of household politics, peer pressure and financial concerns. So what do we do? Ignore them? Berate them? Or help them to take on another challenge that is more achievable for them as a first step, build their confidence (quickly, but not immediately) so that they are empowered to fight for the changes we support?

I've seen a lot of polls etc. recently that indicate that most people feel that a combination of personal and political (read: government) action is required. Perhaps we should be encouraging both, and using the personal action as a springboard to the political, to make the changes you suggest?

Thanks again for a thought provoking article, and for all the work that the team at Worldchanging are doing.


Posted by: Grant on 23 Apr 06

Alex,
From your response, I think we are in agreement that little steps, while not to be discouraged are, nevertheless, woefully inadequate.

As trivial as those 'ten simple steps' may appear in the great scheme of things, I believe they are important in engaging the general population viscerally, and in raising their awareness as stakeholders. While it sounds like he's made consderably more than ten steps, you can feel the pride in Jeremy's post: multiply it by a few hundred million and put the resulting dynamo to work on fixing the *real* problem causers: those wasteful infrastructures! Public engagement is absolutely critical if we are to have any hope of tackling the real problems effectively.

Now, I alluded earlier to the importance of framing those 'ten steps' as the beginning of a journey rather than the destination. What I would like to see happen is some sort of map for those who have taken their first ten steps and are feeling a virtuous glow, so that they are encouraged to try the next ten or hundred steps.

If this is coming across as a bit vague, it is because I have no clear idea of what those next hundred steps might be! Any thoughts out there?

(Of course, life would be easier if someone could come up with a list of ten steps that were more accurately directed at the biggest sources of waste)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 24 Apr 06

Excellent questions and ideas here.

I guess one essential point boils down to this question, for me: Are we sure that small steps will, in fact, get people to engage with larger systemic problems? Or do these small steps become a substitute for larger, more meaningful actions?

Much hinges on the answer to that question. I personally believe that most of the time we do the small steps and say, "Well, I recycled that bottle: I've done my part." I don't believe that most of us (if any of us) recycle that bottle and stop to have a long think about industrial models and non-renewable resources, and what part we might play in changing the system. I just don't believe that's the way people's brains work.

As said above, nothing wrong with recycling the bottle.

But as I see it, there's everything wrong with thinking that recycling the bottle is either a profound step forward or, worse, is the lynchpin of a societal transformation.

I just don't think that's true.

But I do think that people, when shown that better systems can be created, will -- if the vision is compelling enough -- make dramatic changes in their lives and fight to see those systems built. History shows us that happening again and again, and I don't see any path forward to a sustainable future without a mass social movement aimed at the sort of profound changes we need.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Apr 06

Alex, I'll return the question: Are you sure that small steps will, in fact, be seen as a substitute to systemic action?

In my city, four activists (I wasn't one of them) poured their heart and souls into a campaign to stop the city from burning all its waste. Burning waste, I'm sure you know, is stupid, wasteful and results in a big toxic mess in the air and in the soil with what's left of the ashes (and the water if it seeps in!).

They proposed an elaborate program of recycling, composting and a landfill for the remaining inerts. The city scoffed at the idea, claiming people would never put that much effort into segregating its garbage, that it would cost too much, etc. The city was convinced to do a pilot program selling subsidised backyard composters. They were overwhelmed by demand. I dragged my father to a parking lot where they were selling these units for $20, and we bought two. He is still using them nearly 10 year later.

Thousands of people bought these composters. Hundreds of lawn sites were put up, dozens went around collecting signatures for petitions. Those are all symbolic, but politics is about symbols. It's all small stuff for people that might be overwhelmed by other demands on their lives, or other campaigns.

If we are to be effective change agents, we need to let people know what small changes they can make that help us make bigger differences. If we demean our natural allies for not doing enough, we are being counter-productive.

How about we think up actions that are small yet make a significant difference in our ability to make systemic change? And put the other way, what opportunities are created by individuals like Jeremy buying organic cotton and other small acts?


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 24 Apr 06

The reason people like "10 simple things you can do to save the planet" is that it's a place to start. But I agree with your point, Alex, that it's too little and too late; if the entire developed world had started on that path and kept on it on the first Earth Day, we might have accomplished something by now. By now, it's like the concept that "good is the enemy of great" (an idea I'm stealing from Jim Collins's business improvement book "Good to Great"). Good means good enough, complacency, coasting. But it's no path to success, either in business or on a planetary scale. Stop there and humanity is undoubtedly doomed, which we may still be anyway. Thanks for stripping the gloss from this one, Alex.


Posted by: Kristine on 24 Apr 06

Daniel- I guess the biggest reason I don't think those small changes will add up to systemic change is that there's no sign of that happening, in the big picture: we've had almost 20 years "small thing" environmental action, and most of the developed world is demonstrably less sustainable than it was when we started.

And as for the charge that we're "demeaning" people, I'm sorry, but that's just absurd. We have a measurable, objective crisis on our hands, and we know that nothing less than a certain level of environmental performance, achieved within a certain time frame, will avert the worst of that crisis.

To be honest with ourselves and admit that falling short of that mark is failing does not "demean" anyone. Indeed, if anything, I think it is demeaning to suggest that people are such children that they can't be leveled with.

Tell the people what's happening, show them why it's a crisis, show them what solutions we have available and then portray a world in which those solutions are widely implemented and life is better -- that's a big order, but it's the only sensible path forward, IMO.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Apr 06

Alex,

I really do see your point, but my point is that basically I see the conscious consumer approach as a important wedge (a term I picked up on this site) among many that will get us to our goal. And I agree it is not enough, and no single solution is enough which is clear from your piece, as well as many articles on this site.

Also, I think more often than not (and I guess this where we disagree) the conscious consumer approach can lead to bigger things. (Ultimately it is an empirical issue that someone can study). With me I do as many of the ten step kind of things as I can and I read about how the world is still going hell in a hand basket and I ask, what else can I do?

So, for instance, my house only uses florescent lights, compacts and T-8s with electronic ballasts, (it's an small investment I've made to help the planet) then I walked into my son's school and the place was filled with old style florescents and incandescent bulbs and they were leaving the air conditioning on at night. I talked to the principal about it, the PTO, and I got elected to the school board, soon I've gotten the whole school converted to energy efficient lights, the curriculm has more resource conservation material in it, the school is turning their air conditioning off at night, and the school has committed to develop a zero net engery use plan (this will take some time since solar and wind is expensive, but we are headed that way). I credit the ten step plans I have read that had links to information on florescents technology, being conscious about air conditiong use, solar, etc., for getting me started on this track. Imagine this multipled with those ten step folks noticings what's going on in their schools, and ten step folks noticing what's going in their businesses.

So I think ten steps and being conscious about what you are doing is an important wedge, you still may not, but I've said my piece. I generally liked your article because I agree we need to do a lot more; let's get to it! Cheers.


Posted by: Tavita on 24 Apr 06

Alex-

Yesterday I was reminiscing with a friend about the time when we used to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs for $15 each through a health food ordering co-op. Now you can buy a package of 4 for far less. When I set foot in a big box store and noticed half the bulb displays were for compacts, I knew that battle was won. Critical Mass, Tipping Point - call it what you will, it's now much cheaper than incandescents. Without those early adopters, I don't think compacts would be as commonplace today. A lot of people said it was symbolic, that it wasn't nearly enough compared to the significance of the real problems we already knew we faced then. Now it's one of the CMI's cheapest wedges.

One theme in my thinking is that rates of change are sometimes more important than absolute numbers. The market was growing, and prices were dropping predictably with economies of scale. Organics growing at 20% a year, solar and wind at 30%. They started from small absolute numbers, but the cumulative impact is or will be massive.

Large changes must start small. Coffee is the second most sprayed crop after cotton. The resistance to stopping the insanity of spraying persistent organic pollutants is massive. Showing that farmers can do very well without pesticides, that processors can still get good quality products and that consumers will buy all reduce those barriers. Over 10 years ago, that same food ordering co-op was getting people to drink fair trade and organic coffee. Were those actions merely symbolic? We are likely, demonstrably less sustainable than when we started if you consider total pesticide use on coffee crops. But if you take a look at how much closer we are to the day when we can stop pesticide use altogether, I think you can make a good case that we're winning.

I went back to read your entry on Future-making, and the first sentence struck me again: "If we want to change the world, one of the most powerful things we can do is show how the future could be better." If we start off the conversation with a positive vision for the future, I think we are in a better position to then explain what problems are solved. "Do you like this city where almost everything is within walking distance and community flourishes? It also happens to use five times less energy and cost less to maintain."

"We need to break through the meaningless chatter around environmental and social issues, and point to genuine alternatives, hold real conversations, and create a culture that speaks to the soul of our times." Instead of telling people that what they are doing isn't "of any real significance", I think we need to put emphasis on the vision- it's a better way to start that conversation. When we find those solutions enough of us can agree on, we can ask for help- whether that means buying a product, signing a petition, or funding a site like worldchanging ;)


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 24 Apr 06

Alex I have to disagree with you. With oil prices soaring and eventual depletion looming, it is prudent to review our genuine needs for oil. Because the following ten uses of petroleum are “non-negotiable”, it would be pointless - even rude - to suggest cutting them. So I won’t. Surely we can find reductions elsewhere; surely new technology will make all energy supply issues disappear. So after listing these non-negotiable uses, let’s not EVER mention them again. God forbid that anyone feel uncomfortable or guilty.

(1) We have a constitutional right to live wherever we please. If none of our day-to-day destinations are within walking distance, if roads to our home are unsafe and/or too lengthy for bicycling, if there isn’t any public transit nearby, this old world had better cough up all the fuel we need to drive. By the way, society owes us highways everywhere we go and parking lots everywhere we stop, too.

(2) We have a right to drive whatever size motor vehicle tickles our fancy. A farmer may need a twenty-foot, six-thousand pound pickup truck to haul fifty bags of wheat seed. A suburbanite may need a truck of the same size to get cigarettes and beer. Both needs are equally valid.

(3) Our lawns have become much larger, and we need riding tractors to keep up. Smaller lawns and human-powered mowers are out of the question. Nor can our bored adolescents burn their excess energy doing useful physical work.

(4) Happiness is an inalienable right. Because internal-combustion engines have become essential for human amusement, we must play on snowmobiles, motorboats, ATVs, jet skis, motorcycles, and other fuel-burning toys.

(5) We work hard, so we’re entitled to great vacations – and all the jet fuel it takes to fly to Disneyland, Las Vegas, Vail, New Zealand…

(6) After we retire, we deserve to see America in comfort and style. If that means driving a twenty-five foot motor home thirty thousand miles at seven miles per gallon, by golly we’ve earned it.

(7) Our children must be driven to school, soccer practice, friends’ houses, and the mall. They are entitled to the best – including four-thousand pounds of motorized body armor while in transit.

(8) Our driving-age children must own a car so they can drive to their job after school to earn money to pay for their car. They also have a right to drive to extra-curricular activities, no matter how far we live from school - see (1).

(9) Young males – and numerous older ones – need abundant fuel to express their manhood with loud, powerful motorcycles, muscle cars, low-riders, and larger-than-life Tonka trucks. Without such vehicles some men would shrivel up, while others would of necessity revert to firearm-augmented displays of virility.

(10) We have a right to feel virtuous and “green” when we tank up with corn ethanol. So what if it takes petroleum-based diesel to power tractors, harvesters, and trucks; oil-based pesticides; natural-gas-based fertilizers; and coal to operate distillation plants? Besides, isn’t that sixty million acres of switchgrass on the horizon?


Posted by: Hans Noeldner on 24 Apr 06

Alex,

I like your question. I think I'm coming at it from the POV of 'leading' the answer in a desirable direction. (you've recycled that bottle? Great! Now, what else you can recycle? Surely there's something else? Too much effort? Well, how could you reduce the effort?)

In Melbourne, we're running out of landfill sites. Many local councils now provide a recycling service. You put all your recyclables in a 120lt pick-up bin. The old huge 240 lt bins are now used to collect 'green' garden waste each fortnight (which reminds me...). The remainder would typically fit in a small 90lt bin. They provide information as to what can be recycled. So far so good. I think one of my next hundred steps is to find out what those recycle symbols mean (they take 1-3), and maybe start looking at packaging a little more closely, and see what does happen to that recycled stuff!

I do agree with your basic premise: small steps are not the answer. So long as they are not allowed to become a substitute, they can be a 'sandpit' for training stakeholders, and may buy a little time, while the big leaps are identified and targetted.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 26 Apr 06

Follow-up post:
http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/004361.html


Posted by: trackback on 26 Apr 06

Alex,

There are aspects of your essay that I greatly admire.  You're obviously a radical – someone interested in getting to the root of problems.  I often think that the world would be a better place with more radicals.

However, I want to challenge you on the premises of your conclusions.  For example, why should we continue to value large scale?

Your main suggestion seems to be that we need to band together to overthrow the system that is destroying the Earth, and replace it with a large-scale system that creates a sustainable society.  I doubt that would be a successful effort.  I'll offer specific replies to some of your essay to illustrate my point.

But the solutions being touted ... are themselves creating a new kind of problem ... at a time when we need to be rebuilding our civilization to avoid disaster.

Would it be best to "rebuild" or decentralize?

Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight, created through the workings of vast systems whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little influence as single individuals.

That's well-stated.  But you seem to suggest later that we should replace that vast system with a better vast system.  I doubt that a new system would be any more empowering.

That to be focused on lifestyle tweaks and attitudinal adjustments at this moment in history is like showing up with a teaspoon to help bail out a sinking ship.

Yes, and see my web site for a continuation of that metaphor.  The Earth is the ocean; the ship is the modern industrial world.  Why do you want to save the ship?

We need to create a closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system.

I strongly disagree.  Any "industrial system" will not be sustainable.

We need to ban the vast majority of the toxic chemicals upon which our livestyles currently float and invent a completely non-toxic green chemistry.

Who will do the banning?  Will it be the state?  I urge caution here.  Do you want to replace the current "vast system whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us" with a vast state system?  Large scale dehumanizes.  Read secession would be a better strategy than revolution.

That means supporting (or becoming) clean energy entrepreneurs, green builders, sustainable product designers, socially-responsible investors, and so on.

Capitalism is a system predicated on growth, because surplus production provides the profit for investors.  I doubt that capital investors would accept no return on their investments.  So any solution using the tools of capitalism would be doomed from the start.

We need to defend the commons, from the air we breath to the culture we create together.

If you're allowing that defense to be decentralized and diverse, then I would agree.  But if the "we" is a centralized Brave New World, then I see a prescription for tyranny.

We need better mousetraps.

I recommend dismantling most of the mousetraps we have and learning to live with mice.  I recommend less complexity, less consumption and more spirit.  If you seek greater balance and freedom, then better technology is not the answer.

We need to admit that we're at war over the definition of the future.

If the means are the ends in the making, and "we" wage war on capitalism, what kind of future will be created?  Will there be soma available?

Alex, I don't mean to discourage your rebellion against the horrible system in which we live.  But I encourage you to think about the values that got us into this ecological mess in the first place – such as large scale, high speed, centralization and efficiency.  I challenge you to consider whether sustainable societies can truly evolve with those industrial values.

Mark Knapp


Posted by: Mark Knapp on 26 Apr 06

Pitiful. Not a single word in the original article, nor any comments, about the engine driving the destruction of the planet, human overpopulation.


"The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation."
~ John Gray, "Straw Dogs"

"The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology and land-use management is sophistic."
~ E.O. Wilson


Unless you can redesign the human genome I'd say the long term chances of human survival (and most other complex life forms) are pretty bleak.


Posted by: acerbas on 26 Apr 06

Acerbas,
Human population was the worry of thirty years ago. But, while it still is of concern, growth is actually slowing down, and is likely to stabilise in the latter part of this century at around 10 billion souls. (refer: 'The Climax of Humanity': Scientific American, September, 2005)

Which doesn't stop it from being a problem, of course, and the next few decades are going to be particularly crucial (often referred to as the 'bottleneck')

The burden of humanity on the planet isn't just measured by the number of mouths. The overall standards of living also need to be taken into account, with higher standards coming at a higher cost.

Alex's article was mainly concerned with the need to look beyond the simple everyday fixes and to look hard at making the large scale activities and infrastructures that maintain those high standards of living more sustainable. If we can achieve that over the next fifty years or so, then we may breathe easier.

Nobody's denying that that is a BIG 'if'! And, if we glean one lesson from all this, it should be that we should never again breathe *too* easy!


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 26 Apr 06

The following site can address what Alex, I, and others have been debating and points out a flaw in the overpopulation argument.

Go to,

http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/facts.htm

There you will see that recycling, all those small actions by individuals, amounts to 72 million tons of material being recycled each year (as of 2003) this is up from 5.6 million tons in 1960. It is a huge increase in recycling and I would submit is not insignificant.

However, and here is Alex's point, if I may be so bold to speak for him, if one looks at the amount of Municipal Solid Waste currently generated each year (as of 2003) it is 236 million tons! This is up from 88 million tons of MSW in 1960. The net effect is that in 1960 82.4 tons of unrecycled MSW was being generated, but in 2003 164 million tons of unrecycled MSW was generated. That's basically a 100% increase in unrecycled waste since 1960! It would be much worse without the recycling, but man we have a lot of work to do, we are losing the battle at this point.

With regard to population, the U.S. population increased 47.73% between 1960 and 2000. I would therefore submit that popluation is not the sole driving force here. What has increased is our per capita wastefulness. In 1960 each person generated 2.7 pounds of waste per day, in 2003 it was 4.5 pound of waste per day per person. Again, population is not the sole driving force, if only it was, we would be much better off than we are now.

To me we need to redouble our "reduce, reuse recycle" efforts as individuals AND pursue Alex's "closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system."

(note: population figures can be found here, http://www.censusscope.org/us/chart_popl.html )


Posted by: Tavita on 26 Apr 06

When every product purchase is a vote for that product, the crossover between large scale change and individual action is in the marketplace: If "we're at war over the definition of the future" we need to draw a line and ask the question:

Which side are you on?

I deeply believe that a radical fringe can leverage big changes by mobilizing consumer choices. Coca Cola's phase out of HCFCs is one example, we'll see another shortly when McDonalds inevitably bows to pressure and stops buying soy from Amazon plantations.

But it wasn't voluntary actions or consumer pressure that got rid of the CFCs in aerosols in the 70s or stopped the use of DDT (in America, anyway) -- it was top-down regulation.

And there, I agree with you, Alex. It's only large-scale, big arm movements that are going to get us through.

The biggest primary shift we could make would be to monetize Earth Preservation, penalize Earth Damage. Do the obvious and eliminate subsidies for oil and shift them to clean energy. Levy a planetary tax on plastic Dioxin-bearing crap. Make sure retail prices reflect earth damage, and make triple bottom line accounting mandatory.

Those of us who buy and vote with the Earth in mind aren't going to carry this one on our own. Democracy and the Marketplace have not yet mobilized to meet the threat, and are moving too slowly. Individual, radical actions needs to drive the pace, but aren't going to carry the day. Bruce Springsteen in a recent interview said something like

"Hippies didn't get America out of vietnam. They started a wave. But the government didn't really listen until the truck drivers and steelworkers were saying it."

In that context, we're all hippies here, and it's nice we agree, and important that we continue to set the goal post way out there. But it ain't the revolution, yet.

--b


Posted by: Brianfit on 26 Apr 06

Alex,

There are aspects of your essay that I greatly admire.  You're obviously a radical – someone interested in getting to the root of problems.  I often think that the world would be a better place with more radicals.

However, I want to challenge you on the premises of your conclusions.  For example, why should we continue to value large scale?

Your main suggestion seems to be that we need to band together to overthrow the system that is destroying the Earth, and replace it with a large-scale system that creates a sustainable society.  I doubt that would be a successful effort.  I'll offer specific replies to some of your essay to illustrate my point.

But the solutions being touted ... are themselves creating a new kind of problem ... at a time when we need to be rebuilding our civilization to avoid disaster.

Would it be best to "rebuild" or decentralize?

Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight, created through the workings of vast systems whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little influence as single individuals.

That's well-stated.  But you seem to suggest later that we should replace that vast system with a better vast system.  I doubt that a new system would be any more empowering.

That to be focused on lifestyle tweaks and attitudinal adjustments at this moment in history is like showing up with a teaspoon to help bail out a sinking ship.

Yes, and see this site for a continuation of that metaphor.  The Earth is the ocean; the ship is the modern industrial world.  Why do you want to save the ship?

We need to create a closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system.

I strongly disagree.  Any "industrial system" will not be sustainable.

We need to ban the vast majority of the toxic chemicals upon which our livestyles currently float and invent a completely non-toxic green chemistry.

Who will do the banning?  Will it be the state?  I urge caution here.  Do you want to replace the current "vast system whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us" with a vast state system?  Large scale dehumanizes.  Read secession would be a better strategy than revolution.

That means supporting (or becoming) clean energy entrepreneurs, green builders, sustainable product designers, socially-responsible investors, and so on.

Capitalism is a system predicated on growth, because surplus production provides the profit for investors.  I doubt that capital investors would accept no return on their investments.  So any solution using the tools of capitalism would be doomed from the start.

We need to defend the commons, from the air we breath to the culture we create together.

If you're allowing that defense to be decentralized and diverse, then I would agree.  But if the "we" is a centralized Brave New World, then I see a prescription for tyranny.

We need better mousetraps.

I recommend dismantling most of the mousetraps we have and learning to live with mice.  I recommend less complexity, less consumption, and greater spiritual awareness.  If you seek greater balance and freedom, then better technology is not the answer.

We need to admit that we're at war over the definition of the future.

If the means are the ends in the making, and "we" wage war on capitalism, what kind of future will be created?  Will there be soma available?

Alex, I don't mean to discourage your rebellion against the horrible system in which we live.  But I encourage you to think about the values that got us into this ecological mess in the first place – such as large scale, high speed, centralization and efficiency.  I challenge you to consider whether sustainable societies can truly evolve with those industrial values.

Mark Knapp


Posted by: Mark Knapp on 26 Apr 06

Stupendous and well written! Kudos!

We are in an incredibly tough position now where we must make considerable advances on all fronts if we are to get this insane consumption-and-waste society under control and reduce the negative impacts on the economy, environment and people for future generations.

The U.S. has crafted a fine example of a society with a GDP fueled by environmental destruction: we represent 6% of the world's population but consumes 25% of the energy resources and produces a majority of the GHG emissions. It is frightening that China is following suit! Generally speaking, China is not leap-frogging beyond our bad example. The Chinese have made positive advances and commitments with respect to energy efficiency and economic expansion. They have, for example, installed 30 million domestic solar water heaters throughout China, which conserves energy equal to roughly 60 GWh (enough to power > 5 million U.S. households) annually. This is tremendous, but still, over 50% of worldwide construction over the next few decades will take place in China. They are driving automobiles, designing cities, and consuming products like we do, and India is not far behind. Who is to tell them that they can't do this?! We have created a stellar example of a wasteful society and have effectively publicize it 24/7 for decades through all forms of media.

It makes me ill that we have been so societally short-sighted since the Arab Oil Embargo 33 years ago. We had economic, environmental, social, and security reasons HITTING US RIGHT IN THE FACE, telling us that our approach was destined for disaster. If we had siphoned a few billion dollars each year (still only a few months of our investment in the current Iraq War) towards developing energy independence then we would be in a better position today.

Advancing on all fronts requires leadership and vision. (Woops!) It requires an understanding of what it takes to bring true MARKET TRANSFORMATION: we must CREATE AWARENESS about the issues, EDUCATE the population about the needs and impacts, and finally CREATE DEMAND for strategies, behavior, and technologies that will move us toward a more sustainable society.

I was a student of Buckminster Fuller in the Seventies. He and others helped to make me aware of the issues and educate me about the possibilities. Since that time, I have committed to pursue and influence sustainable growth and development throughout my career. My company is an environmental building consultancy. 100% of the work that we do is focused on advancing the cause of sustainability in the built environment. We have had many significant successes - the ones that keep us going, that keep us rowing as hard as we possibly can. I don't wear Birkenstocks, nor do I have a means to recycle glass bottles - but I DO impact the decisions that impact resource consumption.

One of our projects (a Convention Center) has implemented design strategies and technologies that will conserve an estimated 690 million gallons of potable water each year. Energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies will require 2.2 million kWh less energy than conventional construction. As so far, we have diverted 84% of our construction waste (3100/3700 tons) - equal to 2000 Honda Accords - from the local landfill.

People need to be educated and constantly reminded about the importance of every decision that they make toward redirecting this enviro-hell-bound bus. As such, I don't have a problem with the vegan shoes - but I have a big problem if it stops there! The commitment made by Lee Scott and Wal-Mart to buy organic merchandise, improve fuel economy, and invest in renewable energy and energy-efficiency will (sadly) have more impact than most any recent governmental policy or regulation. People must be reminded about the need for and importance of their actions at the shoe store, at Wal-Mart and at WorldChanging. They need to see the waterless urinals and low-flow, solar powered faucets in green buildings EACH AND EVERY DAY to be reminded of the importance.

It is tough to turn an oil-tanker, and unfortunately, we seem to all be riding the biggest, baddest, leakiest oil tanker there ever was, straight for Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. Deja vu all over again! We had better start turning now...



Posted by: Mark Wilhelm on 28 Apr 06

There is one assumption you make that is unsupportable: that the United States is still a viable community. It is not. it is an empire. Empires have never run themselves as democracies. They never have and they never will. Our pretend democracy fools most of the people most of the time, but it's a sham. Add to the equation Global Warming, a planetary crisis that is going to make a mockery of all national and supranational "responses," as Katrina has shown. We are moving toward a devolutionary scheme of social organization and identity. Peak Oil will grease the skids. Secession is the the most relevant political option to explore as we set our faces toward the gathering storm and plot our survival, and in time, and with luck, revival.


Posted by: Ian Baldwin on 3 May 06

Great article! Would be great to get more thoughts on how to start the changes needed: social, economic, etc...
Hope we can find our way past the industrial and tech movements of the past 100+years, find ways to incorporate certain segments/parts of industry and technology into reforming our world for a more hopefull future.
Are the teachings of a more understanding, less selfish world really in the cards? Before any of the massive changes we need to addresss can be realized, the nations of the world have to come light years to a more common ground.

Just a few thoughts!


Posted by: Bill Barton on 4 May 06

Couldn't agree more, thank you. Reminded me oif this great quote:

“To speak of "limits to growth" under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be "persuaded" to limit growth than a human being can be "persuaded" to stop breathing. Attempts to "green" capitalism, to make it "ecological", are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.”
- Murray Bookchin


Posted by: Gus Abraham on 11 May 06



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