Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I’ve written quite a bit in the last few weeks about waning resources, changing values, and current and potential problems. The common threads among many of these discussions have been ethics, economy, and environment. I see these lines of inquiry as inseparable.
Having devoted much effort to challenges and questions, I’d like to focus briefly on solutions and answers. I believe that the only solution that will address ethics, economy, and environment with due weight is that of sustainability. For readers who are unfamiliar with this concept, sustainability seeks to create systems that can continue ostensibly forever. Such systems find a balance between inputs and outputs, resources and waste. These systems often rely on efficiency and repurposing waste products. This idea is not new; many human cultures have lived in sustainable equilibrium with their surroundings, making use of their environment without disrupting it. Many modern avenues of sustainability advocate lifeways that are far more similar to what you and I understand than to traditional sustainable lifeways.
I should qualify this by making it clear that I see sustainability as an ideal that people should approach through continuous improvement. Anyone, regardless of the magnitude of their ecological footprint, regardless of convictions about ethics or the economy, can move toward a more sustainable lifeway. For many people, such changes will save time and money.
One could write a book on sustainability (and many have), but there are some core concepts that have some hope of fitting in this space. To achieve a sustainable world, I see the central shifts in thinking and practice as awareness, an evolution of values, the realization of common wealth, and mass-localization/community development. There are plenty of outcomes and caveats that are worthy of discussion, but this is a place to start:

Awareness: The first and possibly the most important step is for the public to understand our economy, our lifeway, and how these bear upon the natural world. This does not mean that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and go earn a PhD in ecology or natural resource economics. Instead, we need to follow in a grand human tradition of genuinely understanding how we make a living, and teaching this knowledge to our children.
The initial pieces of this puzzle, as I see them, are to understand where your food and energy come from; “the grocery store” and “the light switch” are insufficient answers to these questions.
It’s very important to understand your household’s relationship with water. How much do you consume? Where does it come from? Where does it go when it goes down the drain, or runs down the end of the driveway? Who else and what else uses it?
Likewise, it’s important to understand what happens when you throw something away. Where does it go? What happens to it physically?
These pathways of understanding lead to the critical question, “Is there a better way?”

Evolution of values: We must realize the inherent worth of the other members of our human family. We all need to take steps to eliminate poverty and injustice. It is commendable to volunteer one’s time and resources for such causes, but it would be better still if we obviated the need for such reactions by adopting a lifeway that mitigates or eliminates them.
We must also recognize the value of nonhuman species and natural systems. If we choose not to honor these with innate worth, we must at least recognize that they are of enduring value to humans. Natural systems provide water to drink and the air that supports us and the crops we need for food, clothing, shelter, and energy. Disrupting these systems is short-sighted. Similarly, we have no idea what plants and animals may one day be of practical use to us. Preserving biodiversity is a tangible investment in our own future.
Recent research has again demonstrated that money does not buy happiness. Having enough to live comfortably, having friends, family, a community, and a purpose bring happiness.

Realization of common wealth: Many countries (and other political divisions, like states, parishes, provinces, prefectures, counties, cantons, cities, &c.) own useful resources, like forests, minerals, and waterways. These publicly held resources belong to the citizens of those various places, and their use should directly benefit the citizenry. For instance, if a corporation wants to cut timber in a state forest, rather than the process existing as a giveaway of public resources to the timber company, the company would have to compensate the citizens for the right to log. This money could be distributed to the citizens in a model similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, or could be held in trust and provided to citizens as money for healthcare expenses, college tuition, and other broadly useful endeavors.
With some level of organization, globally held resources, like the atmosphere, or Antarctica’s existing and future resources could provide benefit to some universal human fund. This would realize a democratic stream of wealth for everyone and recognize each person’s ownership of public goods.

Mass-localization and community development: We need to produce energy and goods more efficiently. Rather than mining coal in Ohio, shipping it to a power plant in Maryland, burning it to create heat to generate electricity, transmitting that electricity over miles of cable back in the same direction the coal traveled from, and using that electricity to heat a coil in a hot water heater, we need to focus on generating and managing energy in situ. Energy is used in mining and transporting the coal. Energy is wasted in converting the chemical energy in the coal into heat, into mechanical energy, into electrical energy, and back into heat. Instead we could generate both electricity and heat for hot water on our own roofs. Likewise, office buildings and shopping centers could be covered in photovoltaic cells and produce electricity for a profit. Why shouldn’t a sprawling shopping mall be covered in wind mills?
We must strive to save resources by growing more of our own food, by shopping in local businesses, and using commonly held resources, like libraries and parks.
We need to invest our time and interest in the institutions of community. Participating in local government, engaging in neighborhood and local school/college events, and actively joining a community of faith cultivate values and strengthen your community.

A sustainable lifeway may be a long way off, perhaps generations. Or maybe we can realize such a vision in our own lifetimes. Either way, each person has the potential and the power to begin moving in this direction.


Nabeel said...

respect and care for nature, sharing wealth with the poor, helping the poor, being kind to your fellow men, and being just are some of the fundamental values that Islam teaches (many don't know) .. I think if we root out corruption (that can be seen all over the current US government), all of the things you mention can become a reality. See if people are less stressed out and less angry, they will eventually help others.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for your insight. You raise an important point, that the Abrahamic faiths have a great deal in common. Much of this commonality could form a strong basis for a sustainable culture. Unfortunately, I fear that public perception in the US regarding Islam will get worse before it gets better. Sensationalism sells ad time, and fearful and intellectually lazy people draw poor conclusions when inundated with such images.
I think it’s important to recognize that in the US, the elected government is a result of the people. In order to enjoy a better government, we must inform ourselves, embrace meaningful discourse (especially with those people we feel we disagree with), and act with reason and ethics. And, just as these measures are good for government, they also contribute to a culture of sustainable living.

Pat Jenkins said...

as always erd you have eloquently exampled your point of view. you must make your professors proud. the only thing i would ask is, with your obvious knowledge and research of our "finite" resources of the earth, i am surprised it has not been made clear to you man's limitness. now that does not exonerate individuals from there own respectful behavior, but what we do rely on as mankind is not within our control to obtain. it must be provided!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for commenting. You are very kind, but I fear my professors are not easily impressed.
I agree that humans rely on inputs, both natural and metaphysical. But, with respect to natural resources, we have tremendous power to use them either responsibly or irresponsibly. Environmental collapse has occurred at the regional level throughout history: The Maya of Central America, and the Easter Islanders both built complex societies that collapsed due to excessive (unsustainable) exploitation of forest resources. The Great Depression in the United States occurred in part because of unsustainable use of agricultural lands.
The central aim of sustainability is to align patterns of use with the long-term availability of resources. The easiest example to communicate is that hunting or fishing. A hunter may kill a buffalo to feed himself and his family. Finding he has some extra meat to sell, he may kill two buffalo next time he hunts in order to make more money, buy a better rifle, buy some luxury items, &c.
If our hunter lives with a growth-only economic mindset, he will hunt as many buffalo as he can every time he goes hunting. He may hire guides, porters, and other hunters to continually maximize the number of buffalo he brings in. If he and his friends keep doing this, eventually they will exhaust this renewable resource; there won’t be a large enough herd to make a viable population of younger buffalo. People who had previously relied on the buffalo for their survival now find themselves in a state of poverty.
On the other hand, our hunter might learn about the herd as he hunts (what they eat, where they calf, how long it takes them to mature) and increase his take slowly. In so doing, he can find a balance that allows him a good living, and leaves a large enough population of buffalo that it might restore itself and leave enough for others. This solution is a sustainable one.
In this scenario, people honor their Provider by appreciating the complexity and inherent value of the gift, and by allowing others (including their children) to benefit from it.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd, there is irresponsible behavior from all fascists of society and life. which will harm. and yes the hunter or whomever may take more than is sufficient to meet a need, but as you point out he in turn provides for someone else's need. your example amplifies what i fear most on the left have resentment towards, that being ones "desire" for things. man has physical as well as emotional needs. that of wanting, in it's purist sense, for personal gain or reward. at times i feel you are advocating for the abolition of individuals desires. yes some may be excessive, but to ask someone not to want, is taking away his or her humanity.

E. R. Dunhill said...

There is a difference between desire and avarice. Likewise, there is a difference between desire and consuming at the expense of others. I don't advocate the abolition of individuals' desires. I don't advocate that people stop pursuing the things they need to live. I don't advocate that people stop pursuing wants and luxury goods. In truth, I don't advocate much of anything, other than people thinking about how they interact and the results of their choices. However, I disagree with the implication of your statement that one person's desire to consume without limit absolves him or her of responsibility to other people or to future generations.
What I begin to describe in this post is a social, economic, and natural system in which people realize both value and cost. Being responsible and accountable doesn't mean that people can't have things.
Also, I've meant to ask you about this before: When you write about "the left" who are you describing?

Pat Jenkins said...

erd if i understand you correctly you are imploring man to check his illicit ways and find a sense of ethics and purity in his heart. that will require a changed being, which shall be a topic for another day. i will define "the left" in this discussion as those who oppose capitalism. but more to the point, the characteristics of it, which enable one to gain.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't see people quickly relearning the mindset and pattern of behavior that honors other people and future generations in this way. That's why I see a series of economic mechanisms as the means to achieving a similar result. In extreme brevity, those mechanisms are accountability, and payment (to the owners) for the private use of public wealth. I also increasingly think a sea change in post-secondary business and management education is in order.
On your definition of "the left": I think I know where you're headed with that train of thought, but capitalism means a great many things to different people. This is a can of worms for another time.

Sue said...

ERD -- I'm posting some of your questions in my on line sociology classes to stimulate some thinking, and have given the students a link to The Influence Machine to perhaps stimulate them to read and explore some more.


E. R. Dunhill said...

I'm honored. I hope your students enjoy exploring these questions as much as I do.