13 January 2013

Choosing a Sustainable Future

Posted by Admin under: Forum; Future; Global; Leadership; Policy; Science; Story .


In a recent conversation with our daughter, it struck me just what an enormous challenge it is that we are facing. We are always poised, momentarily, between a past that we can no longer change, and a future that, starting from here, offers us a certain range of possibilities.

What’s clear is that if we look at where we are as a species today the prospects for life on this planet are, as a direct result of our actions, in clear and present danger. It’s possible, given the historical conditions, that no other outcome was possible; but in any case we are here now — and facing a precarious future on any number of fronts, from climate change to mass extinction to ocean acidification to receding glaciers and melting ice caps and rising sea levels and toxic waste accumulation and continued fossil fuel combustion.

If we continue on our present course, we will inevitably end up where we are headed, which is the more or less permanent alteration of the total biosphere as an ecological system. But this future is not foreordained (if you believe it is, then no meaningful action is really possible): from where we stand today we can look out at a range of possible futures, and can choose which one we wish to pursue — taking into account the inertia of the present system, but recognizing also that change is inevitable, accelerating, and responsive to new realities. Humans will respond, uncertainly and incoherently at first; but as we bring together many different perspectives we will seek to forge a coherent alternative to the present system.

The future, in other words, spreads out before us a number of paths, and offers us a choice. We can choose to do nothing, in which case the future will unfold along our present trajectory. This trajectory is determined by the actions of all seven billion of us, though of course to varying degrees. The actions and choices of some individuals are more consequential than those of others. But our choice to do nothing also figures in to this, particularly since we do not know what impact a different choice would have made.

On the other hand, we can choose to act differently, and this too will have an impact. It may be insignificant within the overall trend, but we don’t know that. The total system is so complex that our latest scientific theories suggest that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Tierra del Fuego might in some way trigger a hurricane in the northern hemisphere at some unknown time interval later. We may imagine that our choices are insignificant within the vast onrushing of the choices being made by all of us. But it’s clear that they are not insignificant to us, in terms of the impacts on our own lives; and that many of us making the same choices will deflect the course of history, if only ever so slightly,

For this is what we are really up to: bending the arc of history, steering us away from the precipice and onto a greener and more life-affirming path. The question is, what will it take to do this?

One of the things we see is that it will take a genuine mass movement to do this — a movement for climate change, and for ecosystem regeneration, as real as the movements against Vietnam or for civil rights or the rights of women. We need a movement that will make cogent demands, such as providing massive incentives to renewables, and ensuring that the only subsidies going to fossil fuel companies are incentives for not burning the rest of what we know is in the ground, but which the atmosphere can no longer absorb. Surely there are better uses for these concentrated hydrocarbons, which have been formed through enormous pressures over millions of years, than simply to burn them.

But this is not just about sensible policies; we need to awaken an emergency of conscious awareness, and of conscience, against climate change inaction. It’s too easy to just talk about what we “ought” to do but don’t really have the political or economic will for. We need to think about global temperature rise as we would think of a child’s fever: if it goes too high, and goes on for too long, it will be fatal — at least to anything resembling human civilization as we know it. Long term, we need to live a healthier life; but right now we need to recognize the urgency of changing course — of grasping the steering wheel of history in order to avoid going over a cliff that is more real, and more fatal, than what most people are preoccupied with in Washington.

But what can we do? This is always the question we need to come back to. Whether we are optimistic or pessimistic matters less than whether we’re willing to take action. If people think it is too late, or too difficult, or too costly to change, we’re doomed before we start. But we do know that, if we do survive, we’ll look back and realize that we had just enough time — starting now — to alter our direction.

What can we do? We think the most important thing all of us can do right now is to have truly transformative conversations, paradigm-shifting conversations that give rise to new patterns of thought and behavior. As Senge and many others have argued, we need to let go of the mental models of the industrial age, and begin to “think from” a new set of models, models that are eco-centric rather than self-centered and shortsighted. As William Cronon puts it, in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature:

“At a time when threats to the physical environment have never been greater, it may be tempting to believe that people need to be mounting the barricades rather than asking abstract questions about the human place in nature. Yet without confronting such questions, it will be hard to know which barricades to mount, and harder still to persuade large numbers of people to mount them with us. To  protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads.” (Paperback edition, 1996)

One Comment so far...

Jo Sippie-Gora Says:

13 January 2013 at 8:03 am.

I have deep concern about the Sandy “solution”, and look forward to learning more about the shore community forums.

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Correction: We'll be hosting this year's holiday potluck — "Bringing Solar Power Home for the Holidays" — on Saturday, December 15, from 4 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. RSVP to [email protected].
Saturday, November 17, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Sustainable Neighborhood & Community Conversations (III).
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Transforming Neighborhoods and Communities II.
Saturday, September 8, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Transforming Neighborhoods & Communities.
Saturday, June 16, 2012: SLF Potluck June 16: Sustainable Living Communities.
The Sustainable Haiti Conference took place April 23-25, 2012 in Miami.
"Inside Job" Movie Party. Saturday, February 11th, 6:00 PM, Liberty Ridge, The Hills, Bernards Twp, Basking Ridge, NJ 07920.
2nd 'Buy Haitian, Restore Haiti Conference', January 26, 2012, Karibe Convention Center, Petion Ville, Haiti
Dec 11 SLF Potluck: "Bringing Sustainability Home for the Holidays" Basking Ridge, NJ. RSVP to [email protected].
Saturday, July 9, 2011, 4 p.m. Open House Party & Potluck, Saturday, July 9, 4 p.m., Basking Ridge, NJ.
RSVP to [email protected]
Saturday, May 21, 1-4 p.m. EcoCenter Update. At the Morristown EcoCenter, 55 Bank Street, Morristown, NJ 07960.
Saturday, April 16, 1-4 p.m. "Haiti & Us: The Leading Edge of Sustainable Development." At the Morristown EcoCenter, 55 Bank Street, Morristown, NJ 07960. A copy of the update presentation has been posted here.
Saturday, March 19, 1-4 p.m. "Creating the Morristown EcoCenter." Held at 55 Bank Street, Morristown, the site of the proposed EcoCenter.
Saturday, February 19, 1-4 p.m. Monthly meeting, ""A Profound Transformation in Consciousness," Morris County Library, Whippany, NJ. Click here for details.
Saturday, January 15, 1-4 p.m. Putting Idealism into Practice: Tour of Half Moon House. Click here for details.
Saturday, December 18, 1-4 p.m. Challenge & Strategy Session: "Reinventing Wealth," followed by our annual "Potluck for the Planet" from 4 to 8. Click here for details.
Saturday, November 20, 1-4 p.m. Challenge & Strategy Session: "How Do We Measure Sustainable Value?". Click here for details.
Saturday, October 16, 1-4 p.m. Challenge and Strategy Session: "Toward a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey".
Download the slide presentation here, and the discussion paper here.

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