The other day one of the Worldwatch staff gave a talk on global climate change to a small Green Sanctuary church group. As is usual with these talks, a handful of people lingered afterwards to offer private comments or questions. The questions are normally polite creampuffs, and the speaker gets to enjoy the warm glow that comes from being regarded as an "expert." But this time one question didn't follow the script. A young woman reproachfully asked the staffer, who had been sipping from a foam cup of coffee prior to his talk, why he had done such a horrible thing?
So simple to use a ceramic mug instead, she chided-especially since he'd brought one, as a visual aid (when filled with hot liquid, it shows the world's coastlines receding as the polar icecaps melt).
Face flushing, the staffer mumbled something about how it's impossible to live a perfect life. Then he rather smugly pointed out that the questioner's polyester jersey was made from oil. And naturally most of his brain, as insulted brains do, immediately began working on a snappier comeback. By the time he got home, it went something like, "I compost, I recycle, I drive a hybrid gas/electric vehicle-fewer miles per year than average-I keep the thermostat at 68 in the winter and 78 in the summer, I have new storm windows and low-flow showerheads, I commute to work by bike and subway, I send money to pay for tree planting in Central America to offset my carbon emissions and restore rain forest, and I took a pay cut to work for the environment. And by the way, your sweater is made from oil, your cotton pants are unsustainable, your wool socks exploit animals-how can you live with yourself?"
When the fever passed, however, the stark truth remained: the questioner had a point. With a little forethought and effort, the staffer could have used a mug. Failing to do so was one more lost opportunity to make a small difference in landfill usage and/or greenhouse gases emitted or toxics released into the atmosphere. Billions of people around the world have little choice about their lifestyles, but even those of us lucky enough to have such choices often fail to make the sustainable ones. And those multitudes of failures, each one so trivial, add up to disaster. By the eco-footprint methodology, humanity exceeded the level of global sustainability sometime around 1978.
Can we ceramic-mug our way to a sustainable future? No-but we can't get there without it, either.
"Evolution is pollution," said economist Kenneth Boulding, one of the spiritual fathers of sustainability. He meant that all creatures live by using resources and creating wastes. That hasn't been a problem until relatively recently, because nature's genius has evolved a system that recycles everything-until now. But today there are so many people, we use so much stuff, and we've learned to make stuff that nature has not had time to develop ways of recycling, that humanity has crossed a critical threshold. We now have to turn around, retrace our steps over that threshold, and then take a different path-one that keeps our resource use and waste production within the limits the Earth can handle.
It's an old but difficult lesson. In A Short History of Progress, historian Ronald Wright argues that the early settlers of ancient Iraq, who built their towns and irrigated their fields and eventually destroyed their land via salination and waterlogging, probably didn't know what they were doing. No one had ever tried urban living, supported by agriculture, on such a scale before. But ever since then, most societies that have risen, thrived, declined, and finally collapsed had fewer excuses. In many cases, at least some members of those societies knew exactly what was happening, and how things were going wrong. (Plato, for example, described in detail how goats and deforestation destroyed the arability of ancient Greek farmlands.) Yet by some failure of communication within the body politic-like a boxer with a high pain threshold who doesn't feel the blood running down his face-those cultures seemed helpless to understand the damage they were suffering, and thus act collectively to avoid their approaching fates.
Humans haven't changed much in 5,000 years-we're still "only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever, but seldom wise," Wright says-but now we know better. We have the immense advantage of the long view, which reveals millennia of repeated blunders. Until now, those blunders were local. As the saying goes, however, every time history repeats itself, the price goes up. Wright observes that "the most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine." That's new: the possibility of global calamity on a global scale.
So our plight is pretty obvious if we care to look, and most people reading this essay already know about it. The question is what to do. One option is to wait for our leaders to wise up and act. In theory, anyway, they could be persuaded to use the power they wield to promote sustainability. There is no shortage of policy options. But power, once held, evidently takes on a logic of its own, even in democracies. Though wielded in our names, it is often without our consent, sometimes without our knowledge and contrary to our wishes. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, for instance, are spent every year-and blood is being spilled-to ensure access to the oil needed for our beloved SUVs and, yes, for our gas/electric hybrids.
In the developed world, which has both the resources and the chief responsibility for leading the world toward a sustainable future, our leaders and institutions are failing us. The U.S. government is reactionary on environmental issues. Even the environmental movement itself is pronounced dead. In Europe and Japan, the institutions are failing too, just more slowly. (The average U.S. citizen's lavish lifestyle is way over the global sustainable average, those of Europeans and Japanese somewhat over. Yet it's also obvious that people living in Europe and Japan are neither deprived nor miserable. Their example shows ours to be hollow, and points the way toward sustainability.)
But institutions are not the only, or even the best, engines of change. Institution-led, top-down solutions to the problem of sustainability seem unlikely. Although no angle should be ignored and we have to work the problem from all sides, it's wise to be skeptical of analyses that point to heroic utopian plans. They seem to demand a kind of metaphorical switch. Before, we're going to hell; flip the switch, and afterwards there's a transformation, a steady ascent to some utopian summit, unimpeded by politics-as if the multitudes of people on the planet were an untapped mass of pliable followers, passively waiting for the right crusade to join.
Institutions do respond, however slowly and reluctantly, to popular pressure. If systematic reform does happen, it might come from the stimulus of a few interest groups backed by a vocal "majority of the minority that cares." But it might also grow naturally out of an incremental change of heart by millions resisting the power of compound disinterest, prodded by a combination of social awareness and conscience. That would create a vast, steady, irrepressible thrust of millions of lives inching daily toward the next step. Most of us will never lead such a movement, but we can help launch one. Where institutions are blind, people must see, and lead them.
It is impossible to live a perfect life. But-not to be Pollyanna-ish about it-it is quite possible to do a bit better today than yesterday. The first step is simply mindfulness: be aware of the choices. The second step is to make different choices now and then. Get out of the comfort zone, a little. Feel a little "burn." (Remember to take the ceramic mug to your next speaking gig.) If you make a new, more sustainable choice every week or two for a year, then at the end you've made dozens of such choices-and transformed your life. Do it long enough, with enough company, and you've transformed the world.
-Tom Prugh, Editor